A great internet leap was recently been made. In May, Reddit, the social news site made famous by cat pictures, #GamerGate, and stolen celebrity nudes, overtook Facebook for the first time to become the third-biggest website in the United States. While it’s since dropped back to fifth, behind Facebook and Amazon, it’s a sobering reminder that Facebook’s days as the social media platform of choice may be numbered.
So what’s behind Reddit’s rise from a niche site for geek interests to one of the biggest social networks in the world?
Put simply, its community gets an upvote.
Most other social media platforms rely on individuals connecting and interacting with people they know in the offline world. What Reddit offers is a little different.
If Facebook is people you know sharing things you don’t care about, Reddit is things you care about shared by people you don’t know. Whatever you’re interested in, there’s probably a community centered around it. With subreddits about everything from politics to high-quality pictures of terrible food, the forum goes back to the roots of the internet, connecting pseudonymous strangers who happen to share a common interest.
That includes some weird ones. There’s a subreddit where the screen literally rotates around and around; another devoted to monks looking at beer; one for pictures of birds, if birds had arms; one where users post pictures of themselves purely so others can insult them; and whatever the hell this is. In this way, there are almost no limits to the niche-based communities you can find and geek out in.
Once you’ve found your people, you then need to create a healthy environment in which they can interact. The way Facebook manages its community has been the subject of controversy for as long as the site has been active. From its policy mandating users to use their real names to all the various iterations of privacy screw-ups, culminating in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it hasn’t always succeeded in supporting its biggest asset: its users.
In contrast with Facebook’s distant, high-handed approach, Reddit has maintained a close and comparatively accountable relationship with its users. Administrators make public posts—such as CEO Steve Huffman’s “quarterly inquisition” Ask-Me-Anything threads—that can be voted on in the same way as any other comment, and users are quick to express their disapproval of various policies in a way that usually facilitates constructive dialogue between stakeholders.
Not only can you find things you care about on Reddit, you can curate your experience, too. While the front page of the site defaults to being populated by recent posts from some of the biggest subreddits, anyone who signs up as a member can chop and change the subreddits they’re subscribed to so that they get an experience that’s tailored to them.
In this way, the Reddit experience for someone who just wants to look at pictures of cute dogs is entirely different to that of someone who wants to chat about philosophy (or make fun of people who chat about philosophy), find niche pornography (clearly NSFW), or go over the finer points of the latest episode of The Walking Dead.
It’s true that you can tailor your experience of Facebook to some extent: After all, you can choose which pages you like, who you follow, and which groups you’re a member of. But there are some key differences with Reddit: Its algorithm is far less mysterious than Facebook’s, it’s far easier to actually find groups, and the sheer variety, activity, and devotion of the communities you’ll find dwarf Facebook’s offerings.
As a quantifiable metric for the supremacy of the site’s popularity, the amount of time the average user spends on Reddit per day is greater than any other social media site in the top 50. Clocking in at just under 15 minutes per user per day, it goes far beyond Facebook’s 10 minutes and 37 seconds and Twitter’s 6-and-a-bit minutes. Considering these other two sites are a notorious time-sink for regular users, that’s an impressive feat.
There might, however, be trouble ahead for Reddit.
The website has recently rolled out the first major redesign in the site’s history, and a lot of users are not happy. They feel it’s a step toward turning Reddit into just another social network, with more easily monetizable user profiles and a user experience that prioritizes adverts over content.
With that said, the numbers appear to tell a different story.
The format Reddit has had since 2006 is notoriously incomprehensible to new users. “Many of us evangelize Reddit and tell people how awesome it is,” said Huffman, speaking about the redesign. “Then when those new people decide to check out Reddit for the first time, they’re greeted with dystopian Craigslist.”
Ditching it to make Reddit more accessible might water down the experience for hardcore community members (though they can keep the old format if they want to). However, it might be just what Reddit needs to bring in a whole new generation of users. If it can accomplish that, then it may rise up the ranks and displace other social media platforms in countries outside the US.
This shows that Reddit is playing the long game—and winning. It proves that no matter how many computer engineers you hire to extend the time users spend scrolling their news feeds, you can’t beat community-driven, organic engagement as a means of keeping users reading.
See you in r/blunderyears?
This article is part of Quartz Ideas, our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.