How to get to the top of Reddit: lessons from the banning of Quickmeme

With the help of the crowd, you can climb the greasy pole.
With the help of the crowd, you can climb the greasy pole.
Image: AP Photo/Roberto Borea
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Reddit, the social news and entertainment site that bills itself as “the front page of the internet,” is meant to be the ultimate democratic web experience. Users submit links to web pages, discuss them, and vote them up and down. The most popular links, climbing gradually from various “subreddits” (sections) of the site to its homepage, attract tens or hundreds of thousands of clicks. Not suprisingly, gaming the system has become something of a cottage industry. The latest to be accused of doing so is Quickmeme, a website for generating memes by applying captions to pictures, which  got banned from Reddit earlier this week.

The allegation is that one of Quickmeme’s owners stealthily planted himself as a moderator for the subreddit r/AdviceAnimals, where a lot of memes are posted, and gradually promoted Quickmeme’s own meme generator over others. Quickmeme also allegedly used automated bots to stack the votes, and its defensive blog post on the subject claims, less than convincingly, that it planted a moderator only to combat unfair voting tactics that the other meme generators were using.

But much more interesting than Quickmeme’s own travails are what they can teach us about using Reddit.

When to post

According to Reddit user and moderator jokes_on_you—who first pointed the finger at Quickmeme’s allegedly nefarious behavior—if you’re going to use a vote bot (which you’re not supposed to), the best time is during US morning hours. Posts need to get upvoted enough on the “new” section of a subreddit to appear on its first page, and only the ones that make it to the top of that page will have a shot at appearing on main Reddit homepage. Posts submitted first thing in the morning will have a chance to hit the main website during peak hours, during US workers’ lunchtimes.

When a post is toast

Jokes_on_you’s evidence for Quickmeme’s rule-breaking consists of a set of memes submitted at peak times over the course of a few days. Within a few minutes, all the Quickmeme posts had at least six upvotes, while memes made using other meme-generating sites had at least five downvotes. According to jokes_on_you, “5 or 6 downvotes completely destroys a post’s chances of being seen by a large audience.” But it was few enough not to make the scheme immediately obvious.

The lesson for law-abiding users is that if your post has more than five downvotes and no upvotes, it’s a lost cause. That’s your cue to pick a better headline, or reconsider which subreddit you’re posting in. (Or, if you’re of a suspicious frame of mind, try to work out who’s sabotaging it.)

Don’t get caught marketing

The “Ask Me Anything” (IAMA) subreddit is intended to give celebrities and people who’ve done something interesting (leaking the iPhone 4, for example) a chance to answer questions. Those who use it for naked self-promotion can get vilified, as actor Woody Harrelson did when pushing his film Rampart. (There’s a whole subreddit devoted just to disastrous AMAs.) If you must use an AMA to pimp your upcoming blockbuster, try to answer questions on something else—like horror author Stephen King, who talked about his favorite books and worst fears. Mashable has a great guide to doing this.

Corporate accounts, meanwhile, get in trouble pretending to be something they’re not. Even if it hadn’t been accused of vote-rigging, the discovery that one of Quickmeme’s owners was posing as an impartial moderator would have lost him his moderator’s role, and the public shaming would have cost the site some traffic. So if you’re going to use Reddit to promote your own links, strike a careful balance between playing the site and being a useful member of the community. Some of the best investigators on the web are avid Reddit users, and the culture of the website thrives on catching wrongdoers.