I've become convinced that Reddit is now a major hub of Internet influence, about on par with Twitter and Facebook.
It's not just because the content-sharing community was a leading player in the defeat of SOPA and PIPA, nor that top celebrities like Steven Colbert now give the community insider-savvy shout-outs, or make regular appearances on the site itself, as Lous C.K. did recently. It's not even because, according to Google Trends, Reddit's reach has far outstripped that of its predecessor Digg and is still rapidly growing, doubling in traffic to some 35 million monthly unique visitors in under a year.
Rather, I'd argue that Reddit's centrality is a consequence of broader Internet trends. I'd put it as follows:
Reddit's rise is directly related to the dominance of social networks that fail to let us share online content and community in ways we need, which Reddit can better provide.
Facebook is where we share limited, safe aspects of ourselves with extended family, friends, and colleagues. For that very reason, Reddit is becoming our "third place," the virtual pub where we feel freer to share aspects of ourselves that Facebook has almost totally constrained. This is driven by three interlocking features unique to Reddit at its current size:
- Pseudonymous identity: Reddit is architected to work with pseudonymous usernames, creating a context for content sharing that's quite different from Facebook, where real-name identities impede users from freely sharing the full range of their interests. (Consider how many times you've engaged in self-censorship on Facebook to avoid offending someone in your social graph.) Pseudonyms enable Reddit to foster an alternate, content-sharing community that's a truer reflection of its users' actual passions and opinions.
Yes, Twitter also allows pseudonymous identities, but Reddit boasts another feature that Twitter lacks:
- Expanded conversational context: Twitter's short-format messaging easily degrades into difficult-to-follow, scattered conversations. A shared Reddit link, by contrast, is contextualized within a single conversational thread. Other blogs and online forums also have this feature, but Reddit seems to have reached a critical mass where this broader conversational context is as valuable as the original submission. This enables Redditors to rally around a single idea far more effectively than users can on Facebook or Twitter. (This is probably why, in online activism, Reddit punches way above its weight.)
The third arrow in Reddit's quiver:
- Karmically-driven user-created content: The status of all user-submitted content on Reddit is determined by user votes (which earn their submitters "karma" points). Comments with the most positive votes ("upvotes") are displayed at the top of the page, which tends to make the commentary for a given submission as valuable as the actual link. Submitted links reach the site's extremely well-read front page only when enough users upvote them.
Front-page Reddit links translate into millions of pageviews, and have an echo effect through the social media landscape and mass media. Indeed, many Internet memes and viral items are now first gestated on Reddit, days before reaching the social media masses. And in this way, any given Redditor can briefly become as influential as any of social media's most-followed celebrities.
The overarching result of these three features: A relatively small user base shaping the direction of Internet discourse in ways that Facebook and Twitter can't possibly compete with.
Sure, Reddit's user base seems to skew toward male and geeky, and often reflects this bias. Then again, that demographic base is often first to adapt Internet services. But if Reddit doubles its users in 2012, as it did last year, the community will become more diverse and influential.
Many already acknowledge its influence. As I've reported elsewhere, companies hitting a PR or marketing snag now plead their cases directly on Reddit. When SOPA/PIPA was soundly defeated, Senator Ron Wyden posted a personal thanks to Reddit -- on Reddit. And Reddit users just launched an official Political Action Committee
for Reddit-approved initiatives.
I'll be very surprised if President Obama and his GOP rival don't take their cases to Reddit -- while advocates of social media helplessly wonder why so many people have shifted their energies to a virtual community far from the din of context-less Tweets and the restrictions of real-name Facebook postings.
— Wagner James Au is a writer and consultant in social media and gaming. Follow him on Twitter: @SLHamlet.