Reddit: a ‘fire hose’ of Internet ideas

December 2, 2011

In late October, a young woman posted a video on YouTube that showed her father brutally beating her with a belt. She had recorded it secretly six years earlier. After a fight with her father, a Texas judge, she told him she would be uploading it to the Internet to expose his abusive past.

She did. But nothing happened. The video sat on YouTube and few people noticed.

So, the woman, a now 23-year-old Hillary Adams, turned to Reddit, a social media site and posted a message: “Family law judge beats own daughter for using the Internet, please spread.”

Within hours, an almost professional-crisis-mode response went into effect: telephone numbers for the local media were found, Web site information about the court system was posted and a police investigation was underway. Within a day, Adams went from frustrated to sitting on the “Today” show couch with Matt Lauer, discussing her situation.

It’s hardly the first time that Reddit has driven the national news conversation or kicked into gear a crowd-sourced assistance system. It’s credited with helping Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert organize their competing rallies in Washington last year. Celebrities in science, politics and the arts visit it to join in conversations with users called “I Am A” section that allows users to ask anything they want from a specific person. Elsewhere, posts ask for help on everything from homework to coping with rape.


Reddit uses aggregation and pluralism to attract more than a billion page views a month.

Reddit, the six-year-old aggregated link site, has become a major presence in the online world, thanks in no small part to characteristics almost as American as apple pie: A popular vote system, a fierce belief in free speech and a sense that anyone can be whatever anyone wants to be.

The site was created by two University of Virginia graduates among a sea of other aggregate news link sites, such as Digg and Fark. It was bought a year later by Conde Nast for $20 million. It grew steadily, but in the last year its popularity surged. It hit 1 billion page views in February.

The site is designed like many popular social media sites. It has specific “subreddits,” message boards dedicated to specific topics. People post comments and links and other users vote — up or down — on the posts to let the best material rise to the top. Making it to the front page of Reddit, by being voted up enough times, is seen as a mark of huge success. It’s part of the brazenness of the site, whose motto is “The Front Page of the Internet.”

The popularity of the “Ask Me Anything” section — where on any given day a celebrity such as Jimmy Kimmel or an American Hindu girl in an arranged marriage will field questions — is indicative of the inquisitiveness of the site. Reddit users, called Redditors, include teenagers and Harvard scientists.

The site, unlike Facebook or Google+, has remained in the murky anonymous world. It’s partly why Redditors will admit to a dichotomy: “At its best, Reddit is an amazing community of strangers that help and support each other. . .. At its worst, it’s a seedy community that harbors people of questionable moral fiber,” one Redditor wrote when I posted a question on the site. But overall, the anonymity contributes to an environment where free speech flourishes.

Despite its popularity, few would call the site easy to navigate.Journalists are taking advantage of the confusion, using the site as a source of story ideas.

This week, a popular journalism how-to blog, 10,000 Words, advised writers to start lurking on the site: “Reddit is an Internet firehose . . . there always seems to be a good story waiting there.” Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian tweeted a link to the story and wrote, “It finally happened. Journalism article about how @reddit is great for finding story ideas. Jig is up!”

So, if the jig really is up, then I can’t feel bad advising everyone to head over there. It’s a glorious, messy source of information. Just all I ask: Next time you see me on there, vote me up.

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