Why Reddit Just Doesn’t Work Anymore

Plus, two solutions that could make it great

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images

Let’s face it: Reddit has always been a little controversial.

Seen as a sort of ideological meeting ground between Tumblr and the sorts of people who frequent the more unsavory parts of 4chan, the Reddit community (if one so fractured can even be called as such) has garnered a nice reputation for itself as a frustratingly contradictory group of like-minded individuals who are painfully aware of their own faults — but refuse to do anything about them.

While many events in Reddit’s past showcase this, none of them hammer the point home quite as well as the burning of Notre Dame in April. While it may seem like paying attention to what random Joes on the internet have to say about a national tragedy is a waste of time, one must remember that we live in an age where journalists cite tweets in their articles . Even if we, as regular folks, don’t care what those Joes think, people in media certainly do — which means we should probably be aware of what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it.

Reddit’s reaction to the fire was puzzling, initially, but ultimately nothing more than a symptom of a disease . Despite Reddit’s humble origins as a discussion platform, it’s no longer capable of being one. The worst part of it all is that people on Reddit know that it doesn’t work anymore, but it doesn’t really seem like anything can be done about it. User /u/jelde sums it up nicely in the comments of a specific meme type called a “starter pack”: “I’m pretty sure this starterpack summarizes exactly what I hate so much about Redditors: the pathetic self-importance, ignorance, and worst of all the smug sense of moral and intellectual superiority all rolled into one.

Not only does this “starter pack” describe the problem, it’s part of the problem, and the problem is twofold. One, as shown through the Notre Dame fire and through this starter pack, Redditors have a tendency to make any given event about them in a quest to get “karma,” and the transition between news stories and karma-farming is alarmingly fast. Two, the subreddit system doesn’t work anymore, for a couple of reasons.

The Notre Dame fire’s story perfectly illustrates the cycle a piece of major news goes through on a place like Reddit. It starts with actual news articles. It moves into tangential articles as the stream of real, credible news dries up. Lastly, it devolves into memes — all over the course of around three days. All the links above are from between April 15 and 17, with the last meme from the 18th. After the 17th, highly upvoted posts on the fire are rare or nonexistent on major subreddits.

Now, one can’t really be expected to care about a single event for that long — but simply seeing the headlines doesn’t tell the whole story here. It’s a matter of what’s considered “news” in the time immediately following an event. It’s the post on /r/gaming implying that Assassin’s Creed is going to be useful in the reconstruction effort, rather than the actual work done by the historian who mapped the inside of the cathedral, which Assassin’s Creed used. Both were posted to Reddit, and both were highly upvoted — but can the link between gaming and Notre Dame really be considered anything other than attention-seeking on behalf of its poster? Obviously, Assassin’s Creed isn’t going to be the reference work by which the cathedral is rebuilt — the underlying work done by Andrew Tallon.

It’s this need to seek attention that uproots the core of Reddit. However, just pointing the finger at this standard social media user behavior doesn’t really get us anywhere. It’s important to highlight how this behavior shows up on Reddit, and how destructive it is.

Take this, for example. This user is complaining about trolls in the comments talking about how the burning of Notre Dame wasn’t such a big deal — but comments of that type only exist as replies to the original post. Even sorting the comments by “controversial” reveals nothing of the sort — so anyone posting that kind of trolling comment must have been downvoted so far as to no longer be picked up by the “controversial” search. When one of those comments is found — like here — discussion stops, and it turns into a contest to see who can write the most eloquently worded version of “piss off.” You’d think that people wouldn’t fall for obvious troll bait in 2019, but the tactics are as successful as ever.

The attention-seeking shows up in other ways, too. On some level, it’s necessary — a site as large as Reddit has certain requirements for a post to be seen by anyone at all. As Reddit grows, starting meaningful discussion becomes harder and harder — and there’s no better place to see that than the decline of /r/writing.

I first came across /r/writing in 2012, when I joined Reddit, and I’ve since seen it grow from about 30,000 subscribers to a whopping 779,000 as of June 13, 2019. The subreddit’s sidebar states that “posts must be related to the craft of writing” — but this simple rule has been stretched and abused to the point of irrelevancy.

What /r/writing looks like today is the very image of damaging attention-seeking that suffocates interesting discussion on Reddit. Deep discussion is difficult , because the content isn’t easily absorbable. It requires dedicated brainpower to consume. This is why basically every social network, regardless of its initial plans, devolves into memes and shitposts after enough time. The social media space is ill-equipped to deal with complex discussion — but Reddit was supposed to be different, and it can be. As it is now, though, basically every post is a question that can be summed up with a response like, “if your execution is good, yes,” “no, you’re not the only one,” a humblebrag, a pity party, or some combination of the above. There’s a reason for this — it’s because these posts are easy to understand. While the first link, which asked about the difference between something that is profound and something that is pretentious, could lead to interesting discussion, it doesn’t really, since the answer is basically just “good execution.” Posts about the actual craft of writing — like that first link — are actually somewhat rare, in favor of rehashed writing advice that everyone’s heard and the like.

When a subreddit gets large enough, the size of it leads to more activity, and more activity leads to an increase in subscribers. It’s like gravity — bigger subs have a stronger pull.

What this also means, however, is that the proportion of new people is higher. New people have a strong tendency to ask entry-level questions and want entry-level advice — which is frustrating for more experienced members, who don’t care about those things and have their threads drowned out by easily digestible humblebrag content or advice for new writers that everyone’s heard before. Personal experience pegs the size at which a subreddit collapses under the weight of its own subscribers in a range depending on the complexity of the discussion a subreddit is supposed to have. For a subreddit like /r/writing, which is about a broad topic but asks for fairly in-depth discussion, the collapse number is very small . The subreddit took a notable downturn in content quality at around 50,000 subscribers. For subreddits that ask for specific meme types based on a theme or aesthetic — like /r/wheredidthesodago, a place for out-of-context infomercial clips — content quality collapse occurs at something like 100,000. Subreddits based on surface-level discussion on a shared interest — like /r/pokemon — don’t really ever collapse, because the kinds of content they accept are so broad, and shallow discussion is okay. Those extremely large subreddits tend to circumvent the problem by having smaller subreddits for more dedicated discussion — like /r/pokemon’s /r/stunfisk for competitive battling, or /r/nuzlocke for runs of the games featuring user-imposed permadeath for your Pokémon.

This neatly skirts around the subreddit collapse problem, but it doesn’t solve the issues with a discussion subreddit like /r/writing. So how does one keep the discussion fresh while still ensuring that quality questions are asked? It’s clearly too much to ask for Redditors to use the search function for their topic or to check associated subreddits for a better fit — just see Reddit’s problem with reposts — so what can be done?

I propose two solutions: One is simpler, the other is more radical. Reddit’s platform is great, but only when there’s not a lot of people there. The easiest way to slip around this issue is simply to have the default sort for posts be “new.” That way, every post gets its 15 minutes of fame on the front page, and since people on Reddit are traditionally too lazy to fiddle with settings, discussion can be had on those posts, even if only briefly. People who only want to see memes and whatnot can sort by rising or hot to see the easily digestible content — and they’ll see that content anyway if they’re sorting by new.

The other, more radical solution is to give subreddit subscription a lifespan. Periodically, a subreddit would kick out a random selection of its members, down to approximately 10,000. This clears out the meme-seeking chaff, who likely won’t re-subscribe if it takes effort to do so, but those with a genuine interest in the content will take the two seconds and click back in. I have only seen this policy put in place once, on a meme Facebook page called “Melee Hell”, a spot for memes regarding the GameCube entry in the Smash Bros. franchise. Every few months, Melee Hell would remove members randomly down to about 5,000 — and the content would stay fresh. People who joined just to leech off low-quality content wouldn’t come back, and those who actually cared about what was there would. After a while, they stopped doing this, and the quality of the page dropped almost linearly with the number of subscribers. A sample size of one does not a perfect strategy make, but a single success story is enough to give this plan a second look.

Reddit could be great. Its layout combines the tried-and-true old-school forum look (if you’re not using the horrid redesign) with the flexibility and categories of modern social media. It’s a bit intimidating at first, but once you get used to navigating it, it’s simple to find whatever you’re looking for.

The problem is that there are just too many people on it for a discussion-based place — you can’t have discussion when people are asking the same new-user questions every 15 minutes. Discussion can’t occur when the only posts people actually bother to look at are the highly upvoted ones, and the only posts that get highly upvoted are the memes. Reddit is losing its forest to the trees — it’s losing its role as a discussion forum to the sheer number of people it hosts.

I’m a tech writer in the EDA industry. Outside of work, you can find me casting Brainstorm, playing Smash, and writing strange stories about broken people.

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