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Reddit’s popularity is a response to media failures

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday. Credit: Getty

March 23, 2024 - 5:00pm

Reddit, a collection of forums (known as “subreddits”) with approximately 76 million daily active users, made a remarkable entrance into the stock market on Thursday. The company’s shares skyrocketed nearly 50% above the initial public offering price, closing at $50.44. But why is the site so valuable? Perhaps because it’s more than just a social platform.

Over the years, Reddit has evolved into an interactive, constantly updating Wikipedia-meets-ConsumerReports-meets-Yelp, an incredible repository of information. For brands, this means it could be an important source of insight into trends. For users, it’s already become an alternative search engine to Google.

Complaints about Google’s unreliability became more common around the start of the pandemic and haven’t stopped since. In 2020, media outlets began reporting that people would append “Reddit” to their Google searches to favour results from the site. It wasn’t only that Google was serving poor results, littered with junk. It was also a reaction to pandemic censorship. If you couldn’t trust the CDC or WHO’s answer, perhaps you could trust the collective wisdom of Reddit; even though there were some restrictions on “misinformation”, they were a lot looser than most platforms’. As there was a widespread sense that both the press and institutions were misleading people, word-of-mouth and community consensus became more valuable.

Dwindling trust in the media aside, some questions have always been better suited to community outsourcing. Take Yelp, for example. When used in a big city, it’s more reliable than a professional review. By reading through multiple perspectives, you can develop a more complete sense of whether a restaurant, doctor or retailer is worth visiting. Reddit works on the same logic: both sites have such large user bases that there are few topics, experiences, or products about which there haven’t been multiple conversations.

Reddit’s reliability isn’t only due to the number of people who use it. Its pseudonymous nature fosters honesty, allowing users to participate more openly than they might under their own name. This makes it a perfect place to seek support from others, and the site has become a popular online destination for people who want to wean themselves off drugs and alcohol, seek accountability for goals such as losing weight, and, famously, support for quitting masturbation habits.

Rival platforms fall short in a number of ways. Quora has been overrun with low-quality answers and lacks cohesive communities: people tend to drop in occasionally, usually to self-promote. X, on the other hand, suffers from volume, and is more conversational and not organised by topic or question. If Reddit is a forum, X is a chatroom.

It will be interesting to see if and how the platform’s atmosphere and content moderation practices evolve after the IPO. One potential change is that it may start forcing people to log in. In a WIRED article detailing Reddit’s IPO filings, it was reported that, while Google brought the site a considerable amount of traffic, most of the users were logged out and stayed on the site for a shorter period. This means that they were served fewer ads and were less lucrative than logged-in users. Another potential solution is to increase the number of ads presented to logged-out users.

Then there is the matter of content moderation. In the last decade, some users have expressed concern that Reddit’s moderation practices have become overly strict, leading to a noticeable shift in the site’s original character. While the platform once hosted a wide range of controversial subreddits, allowing for more unconstrained discussions on sensitive topics ranging from politics to gender and sexuality, these moderation changes have somewhat limited the scope of such conversations.

Some bans may have been justified, but others were more hotly contested, like the decision to ban /r/The_Donald, a space for fans and supporters of former president Donald Trump. Terms of Service violations were given not just for /r/The_Donald but for all “unjustly” banned subreddits, yet many users still argue these bans were unfair — even draconian — years later.

Luckily, these changes haven’t impacted the majority of online communities, or at least not to the same extent. As Reddit enters a new phase as a publicly traded company, it remains to be seen how it will balance the expectations of its users and shareholders while preserving the site’s diversity. Still, in an age of rapid online advances, of metaverses and vision goggles, it’s reassuring that the old-fashioned message board can still hold firm.


Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit defaultfriend.substack.com.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
3 months ago

I like Reddit for precisely the reason provided by the author: you can find a variety of views on just about any topic. I tend to ask practical questions (e.g., side effects of medical treatments that doctors don’t always explain) rather than try to debate cultural/ideological issues.
It will be interesting to see if publicly-traded Reddit will be able to resist the inevitable pressure to restrict opinions on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

Ken Allen
Ken Allen
3 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Not a word about r/wallstreetbets and the whole GameStop / meme stock phenomenon, absolute best example of the power of the platform

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
3 months ago

Have to admit, I know nothing about Reddit.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I’m not a big fan, but I go there for advice on practical matters. It’s best to avoid cultural war issues there, however.

Buena Vista
Buena Vista
3 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Politically, Reddit lists very much to port! It is largely populated by Democrats that have yet to be mugged.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
3 months ago

Reddit runs Tucker interviews the day after.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
3 months ago

I’ve always found reddit messy and confusing but maybe I’ll try a bit harder. When it comes to balancing the needs of its users and shareholders though, I think we can safely predict creeping enshittification.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
3 months ago

In my view, it depends on what exactly you are looking for. As others have already said in this comments session, it is a good source of practical information. Maybe you just have not found yet a sub that would be of (practical) interest to you? If such a sub exists, that is 🙂
At times, I also have a casual look at more politically-oriented subs, but they do not seem very interesting. For this, Twitter is a much better choice – at least for me.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

I use Reddit frequently and enjoy its communities. Overall it’s been a good experience but as a gender critical woman I have been repeatedly silenced by moderators for posting basic facts about human biology.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
3 months ago

Reddit is great for non-political interests – but is heavily moderated by progressives on political issues. Banning r/TheDonald backfired because it ported itself to a .win site – now called Patriots.win where it is flourishing.

Buena Vista
Buena Vista
3 months ago
Reply to  Peter Johnson

I agree completely with your first sentence. I live in Virginia, and have been banned from starting threads in r/virginia. This is simply because I would post pro-Republican articles–about happenings in our state government–that ran counter to the anti-Republican press the moderators put up.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
3 months ago

A number of forums that deal with women’s diseases, like endometriosis or poly cystic ovary syndrome, have been overrun by trans women who don’t have the diseases and won’t ever get them. But they are quick to offer advice. Some moderators are so strict that the women aren’t allowed to use the word woman. In fact many women, like me, are kicked out of the forum or just give up. And let’s not forget the forums that are pornographic. Reddit is such a cesspool that I can’t understand why it was even considered for an IPO.

nadnadnerb
nadnadnerb
3 months ago

Overrun by far-left hordes of howler monkeys on anything remotely controversial or political, quite useful in other areas.
I remember being on long layover in Amsterdam Schiphol in summer of 2022 (a chaotic time for many airports but AMS was in meltdown) and thinking of getting the train into town to go for a walk, as I’ve done before.
The subReddits for KLM and AMS had live updates and photos of the queues and chaos outside and convinced me that it wasn’t worth the hassle and I would need a lot more time to just get back in through security. Such immediate information wasn’t available anywhere else.

Daniel P
Daniel P
3 months ago

Admittedly I rarely go to Reddit but think I will take some time now to explore it.

But I WHOLE HEARTEDLY agree that Google has gone to crap. I’m doing all I can to get away from their products. Not easy but..

I switched to Firefox for my browser and deleted Chrome.

I set my browser default search engine to Duck Duck Go.

Gonna swap my Android for an iPhone unless Apple gets stupid and puts Gemini on their phones. When that goes, so will go my Gmail account.

The only reliable, product that Google seems to produce is Google Ads.

I am ready to start paying for a decent search engine. I pay $10 a month for Spotify, I think I can pony up $10 bucks for a good, unbiased, ad free, search engine.