What would you imagine if someone asked you to picture the front page of the internet? It would, in all honesty, probably look a lot like Reddit — that is to say, it would look like popular content from everywhere else on the web. And yet, many have strained trying to figure out what the hell Reddit is. Is Reddit a forceful expression of democracy on the internet? Is it a weak feudal system run by warlords? Or is it merely "a global platform for online communities to connect and share?" Maybe. Or maybe it's just like every other media platform: an algorithm that's been endlessly gamed.
Yes, Reddit has an algorithm. It's seldom discussed, yet it fundamentally structures everything that happens there. And it's incredibly biased.
Reddit, at a distance, is a protean mass of self-regulating communities, but its central function is very straightforward: it is a machine that promotes kitsch. On any given day, the "front page" of Reddit is indistinguishable from the average Facebook timeline. Reddit is both a comment on the human proclivity to delight in bumper sticker wisdom and animal photos, and Silicon Valley's quantification of that nature. The only problem is that it also hosts hate speech and lascivious gawking.
It's usually the vile bits that make the news. In 2011, Reddit finally reached Anderson Cooper's desk for its unscrupulous reputation as a safe place for sharing photos of teenagers that bordered on child pornography. And in 2014, Reddit became the premiere exchange for illegally obtained nude photos of women in Hollywood. It seemed many on Reddit were outraged — not because people were stealing and sharing private, intimate photos, but because Reddit's administrators put an end to it. To appease the guardians of free expression, Reddit's then-CEO Yishan Wong wrote a soaring sermon on the fallibility of man after the fall. "Every man is responsible for his own soul," Wong wrote, referring of course to Reddit's permissive attitude towards communities like r/coontown where white supremacists are continuing the hateful work of their ghostly ancestors.
A place safe for hate speech is not safe for advertisers
So Reddit's platform has a people problem. To put a fine point on it, a place safe for hate speech is not safe for advertisers. In its recent quest to grow up and make itself beautiful for the public, this year Reddit's leaders started banning a handful of its worst communities, including one dedicated to shaming and humiliating the obese. This, it seemed, was the final straw. Reddit's admins, led by Ellen Pao, had crushed a democratic utopia of jailbait and hate speech in a spiteful echo from the Third Reich.
Of course, if Reddit were a fascist regime, it'd be a pretty terrible one: a place where you could keep a ticker of open revolt in real-time as rebels occasionally march to the central plaza to confront the machinery of alleged fascism. The rebels are advancing on r/politics, sir. The military is holding out at r/books. Shelter in place. But the most meaningful battle on Reddit has already been fought, and the results are right in front of everyone's face. The algorithm wins.
The rebels are advancing sir
The heart of Reddit is the "upvote" and "downvote" system that drives everything people see on the site — a ballot box so sacred that one of Reddit's few rules is devoted to maintaining its integrity. Five years ago, Amir Salihefendic broke down exactly how that system works, and found that it gives first-movers immense power. The first 10 upvotes on a story, Salihefendic found, count as much as the next 100. Additionally, the system favors newer content over old logarithmically, so links that are both new and get lots of votes very quickly are heavily privileged.
Reddit's logarithmic ranking system has two big consequences. The first is that kitsch will naturally be very popular just by pure scale. Think of it as the Upworthy rule: news about the Greek debt crisis will lose to cute cat photos and a screenshot of a sick burn someone's grandmother made on Facebook, every time. This trend is so predictable and reliable that countless dummy accounts are created every day that skim the most popular content on Reddit and repost it to achieve "karma," Reddit's quantification of a user's popularity. The second consequence of the ranking algorithm, perhaps ironically, is that small brigades of people aligned around a specific interest wield incredible power; it's the reason vocal minorities are able to call Reddit's CEO a cunt with a punchable face and associate her with the Nazi flag on Reddit's front page.
The only problem for Reddit's worst trolls? The Upworthy rule always wins. A random visitor to Reddit's front page last Friday, in the middle of the latest freakout, might have assumed the site's extinction was on the horizon. But less than 48 hours later the rage was nowhere to be found; the exodus did not materialize, the same way everyone who threatens to leave Facebook never leaves Facebook. Every Reddit revolt — every ignominious period of sound and fury — burns hot but brief, and is eventually consumed by Reddit's algorithm and left in the ash heap of internet history.
In response to the last few days of tumult, Pao told The New York Times that the vast majority of Reddit users are uninterested in drama, and she's right. Today, she apologized to Reddit's moderators for poor communication, and promised to make better tools for them — but tools have never been the beating heart of Reddit. "I do understand that the site lives on its content and voting," she said. "We understand that the community is the most important thing here." What Pao didn't mention is that the expression of that community is, and always has been, moderated by a monolithic system that produces very specific results.
Reddit is slowly trying to clean up its worst communities and create better tools, but those are minor battles. Its algorithm has already won the war.