The next big shift in Reddit’s evolution may look quite familiar. Last night, the company announced the introduction of what it’s calling profile pages. This is exactly what it sounds like: a personal page tied to a username, with a feed of posts and an avatar. The change is just in the testing phase, and it’s only been rolled to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, League of Legends game developer Riot Games, and prominent user Hector Janse van Rensburg, a British painter who goes by the Reddit handle Shitty_Watercolour.
It will over time become available to every user on the platform, the company says. While cribbing from other social networks, Reddit’s new feature also specifically steers away from core aspects of Facebook and Twitter. There are no visible follower counts — only the amount of “karma,” or the numeric amount of community goodwill earned from comments and posts a user has accumulated. The owner of a profile page also has far-reaching moderation tools for discussions on their own posts, including banning and muting capabilities. Cross-posting to other subreddits will also be made easier, though that will subject any post to the moderator rules of that community.
The goal is to encourage users to think of Reddit as more than just a destination for discussion as part of a broader community. Ohanian and product manager Lei Gong tell The Verge that it’s about encouraging people to think of Reddit as a place to put their creations, to engage with fans, and to cultivate a dedicated following. Part of the reason this has been lacking on Reddit over the years, Ohanian says, is because users have been so bound by the occasionally arcane rules of subreddits that they’ve been encouraged to post elsewhere — on Tumblr, Facebook, or Instagram — or not at all.
“There are so many conversations [on Reddit] that didn’t happen yet because they didn’t have the right home,” he says. “It’s always been a daunting thing for people who have to something to share.” Prior to profile pages, everything on Reddit had to be posted to a specific community, like r/politics or r/funny, with a specific set of rules enforced by moderators. “It was hard to be proactive in creating content for Reddit.”
Reddit’s standout example is Shitty_Watercolour, a now-23-year-old art student who gained a following on the site starting in 2012 using just his paintings and a self-deprecating username. He did so by responding to fan requests and by serendipitously showing up in comment sections with a custom doodle to fit the situation or topic at hand.
“One of the reasons why Shitty is awesome is because he never would have started painting anywhere else,” Ohanian says. Reddit, he adds, gives people a pseudonymous avenue to explore their passions without some of the indulgent self-promotion of other social networks and without the fear of failure. “We’re expecting lots and lots and lots of new people to try their hands at this.”
For example, Ohanian points out that Reddit hosts huge communities of artists, writers, and video makers gathered around pretty much every hobby, profession, and expertise imaginable. Each of those users could create a dedicated subreddit for themselves, but Gong says that “it’s a very challenging process to create a subreddit with one submitter.” The folks at Reddit also think the profile page will make it easier to regularly host the same kinds of discussions that make the company’s Ask Me Anything format so popular, without needing to work through that subreddit’s processes and scheduling.
Even still, it’s easy to see how profile pages on Reddit remove one of the site’s most dearly held values: community regulation. Because many subreddits disallow promotional posts and fiercely enforce rules around formatting and content, the site has remained more or less impervious to the sway of big brands, marketers, and shameless self-promoters. Ohanian himself describes the profile page change as a way to remove the “stigma of self-promotion.” The inclusion of Riot Games in the initial beta test is also a clear indication that Reddit wants brands to have dedicated homes, not beholden to the community or its rulesets.
Reddit users responding to the company’s blog post on the topic have already flooded the comment section with fears about the site devolving into a distasteful combination of Twitter and Facebook, overrun with viral news farms or advertising-in-disguise. This has been especially exacerbated by Reddit’s decision to allow profile page posts on the site’s r/all and r/popular tabs, which are broad, ever-changing lists that inform every user of what’s blowing up on the site at any given time. Gong says that last bit is subject to change. “We may take those posts out of the front page if our community responds negatively to that,” he says.
Yet Reddit is a community that has, in the past, been very resistant to change, especially changes viewed to be at ends with the community and geared more toward Reddit’s growth as a business. How the community responds to this change — and not necessarily whether users find the profile page interesting or useful — will dictate how Reddit moves forward. One user, r/SageWaterDragon, put it best here:
The majority of comments that I'm seeing here are negative — Reddit has something really special in the way that communities form and ideas spread, what you're proposing is a fundamental shift in the way the site culture would work. Make sure to listen to the criticism being leveled against this, because if Reddit loses what makes it interesting people will absolutely leave.
Reddit is confident that a slow, steady, and thoughtful approach will allow the site to maintain its community spirit while opening up new avenues for users — and businesses. “This has been a long time coming and something I’ve been really keen on, especially since Steve [Huffman] and I came back about a year and a half ago,” Ohanian says.
He and Huffman, Reddit’s original founders, rejoined the company during one of its most contentious and volatile periods — after the departure of interim CEO Ellen Pao in the summer of 2015. “We had to do a lot of foundational work first,” he says, of the Reddit’s new mobile app and a restructuring of how the site worked on mobile. “But now we’re able to unveil what I believe is a very big level-up for Reddit as a platform.”