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[2b2k] Erik Martin on Reddit and journalism

Erik Martin is giving a talk at the Nieman Foundation. He’s the general manager of Reddit.com. (Disclosure: We’re friendly.) He tells us that Reddit gets 5 billion page views per month, and 70 million unique visitors.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Erik gives us a tour and some background. Every morning he clicks on the “Random” button and visits the subreddits (= topically-based pages within the site) the button gives him. He does so now, hitting subreddits such as bitch, i’m a bus, ukele, battlestations (office desks), and what’s this plant. Reddit, he says, is like a giant message board. You can create a board (subreddit) about anything. There are over 100,000 that get at least a post a day, and 6,000 that have substantial activity. All the subreddits are created by users, who also can create the page design. All the posts are voted up or down by users. Users also set the rules for subreddits. For example, at the Coversong subreddit, users have apparently decided all posts have to be videos.

Now he’s interviewed by Justin Ellis.

JE: How did you get to Reddit?

EM: He worked for Mammoth Records. It got bought by Disney. Then hecame a documentary filmmaker. Then marketing films and distributing them online. He read Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham) [great book]. He then read about Paul Graham’s Y Combinator incubator. He applied to do a documentary about it, but was rejected. Still, he was hooked. Reddit came out of the first round of projects. He saw Reddit and loved the unpredictability of it. “Every link as a rabbit hole you might go down.” He got to know the cofounders and said “IU want to find a way to work with Reddit because that’s what I’m doing with all my time.” Alexis Ohanian asked him to work on a TV pilot that was going to incorporate Reddit into a news show. But it didn’t work; the Internet part was an add-on. Then he got hired as a community manager at Reddit.

JE: Reddit has a lot of geography. What does it mean to be a community manager?

EM: He looked at it as being the manager of a band. He’d promote promising items. He’d try to keep things functioning. And he tried to make sure that the community didn’t get taken advantage of, e.g., when people didn’t link back to Reddit.

JE: When you create a subreddit and a crowd shows up, how does that happen?

EM: Sometimes it’s obvious why. But others we can’t figure it out. One of our most popular subreddits is Explain Like I’m Five. That one you know what you’re going to get. Same for Ask Me Anything. Those explode when hot topics arise.

JE: How does this community stay together so long?

EM: Some of it is the customization of subreddits.

JE: Because anyone can create a subreddit, Reddit has gotten into trouble from time to time. There have been some very creepy subreddits. What’s the guiding principle for what is allowable?

EM: Our philosophy is that it’s a site that has 5B page views, and we have 35 employees [so we can’t moderate everything]. If you’re going to function you have to have some rules, but they have to be relatively finite, relatively easy to understand, and relatively self-enforceable. So, we have six rules. We have added one or two throughout the years. We try to keep them simple. No spam. You can’t try to break the site. You can’t try to cheat. You can’t put people’s personal info up. You can’t have anything illegal. We added that you can’t have material that sexualizes minors. If we had one that said “Don’t be a jerk,” it wouldn’t be enfrceable. No one would agree about how it applies. So there’s tons of stuff on the site that we find horrible and offensive, but the site works best when we keep it open and governed by those simple rules.

JE: What responsibility do you think you have if you see something that you personally feel is wrong?

EM: What I find offensive is different from others around the world or other positions. People don’t come here because they think we have the best judgment about what’s offensive. Plus, you have all the context. E.g., people complain about the PicsOfDeadChildren subreddit. That’s obviously very offensive. But what if it were called “Child Autopsy Photos” and it put itself forward as presenting medical training photos. Or a subreddit about death. Or a subreddit about combat video. It’s beyond offensive. It’s people being killed. It gets very tricky.

JE: There have been 3 major stories illustrative of Reddit and citizen journalism: The Aurora movie theater shooting, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the shooting at the Navy Yard in DC. In the first, there was first person reporting. With the second, there was that but also the spreading of info from elsewhere and then the misidentification of one of the suspects in the bombing. With the third, someone created a subreddit to investigate what was happening, but you guys shut that down. What have you learned?

EM: In those three situations, the response of the community was the same as what you’d see offline: People trying to figure out what went on. Telling their story. Making jokes. Speculating about all kinds of things. Trying to make sense of what happened. Later on they were trying to help in some way. With Boston, it was different because the authorities wanted help from the public: they said if you have photos, upload them, etc. There was a subreddit where people were trying to identify the bombers, and that got a lot of attention. The actual subreddit where the Brown Univ. student was misidentified by name was actually the normal Boston subreddit, and it was removed after about an hour. That wasn’t good enough. That led to horrible consequences for that family.

So, what have we learned? We learned that people want to share, to talk, to help, to be a part of these huge events any way they can. We learned people can be callous and cavalier by mentioning people’s name. The vast majority were careful and thoughtful, but some were not. The Navy Yard subreddit was a joke. It had six posts, most from journalists satirizing the Boston bombing subreddit. It went against our rules and we shut it down after an hour.

JE: But you apologized after the Boston bombings…

EM: Absolutely. We do post-mortems and followsup. We did one when President Obama came on. So, yes, we apologized and talked aout what we can do better. And we also talked about the amazing things people did: people bringing their pets to parks in case people needed cute animal therapy, the sending of pizzas to EMTs and the police… We are an open source site in policy as well as code.

JE: Is it enough to do a post mortem? Newspapers issue corrections.

EM: There are thousands of subreddts, so there isn’t a way to reach everyone. We’re a platform, not a newspaper. We’re like Twitter or Youtube or WordPress. We don’t have a position on the veracity of one thing or another. I hope people learn to be more empathetic nandlearn that what you say on line has repercussions. But I don’t think we’re like a publication, and we’re not an editorial team.

JE: How do you see the role of journalism on Reddit? Why are people doing self-reporting?

EM: They want to be part of the story. They don’t want to be passie about what’s happening in the world. Even if
it’s uploading a meme. They’ve seen something start and then get big in a single day. Of course they want to share what’s happening in their neighborhood or share their thoughts about what’s going on in their govt Redditors vote 20M time a day.

JE: What’s the relation of journalisms and Reddit?

EM: We’re agnostic about what you’re linking to. But original reporting is more important than ever because people can find an audience. What’s happening on Reddit and what’s happening in the mainstream media happen to be in different hemispheres now but ultimately it’s the same thing. I hope people doing reporting will be active in a comment thread on Reddit or elsewhere.

JE: But you are creating content in some way, e.g., the Ask Me Anything’s where anyone can come in answer questions from the community. It’s very much like what media companies do.

EM: And in other Reddits people share recipes or workout routines. It’s like what you get in the media. It’s communicating, it’s story telling.

JE: How do you make money? You have ads and Reddit gold memberships.

EN: We don’t need to make a lot of money. We’re very lean. Our NY office is in a coworking space. We basically have ads for big movies, mobile phones, etc. We also have ads from mom and pop companies. Reddit Gold is a premium membership, $24.99/year. You get some extra features but most people do it to support the site. We have a secret Santa program (Reddit Gifts) that has an e-commerce site to help those exchanges and to make money.

JE: Reddit was purchased by Conde Nast and then spun off in 2011. How is it different?

EM: We started in 2005. Bought by Conde Nast in 2006. I started in 2008. Reddit was basically neglected by Conde: we were growing but there was a hiring freeze. OTOH, no one told us what to do. An example of how it made a difference: Before we were spun out, our ad operations was done through Conde, which is great for major magazines, not for a weird site where all you need is $5 to run an ad. So it didn’t make sense for us. We wanted an ad server that was fast and open source, which now we have.


Q: Any trends in the type of content being produced? Trending toward the absurd? Or what?

A: It gets harder and harder to think about overall trends because the site is becoming more fractious and disparate each day. I think people are really motivated by the unexpected. Our audience is increasingly cynical. We also have an audience that is increasingly idealistic. You see trends were people are more connected across national and geographical boundaries; if there’s a discussion on healthcare the top comments will be from people around the globe. And it’s always been possible to have the serious next to the ridiculous; the last remaining bulkheads are being whittled away.

Q: Can you remain content agnostic?

A: No, it’s not possible. We’re not content agnostic towards spam or personal information. We try to be as close to agnosstic as we can.

Q: How much does porn account for your content?

A: About 85% of the subreddits are safe for work. (The Trees subreddit is not because you could get in trouble looking at pictures of weed.) Porn is maybe 5-10%. Our biggest subreddits are the video subreddits, As Reddit, etc.

Q: Terrorists radicalize by looking at pictures of dead babies. Have you had to hand over who your users are to agencies trying to track people on Reddit trying to radicalize people?

A: User privacy is core but we comply with what we have to comply with.

Q: [me] Reddit used to have a strong culture. People knew the same references, were playing the same games, had the same general politics, etc. But that shared culture seems to be weakening as Reddit becomes more popular. Does this concern you??

A: Yes, there is a certain sense of shared community that’s being fractured. But it’s being migrated down the subreddits the way you’re more loyal to community or borough.

Q: [me] Can you say more about IAMA’s, which at their best are a quite remarkable journalist form of collaborative interview?

A: The exciting thing for me is to see that format seep into other subreddits. We actively are trying to encourage that. E.g., mayoral candidates should do AMAs in their city’s subreddit. Or scifi authors are doing them in the sf subreddits. It goes back to that idea of so much of the word being predictable. If you waatch watch an interview on even some of the great programs — Charlie Rose, for example — even if they’re really good, you know what to expect. With the Reddit AMA’s not only do you not know what sort of questions are going to be asked, since you can answer a question at any length, it ends up taking this unexpected terms. If you look at the calendar of upcoming IAMA’s, you don’t even know which ones are going to be popular, outside of a Bill Gates or Tom Hanks, but if you look at the top AMAs for a week it will be a celebrity, subway driver, person with a weird disease, and way down the list will be someone with a household name. It’s unpredictable, and it’s unpredictable to the person being interviewed. It’s very different from what you get on a press junket where people go into robot mode. The AMA format can be more fun for them the standard press interview.

Q: Tumbler did a lot of active outreach to media. You don’t go out to, say, Newsweek and ask if they want a subreddit.

A: Yes. It’s difficult for us to do. Tech News Today is a great subreddit. They don’t directly flog their content. PBS has done one. But it’s hard.

Q: A newspaper could have its own subreddit where their folks are doing AMA’s etc.

A: Yes. But curating and cultivating a subreddit is a lot of work. It’s hard enough getting journalists to participate in comments on their own site.

Q: Companies you wouldn’t expect have made editorial plays. E.g., Twitter has being hiring editorial staff. Why are they doing that?

A: We’ve done some of that to prime the pump. E.g., Adam Savage’s publicist would probably say no to a request for an AMA at a site that looks like it’s from the 1990s [like ours], but if I go out with a camera and ask him to respond to the top ten questions, they might say yes. But then they see that the AMA works. So we only do editorial work for pump priming.

Q: What’s up with the design?

A: Look at the big sites. Minimal but flexible platforms. When you start doing a more professional and complex design, you suddenly needing 10x more people, and then you need 10x the money…But subreddits can monkey with the CSS. They can even change the Gold button, our “buy” button. Rich text works.

Q: For a traditional news org, the misidentification of the Boston Bomber would have been very expensive. Who owns the error from a legal perspective, in the US and elsewhere?

A: In the US, platforms are not responsible for what people say. The person who says it is responsible. I don’t know if Reddit could exist as a Canadian company. People give us a non-exclusive contract to display their words.

Q: But because you have some rules, doesn’t that make you responsible?

A: The more you monitor, the more responsible you are. But everything on the site is determined by human behavior. We are a platform for people discussing things. We’re not a publication. We don’t have editorial control.

Q: Is one of your 35 people a lawyer?

A: No.

Q: So when you get subpoenas…?

A: We’ve had to learn more than we want. We also have very good lawyers we consult with when we need to.

Q: The site in 5 years?

A: I don’t know. The users have better ideas than we do. All we try to do is take ideas they develop and help make them happen. So, in 5 years I think Reddit will be in more countries, more cross-country conversation. We have great engineers so we’ll be doing more interesting things. In 5 years I hope there will be 1,000 Reddit apps, using Reddit in novel ways that I couldn’t come up with. I never imagined that Reddit would be useful for live events. People are using our “edit” button 50/hour for this, which is not what the button is intended for, and Reddit’s not even very good at. People have created a site that reorganizes Reddit in chronological order and they can do that because we’re open source and don’t send lawyers after them. If we evolve in 5 yrs it will be because people in the community take it in those new directions.

Q: Venture capitalists?

A: Y-Combinator’s original investment was $20K. We were self-sustaining until Conde Nast bought us. We also had a very small angel round in the past year, around $1M. Very small. We’ve never spent a lot of money so we’ve never had to raise a lot. We’re close to break even now.

Q: Have any news events truly originated with Reddit?

A: As far as I know, one of the first reports on the Aurora story was from someone at the theater, before there was anything known to the media. The biggest story where Reddit was involved in the story was probably the SOPA/PIPA blackouts. Someone started to go after GoDaddy: “I’m moving 75 domains from GoDaddy” and it grew, and the next day GoDaddy flipped its position. Also, someone went after Paul Ryan and he ended up changing his mind.

Q: How can I troll Reddit for news stories?

A: When a new Android comes out, reporters go to Reddit to see what’s new in that version. I don’t know why more reporters don’t go to the relevant subreddits and ask for help on a story.

Q: We reporters are competitive.

A: In the sports world, you routinely see stories getting updated based upon information at Reddit.

Q: News orgs are trying to figure out how to engage with their audiences via social media. Advice?

A: Popular Science killed comments. Fine. You don’t have to have comments. But if you have them, you should pay attention to them. E.g., Roger Ebert would edit your comment as an admin, which is a terrible practice, but people didn’t mind because he was doing so to respond to their comments. I don’t understand why in general comments in 2013 are not all threaded and vote-able. Most are still in reverse chron, highlighting the latest. And most seem to be trying to hide their comments.

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More Stories By David Weinberger

David is the author of JOHO the blog (www.hyperorg.com/blogger). He is an independent marketing consultant and a frequent speaker at various conferences. "All I can promise is that I will be honest with you and never write something I don't believe in because someone is paying me as part of a relationship you don't know about. Put differently: All I'll hide are the irrelevancies."

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