By any objective measure, Reddit is an internet giant. The social news site is one of the top 20 sites in the world, with more users than Twitter. They move markets, break news and source most of the viral images that float across your Facebook page a month later. Reddit’s co-founder Alexis Ohanian is tech royalty, not to mention Mr Serena Williams.
But for years, the site has punched below its weight. As a business, its valuation is a fraction of its peers, and so too is its income; as a cultural phenomenon, it’s sidelined as a geeky pursuit. But now the company has a plan to turn that around, says Jen Wong, Reddit’s chief operating officer.
Wong, the former head of digital at the US media giant Time Inc, joined Reddit in 2018. “I think in that span we’ve also had nine different lives,” she says now. “We’re investing a lot. We raised money, and it’s great to be in investment mode. We’re growing globally, we’re building new experiences like video, audio, a virtual economy. We’re hiring a lot of people – I mean, we’re gonna be double our size by the end of the year, like 1,400 people.”
After years with a mostly static design, Reddit has started to build out new tech at an impressive rate. During the pandemic, the company has trialled live video and audio offerings, joining the vast array of social networks to clone the panel discussion app Clubhouse, and hosting livestreams on site for communities, big and small, who want to replicate their offline meet-ups on the internet.
It has also begun experimenting with a daring new business model for a social site: charging users. For years, the company has let users donate to the site in exchange for an ad-free experience called Reddit Gold, and users have also been able to gift Gold status to each other, as a reward for creating good content, telling a funny joke, or even just as a random act of kindness. Under Wong, that approach has been turbocharged: users can now give and receive a dizzying array of awards, all bought using real money, as well as sign up for Reddit Gold – now called Premium – for a $50 (£36) annual fee.
Advertising is still “the vast majority” of Reddit’s revenue, but since the company began seriously focusing on the Premium business last year, it has doubled its take. “I think it has a lot of potential,” Wong says. “What’s exciting about it is, you know, you look at the east and the behaviours in Asian apps like WeChat etc: gamification, customisation, expression, being able to pay back and forth with coins and avatars, is just a part of the experience. We have always had that behaviour on Reddit, but we hadn’t put, you know, teams behind it to make it even more fun and diverse.”
As well as overhauling the user experience, Reddit has also tried to deal with another troubling relic of its past: a sometimes toxic community which was allowed to thrive under the site’s permissive rules. Reddit runs on the tireless labour of volunteer moderators, who set up and shepherd communities that they run as they see fit. For the most part, the system works: each individual community can set its own rules, from r/AskHistorians (where all replies to questions are expected to be long, serious, and well-cited) to r/eeeeeeeeeee (where only the letter “e” can be posted).
But the system breaks down when the rules that one community wants to set for itself are toxic. That, Reddit admitted in 2020, is what happened to r/The_Donald, the subreddit for fans of the former US president. “All communities on Reddit must abide by our content policy in good faith,” the founder and chief executive, Steve Huffman, said at the time. “We banned r/The_Donald because it has not done so, despite every opportunity.” A host of other communities were banned alongside it, including one for the leftwing podcast, Chapo Trap House.
“What we’ve done over the last five years is first we invested in teams and tech to enforce our policies, like you saw in summer 2020. But the thing that really is distinctive about Reddit, is this idea of the layers of moderation. We have base layers of policy that we enforce, but then we have this really unique layer of moderation, where each community gets to write their own rules that sit on top of our policies but they enforce those rules.
“Our job, then, is to support our moderators and communities. And what’s amazing about that is it is a scalable model. Like, I truly don’t know how you scale anything else. There’s still more work to be done, but at the heart of it, I think that what you see is working.”