Here’s a trick question: what’s the only place in the world that hosts a major atheism club, featured an in-depth, crowd-sourced interview with American President Barack Obama, supports a burgeoning amateur porn scene and is owned by major magazine publisher Condé Nast?
Welcome to Reddit.
Though Second Life is the biggest example, scads of games and websites have failed at building a real online community (World of Warcraft aside — if you call that a community.) But Reddit, a social news site based in San Francisco, has broken the mould. If you haven’t heard of this internet haven, it’s simply a page where people can post links, photos, or just text, and then the submissions are up- or down-voted by the community. The goal is to stay at the top of the list. The page includes more than a hundred thousand subReddits, smaller communities where people talk about particular topics like gaming, religion, politics, celebrity interviews; you name it.
Reddit and I have a bit of a sordid history. A few years ago, I was in my second year of classes and living off-campus for the first time. In my endless, brain-blanking 100- and 200-level courses, I often resorted to Reddit as something to do. It was a community I could feel engaged with; it always had tons of new content every day and plenty of fodder for bothering my friends with by reposting on Twitter and Facebook. Eventually, to the detriment of my relationship and my homework schedule, I started following Reddit’s home page through Rich Site Summary (RSS), which allowed me to get every new post as if it was an email. I would sit for hours at home wading through pages and pages of content. It felt so good to get through those notifications and devour all that new stuff — and the feeling of an empty RSS reader at the end of the day was tough to beat.
I was rescued from Reddit’s attention tyranny by a month-long cross-Canada tour with a band I was in at the time. The lack of steady internet access meant I had time to check my email and upload tour videos, but not much else. When I got back, more than 10 000 updates yelled at me for attention. I valiantly attempted to crunch through them all, determined to have that clean inbox again. But no matter how many afternoons I committed to reading every tasty tidbit, there was always more than I could handle. I’ve since unchained my reader from the Reddit feed and have been living my life in the real world.
But I do get pulled back now and then. One of Reddit’s most popular pages is IAMA, for I Am A, where people from unique and interesting walks of life can field questions from the entire internet community. In August, Reddit hosted an IAMA with the NASA team that landed the Curiosity Mars rover, which opened up a ton of access to the engineers who worked on it and really encouraged people to get involved.
As a community of often-anonymous internet users, it has had its pitfalls, such as the /r/jailbait forum, which featured photos of clothed underage kids and was shut down by Condé Nast. But as a community, Reddit has done gift exchanges, promoted important news stories to millions of people, solved all sorts of mysteries with crowd-sourcing, and made massive donations to charity. There are certainly worse ways to spend a boring lecture class than browsing Reddit’s more interesting subforums — just don’t get too carried away.