/u/dakta's Reddit proposal

Or, "How to Save Reddit From its Own Popularity in Three Easy Steps."

Introduction

Reddit has experienced fantastic growth throughout its entire life. This growth has catapulted Reddit to new highs of viewership, reaching millions of individuals monthly and serving literally billions of pages. Recently, however, this growth and the problems it presents have taken on a new urgency as the number of active users explodes and the site's presence online expands. This growth has spawned thousands of communities and uncountable discussions. However, this type and level of increasing growth is not sustainable in Reddit's current form without leading ultimately to stagnation and irrelevance. I'm not the first, nor the last, to point this out. Take this transcript from the #theoryofreddit IRC channel on Snoonet, for example:

19:18 < sulf> So if absolutely nothing changes, do you think reddit will last for long in its current form?
19:18 < sulf> I think small subreddits will eventually start to stagnate.
19:19 < sulf> And people in them will start leaving.
19:19 < sulf> Maybe it's pointless to do these predictions, anyway.
19:21 < AFlatCap> I think you're right
19:21 < AFlatCap> Small subreddits will stagnate
19:21 < AFlatCap> Big subreddits will become LCD shitholes
19:22 < AFlatCap> Eventually the site will become a meme station where redditors eat their own shitty memes and rage comics
19:22 < AFlatCap> Which will lead the big subreddits to stagnate as well
19:22 < AFlatCap> Because who wants to join that?
19:23 < AFlatCap> And once it gets that reputation and those people in the defaults get bored with the same posts all the time
19:23 < AFlatCap> Reddit will die
19:23 < AFlatCap> I almost liken it to an economic bubble of sorts
19:23 < AFlatCap> Where you start small
19:23 < AFlatCap> Get a boom (post-Digg)
19:23 < AFlatCap> Peak
19:23 < AFlatCap> And then crash

This isn't exactly a new phenomenon in the online world, and it's not something that needs mounds of data to back up. So, I'll dispense with any attempt to quantify the situation and go about discussing what is qualitatively wrong with Reddit right now, and what conclusions I've come to after considering the problems and many possible solutions. Here's a simple outline of what I will attempt in this piece: first, an assessment of the situation; second, a figuring-out of what needs to be done; and third, a description of the changes in detail, including an expanation, description of potential drawbacks, and addressing problems.

What's Wrong?

Currently, reddit suffers from three major problems:

  1. Inability to keep pace with user growth;

  2. Frontpage quality degradation, memification, formulism; and

  3. Fragmentation.

Let's address these more specifically one at a time.

Inability to Keep Pace With User Growth

The first problem is the largest problem. The issue with the kind of popularity that Reddit has is that the userbase is always growing. Large subreddits can grow by thousands of subscribers per day. /r/Demotivational, number 139 by raw subscriber count, averages around 200 additional subscribers per day. That's a lot, especially for a subreddit that's not actively promoted besides being linked in the sidebar of /r/funny. /r/EarthPorn experiences 1.7% weekly growth. /r/AskReddit experiences 1% weekly growth in subscribers (around 30,000/week at this point).

That's a lot of people to bring up to speed on a subreddit's individual rules, guidelines, policies, history, and attitudes (I call the whole shebang "assimilation"). I don't think it's an impossible task, but it's a tall order when you're growing at a rate of 1% or more. I don't want this to turn into a discussion of moderation theory (though I am working on one), but basically to make sure these users are efficiently assimilated you absolutely must provide them with an environment where they only experience your subreddit how you want them to use it, and where any mistakes they make are pointed out or corrected by someone so that other users don't think that mistake is normal, expected, or even permitted in the first place. You can write all the rules you want, but without enforcement and an active community people probably won't even read them. (Idea: remind people to read a subreddit's sidebar when they click "subscribe".)

Frontpage Quality Degradation, Memification, Formulism

This should be pretty simple: for multiple obvious reasons, if the front page of your website showcases your community, then you want it to showcase the absolute best your community has to offer. When you go to sell your house, do you do so without cleaning it for months beforehand? No, you clean up, reorganize, and maybe even bring in a staging company to make your house's assets shine. (Obviously you don't actively hide flaws, because that's misleading potential buyers who might sue you later on if the issue is large enough, but that's beside the point.) The same thing applies to websites: show off the best your site has to offer to attract the kind of users you want to attract.

As it stands, the current frontpage of Reddit is not always high quality. It consists mainly of semi-accurate news items, memes à la 9gag, a couple of types of thread on AskReddit (popular recently is "What thing looks like a scam but is actually totally legit?"), and occassionally something cool someone claimed to do. Looking at it at the time of writing, not logged in, it's just about the same sorts of things, just slightly less crappy. Four are image macro memes, two are about something cool a redditor did, one's a celebrity AMA, one's a throwaway account-inviting AskReddit thread, two are celebrity tweets, and four are basically legit news. The rest is generally some form of circlejerk: least-common-denominator content. Almost everything follows the existing formula for success for that type of submission.

In Reddit's current form, users are encouraged to submit content that will have the widest appeal. This is done via karma. It even says so much in the FAQ[2]:

Why should I try to accumulate karma?

Why should you try to score points in a video game? Why should your favorite sports team try to win the championship?

Or, to look at things from a less competitive and more altruistic perspective, read what philosophers have said about the matter[1] -- namely, don't set out to accumulate karma; just set out to be a good person, and let your karma simply be a reminder of your legacy. Note: Reddit makes no guarantees about attaining Nirvana.

Except in a tiny number of cases (users who seek Karma to no end, for example the now defunct /u/Mind_Virus, and downvote magnet accounts (users who make inflammatory remarks to collect negative Karma)), the quantity of a user's Karma has little effect on their reception by the community. Beyond that, it quite often discourages users from contributing out of fear of downvotes or negative response. As far as user contribution metrics go, Karma leaves a lot to be desired. Of course, the aforementioned FAQ[3] says otherwise (emphasis added):

What is that number next to usernames? And what is karma?

The number next to a username is called that user's "karma." It reflects how much good the user has done for the reddit community. The best way to gain karma is to submit links that other people like and vote for, though you won't get karma for self posts.

Since Karma is accumulated by submitting popular links and making popular comments, individuals are encouraged to submit links and write comments they are sure will garner a large Karma total. This encourages a race to the bottom scenario in which users submit content that appeals to the widest range of users, the least common denominator. This also encourages users to submit content that they know will be popular, hence reposts of the same thing not days or hours apart. The reddit userbase is not all online 24/7, so a popular link from today is extremely likely to be equally if not more popular tomorrow, because the average user is fairly consistent between days and those who have seen it already probably won't be online to see it the second time. Even if they are, reposts of the same title and content will often be upvoted by now yesterday's users, because they saw it before, upvoted it then, and simply assume that it's the same submission and their vote didn't register or they forgot to vote.

With the accumulation of Karma treated as a game by even a few, the submission of lowest-common-denominator content is the only way to compete. This means reposts from Facebook, 9gag, Cheezburger, and the rest of the Teenage Social Media Craposphere, because the most popular and widely distributed content from there is guaranteed to be a hit with that same audience on Reddit. This, in turn, makes the reddit frontpage into a mirror of the frontpages of those other sites, which attracts more of that audience, who then think that's what reddit is all about. This is not healthy for reddit, since users like that don't contribute anything (the tiny minority who actually generate that kind of content don't count).

If you want an example of how poor of an approach to accumulating Karma actually participating in the community is, take a look at me (/u/dakta[4]) and my long-time IRL friend /u/alotoffish. /u/alotoffish is a master at giving reddit what it wants, scoring many comments and submissions nearing 1k cumulative karma each. He's also a contributor to small communities, which nets him very little karma. Now take a gander at the top users on KarmaWhores.net[5]. For example, the wonderful and now shadowbanned /u/MindVirus[6] (also operated under /u/OpticalArousal[7] had a stated goal of reaching one million link Karma. His submissions mostly consisted of reposted images to the Safe For Work Porn Network (SFWPN), of which I am a moderator. He was rumored to operate successfully by the use of multiple scripts to scrape popular images from various sources (including across reddit), which he then reposted to the usually correct SFWPN category subreddit. Consider also /u/maxwellhill, whose submissions I see almosy every single day on the frontpages of /r/politics and others. He is the /u/MindVirus of news submissions.

Between the natural regression towards the mean that accompanies a user-popularity based community like reddit, the bandwagon effect (submission votes are already hidden for the first few hours to combat this), and users who treat the system as a game to be won, content quality degrades at an extremely rapid pace when left un-checked. (I have another piece on this issue and moderation theory to combat it, but it is not fully written yet.)

What's truly impressive about the frontpage is that it's not worse than it is. Although, I suppose perhaps I caught it on a good day. The point is, it could be much better, and needs to be so to attract the kind of audience that will keep reddit vibrant.

Fragmentation

Fragmentation is another pretty simple one. There are three sources of fragmentation on reddit: 1) the defaults, 2) the lack of structure and the difficulty of subreddit discovery, and 3) the insistance by the admins that every subreddit is an independent, separate community.

Number one basically separates a select few mega-sized subreddits from the rest of the site by only showing their content on the frontpage and by being the default subscription set. This is worsened by the fact that many users take a long time to understand fully how reddit actually works. It takes some months, perhaps even longer before they get how subreddits work. So, they create an account and just stick with the defaults, rarely if ever venturing out into the wide world of subreddits.

Number two is a symptom. Subreddit discovery is poor. Let's face it, subreddit search is worse than reddit's main search (this is being improved). Partly this is lack of decent searchable material (what do you do, search the name, title, sidebar and sidebar text for keywords?), which is being at least partially remidied by the addition of the description field. However, the issue remains that subreddits aren't categorized in any meaningful or useful way; they're not even categorized at all! The problem is that there is absolutely zero inherent structure to reddit. It's one-dimensional, if you imagine arranging the subreddits as physical objects; you can put them in any order you like, but it caan only ever be a straight row. People naturally think in groups, heirarchies, and nesting structures. There is nothing like that on reddit. As evidenced by the formation of subreddit networks (and they're sprouting up all over the place), both moderators and users alike want some kind of structure. The problem is, independent subreddits are an integral part of reddit's very core, which makes addressing the structural issue without upsetting the existing system extremely difficult.

Number three is a problem entirely rooted in attitude and approach. The idea that subreddits are basically a free market is a good one, in theory. However, in practice, it sucks. The defaults are the biggest contributor to it not working. The potential defaults are chosen by the admins, and subreddits can choose to include themselves in the list of potential defaults. Between what the admins choose and which subreddits allow themselves to be defaults, we are left with the default list. However, the admins are trading at a massive disadvantage here. They're giving away the public face of their website to the discretion of the default mods almost entirely. The only disadvantage to the mods of the defaults is that they have to deal with the massive subscribership that comes with being a default. This is problematic greatly due to the tiny number of moderators of default subreddits. According to analysis by /u/Deimorz[8], there are about 84 unique active human moderators between all of the defaults, which means there are hundreds of thousands of users per moderator. In my experience, that is nowhere near enough mods to have adequate coverage of submissions, let alone comments. The next largest contributor to the subreddit free market not working is the aforementioned lack of any way to discover new subreddits. The fact that there are limited subreddit names (and all the generic categories are taken), is only an issue in that one of the ways users discover subreddits is to just try typing what they want after /r/. I want motorcycles? /r/motorcycles. I want food? /r/food. I don't know if there's anything that can be done about this except to improve the subreddit discovery system and encourage users to use it when searching for things instead of trying subreddit names hit-and-miss. [I think that's actually something worth doing: put a reminder somewhere, maybe when announcing subreddit discovery improvements, as well as in the explanatory text of the subreddit discovery system.]

What Can Be Done?

Obviously, this analysis begs the above question. On the assumption that reddit has a mixed profit model, the admins must maintain a balance between quality and quantity, to bring in ad revenue from passive users and Gold revenue from active users. They must also keep the site from stagnating, which should be accomplished by the same actions that retain active users. With this goal in mind, here is my proposed solution. It consists of five discreet actions/changes, in order:

  1. Address Karma Failure

  2. Improve Subreddit Discovery

  3. Patch the Frontpage

  4. Solve Structuctural Shortcomings

  5. Fix Frontpage Woes

As before, these steps shall be addressed one-by-one.

Address Karma Failure

The first thing to be done is the easiest: hide all karma quantities. Don't show karma totals on submissions, comments, or user profiles. Don't even show fuzzed up- and down-votes. Hide them from the APIs, as well. This substantially mitigates the bandwagon and hivemind, as well as completely stopping all those users who pursue Karma as a game. Having visible Karma quantities, anywhere, serves no good purpose. Worse than that, it causes or contributes to a number of not-insubstantial problems, including the bandwagon effect, the hivemind effect, and Karma as a game (including Karma whoring and trolling, e.g. GameOfTrolls). Hiding Karma (with no mention of its return, ever) would of course deter some users, but these are shallow (and in my view, undesirable) individuals whose "contributions" can be replaced by submissions and comments from altruistic users. It would also help encourage users to contribute who currently fear downvotes (the associated problem of people shitting on user users when they ask a "stupid" question must be addressed separately). I understand that having visible karma quantities is something that initially drew a lot of users to reddit. However, it is my perception that reddit has grown past that; even if users may whine about the removal of visible karma quantities, many recently have proposed it and received a substantial positive reaction.

Improve Subreddit Discovery

The next thing to be done is also fairly technically easy: add a "tags" field to every subreddit's options. This would allow a subreddit's moderators to set a limited number of tags (10 at most, ideally fewer) to describe and categorize their subreddit. This field would then be preferentially indexed when searching for subreddits. Field preference when searching would be updated to reflect recent field additions, in order of weight or priority: 1) subreddit tags, 2) subreddit short description and title (separate fields but of equal weight), 3) subreddit sidebar text, and finally 4) subreddit name (/r/name). Via the addition of this field and the aforementioned search weights, subreddit search could be vastly improved.

Subreddit tags would also allow users to explore subreddits via a more visual tag cloud arrangement. A new page would be created containing subreddit tags arranged in a cloud or list in order of how many subreddits are tagged with them, or how many subscribers there are in the subreddits with that tag. Users could select any number of tags and receive a list of subreddits matching those tags in order of how many of the tags match, with their order rearranged to account for how active the subreddit is (more recent submissions or comments would be preferred over a larger number of subscribers). While not an ideal system, this would give users another, more unbiased way to discover new subreddits that I think would be fairly powerful.

Currently in /reddits/[9] there are sections for "popular"[10] (default, sorts by some unknown metric), "new"[11] (sorts by creation time), and "mine"[12] (those subreddits a user is subscribed to[13], approved submitter to[14], or moderator of[15]). This suggestion would add another tab, "discover", which would link to a page[16] allowing users to search by keyword[17], browse by tags[18], or both[16] to discover new subreddits. This page might also include a rotating list of admin picks, but that is less important and poses its own problems that must be discussed.

[Note: It looks like something like this has been implemented since I wrote the above suggestion. Speaking vainly, it's nice to see my conclusions arrived at by the admins without my explicit input. Speaking intillectually, it validates my theories and lends weight to my other suggestions.]

Patch the Frontpage

The current situation where the frontpage for not-logged-in users shows /hot for the defaults (approximately equivalent to the multireddit /r/AskReddit+funny+pics+wtf+aww+politics+adviceanimals+atheism+worldnews+movies+science+technology+music+bestof+IAmA+videos+gaming+todayilearned+wtf/hot[19]; may be inaccurate due to fluctuations in the defaults list) is pointless, other problems notwithstanding. Besides being the default subscription set, the default subreddits serve no purpose on the frontpage when compared with simply viewing /r/all/hot[20], and in fact suffer from not including some important subreddits like /r/blog[21] and /r/announcements[22].

My proposed solution is (for the time being) to simply show /r/all/hot[20] to users who aren't logged in. Since they're not logged in, this view is automatically NSFW filtered. When users create an account, they would be prompted to choose either: 1) "don't subscribe to anything yet (you'll continue seeing the top content from all subreddits)", 2) "subscribe to the default set (you'll only see content from 20 of the largest, oldest, and most popular subreddits)", or 3) "discover subreddits to subscribe to". With the improvements made to subreddit discovery as outlined in the previous section, this would actually become a viable option.

[Note: using /r/hot gets suggested occassionally in /r/ideasfortheadmins.]

Solve Structural Shortcomings

This proposed change would be the most substantial change in reddit's history, second only to the introduction of subreddits. The current structure of reddit is, as I have said, basically one-dimensional. This is a major shortcoming. People naturally think in groups, categories, and structures. This culminates in heirarchies, which incorporate grouping and structure in one neat package. However, reddit is not currently structured in a way that allows for this kind of organnization. As reddit grows and its specialized communities expand, many moderators of small and medium sized subreddits are discovering that they want to group themselves along with other related subreddits. The epitomy of this trend in reddit's current state is the Safe For Work Porn Network, an association of similar and like-minded subreddits focusing on sharing beautiful photographs.

Given this natural tendency for subreddits to group, categorize, and organize themselves of their own accord; the admins' hands-off approach to organizing reddit; and reddit's philosophy of the free-market community (as it were), it seems only natural to design a solution that allows subreddits to self-organize by managing their inclusion in user-created groups. Users create and maintain subreddits, so it makes sense that they should create and maintain subreddit groups. Of course, users can already maintain lists of subreddits in multi-reddits, but these do not exist outside of users keeping the URL around somewhere. There is no way to easily keep a multi-reddit, no way to easily publish it, and no real value from having one to begin with, except to a few power users. Multi-reddits would be more powerful if they could be named, styled, and maintained, because as it stands they're just a convenient tool for individual power-users to improve their browsing experience.

This has been somewhat addressed by the new multireddits beta, which allows Gold members to maintain and share personal named multi-reddits. Being limited to individual users, this does not adequately address the current situation.

So, given the current lacking features of multi-reddits, and the need for community categorization, I propose a solution (an implementation, not just a rough idea, which gets submitted to /r/ideasfortheadmins a couple times each month) which has been independently developed by at least three users (myself (/u/dakta), /u/psYberspRe4Dd, and /u/solidwhetstone; minor differences notwithstanding): create a new class of reddit community on top of the existing site. This class of community would be an aggregate community, basically a named multi-reddit. It would be given its own letter (I propose /m/ for "multi", because /n/ for "network" would be harder to distinguish from /r/ and not all of them wouold be networks). Users would create them just like subreddits, and control them somewhat like moderators. Users who create multis would be called "curators", since all they control is which subreddits are included in the multi. Unlike subreddits, howerver, users would not be able to post to the multireddit itself (except perhaps self-posts, but I haven't decided whether even that is a good idea since it is important to distinguish multis from subreddits; if people could post to multis just like subreddits, nobody would have a need to create a subreddit because they could have all the functionality and more by creating a multi; the future may lie in postable multis, but there would need to be a transition period, so not allowing submissions to multis for now is the best route), and the multireddit would not have comments pages, since there would be no posts to it. Instead, multi-reddits would get their posts from other subreddits. To add a subreddit to a multi, both the subreddit's moderators and the multi's curators would have to explicitly approve the inclusion. Requests for permission to be included in a multi could be initiated by either party, and this inclusion could be managed by a new page in the subreddits' and multis' settings. A request for inclusion would also send a modmail message to the other party, to notify them.

Like subreddits, multis would have curators, their own modmail (maybe a new class of modmail would be needed, but modmail needs a complete overhaul anyways), their own sidebar, their own description, and their own custom CSS (even though it would only apply to the frontpage since multis would have no comments pages). Like subreddits, multis would also be a free market. However, more substantial restrictions would have to be imposed on creating and operating multis, at least for the interim, to prevent users from creating multis of the same name as a subreddit and harassing confused users (another good reason to not allow submissions to multis).

To prevent even more outrageous abuse, multi inclusion would always have to be explicitly granted by both parties. There would not even be an option to "deny all requests", "ask every time", or "allow all requests" simply because of the potential for abuse and the fact that the same result can be achieved through manual management or automated management by a bot.

Unlike subreddit moderators, multi curators would not have any power over submissions or comments (unless self-posts were allowed, which as I said seems like a bad idea) since all of their submissions would remain entirely in the parent subreddit. The frontpage submission comment links on a multi would not go to that multi's comments page (sice it wouldn't have one), but would go to the comments page on the submission's parent subreddit as it normally would, just like multireddits currently do.

To help distinguish them from subreddits, multis would have their own letter and an additional sidebar block that would show a short list of included subreddits and multis (somewhat like the moderators list that only shows the top few mods and has a link to the full list). Multis would, of course, be able to include other multis as well as subreddits, to allow for more flexibility; there is no reason to create another one-dimensional community type on reddit. As far as conflicts go, you may consider what would happen if subreddit /r/example is added to /m/test and /m/other, and /m/other is added to /m/test; this would cause /r/example to be included in /m/test twice. The solution is simple: no matter how many times a subreddit appears to be included in a multi, it is treated as if it is included only once. Nesting multis also poses another problem: how do you manage your subreddit's inclusion in multis an arbitrary number deep? The solution is simple: you must explicitly allow it, and the interface for allowing it would indicate the heirarchy of multis that your subreddit is included in and you must explicitly allow your subreddit to be included in every multi above it if you want it to be displayed. I imagine an OSX Finder-style heirarchy view, with collapsible groups, and checkboxes next to the multi name. Checkboxes above a subreddit or multi would be grayed out except for the one immediate above the subreddit or multi: you have to check the boxes all the way up the heirarchy.

The creation of multis would fill the gaping hole in reddit's organization without compromising its current structure or community-driven ideals. By empowering users and community-builders with new tools to organize their communities how they see fit, the reddit experience would be greatly improved. By allowing the community to categorize itself, subreddits would become even more discoverable without requiring third-party categorization (because leaving it (categorization) to the users leaves too much room for abuse, and leaving it to the admins is trouble on many levels).

Fix Frontpage Woes

The creation of named multis would allow one final major change: it would provide a standard and very easy way for the admins to maintain a frontpage list. Simply create an appropriately named multi and display it in place of the current frontpage, if the admins decide they want to curate the frontpage.

And there are really only two options: curate what gets shown on the frontpage fairly heavily (not down to individual posts, but down to subreddits) to display the absolute best reddit has to offer, or simply display /r/all/hot and give an honest representation of what the site is like. Each approach has its own benefits and drawbacks. I personally prefer curating the frontpage to attract the right kinds of users. What cannot be done is the current situation, in which the admins have given the frontpage and the subscribers to the defaults, creating a semi-controlled view into the site which changes the entire dynamic of the reddit community without close oversight to determine the impact it has. I don't need to describe how much the defaults muck up the healthy workings of the reddit community.

Conclusion

So, there it is, my most involved suggestions. Please PM /u/dakta with questions.

  • [1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma
  • [2]: http://www.reddit.com/help/faq#WhyshouldItrytoaccumulatekarma
  • [3]: http://www.reddit.com/help/faq#WhatisthatnumbernexttousernamesAndwhatiskarma
  • [4]: http://reddit.com/u/dakta
  • [5]: KarmaWhores.net
  • [6]: http://reddit.com/u/Mind~E95EVirus
  • [7]: http://reddit.com/u/OpticArousal) and [/u/OriginsUnknown](http://reddit.com/u/OriginsUnknown)
  • [8]: http://www.reddit.com/r/modclub/comments/x531e/moderator~E95Estatistics~E95Efor~E95E500subscriber~E95Esubreddits/
  • [9]: http://reddit.com/reddits/
  • [10]: http://reddit.com/reddits/popular
  • [11]: http://reddit.com/reddits/new
  • [12]: http://reddit.com/reddits/mine
  • [13]: http://reddit.com/reddits/mine/subscriber
  • [14]: http://reddit.com/reddits/mine/contributor
  • [15]: http://reddit.com/reddits/mine/moderator
  • [16]: http://reddit.com/reddits/discover
  • [17]: http://reddit.com/reddits/search
  • [18]: http://reddit.com/reddits/tags
  • [19]: http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit+funny+pics+wtf+aww+politics+adviceanimals+atheism+worldnews+movies+science+technology+music+bestof+IAmA+videos+gaming+todayilearned+wtf/hot
  • [20]: http://reddit.com/r/all/hot
  • [21]: http://reddit.com/r/blog
  • [22]: http://reddit.com/r/announcements
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