When President Obama showed up on Reddit’s “IAmA/AMA” question and answer forum in late August, the site had 200,000 readers clamoring to join the conversation, and the company’s engineers were working in real time trying to keep the site from breaking during the user deluge. The President answered questions from the Reddit community about campaign finance reform, deciding to go forward with the troop surge in Afghanistan, and his favorite basketball player (“Jordan–I’m a Bulls guy”).
There was little fresh insight from the President, but it was a defining moment for the site that bills itself as “the front page of the Internet.” What started out as a single collection of user-submitted links created by two University of Virginia undergrads in three weeks has spawned thousands of sub-communities (or subreddits, in the site’s parlance), each with its own topic of obsession–from corgis to college football. Each subreddit is combination of links out to other sites and text fields for original reader content.
It’s a potent mix, and Reddit now has over 43 million unique viewers a month. It was a bit of kismet that Obama was answering questions from UVA’s home turf of Charlottesville–“Only seven years ago I was bored in marketing class and drawing the alien” that would become Reddit’s adorable mascot, Reddit co-creator Alexis Ohanian says.
Ohanian believes that the story behind the creation of the IAmA subreddit–where politicians like Obama, actors and musicians, or regular people with extraordinary jobs or fascinating stories answer readers’ questions–is the perfect example of the community-centric model that had makes Reddit so successful, particularly over the past year. The section was user created, and it grew out of Q&As that were occurring on the site organically. “Steve [Huffman, Reddit’s cofounder] and I knew from the very start that we couldn’t do this alone. We needed an active Reddit base to use their ingenuity and our hard work. We would have never come up with IAmA on our own,” Ohanian says.
Reddit general manager Erik Martin says that all of the site’s innovations come from following the community. “We’re paving footpaths. We’re seeing where people are walking and where the grass is getting trampled and trying to make that more robust, and that’s the same whether it’s visual, or moderation policy, or on the coding level,” Martin explains. He gives the example of the growth of Reddit’s sports sections. The staff saw that users were posting links to live streams of sporting events, and so the engineers wanted to make the experience of putting up those live streams easier.
Community participation is such a pillar of Reddit’s construction that nearly every employee on the site’s small staff was an enthusiastic Reddit user before they worked for the company. “Almost everyone is still directly involved in the community,” Martin says. “We are very close to the community and the different needs of the people.” How close are they to their user base? Even though Martin is the general manager, he still answers basic customer service emails on a daily basis.
Now that Ohanian has created such a vibrant and passionate community online, he’s ready to start building community IRL. Starting on October 3, he and Martin are embarking on a bus tour that’s going to follow the path of the presidential debates–beginning in Denver, Colorado and ending in Danville, Kentucky. They will visit companies that are using the Internet in innovative ways far outside the incestuous, techy confines of Silicon Valley and New York City. Martin mentions a startup in Iowa City that wants to help teachers do online grading more efficiently, and another in Nebraska that is trying to help high school coaches recruit athletes without traveling.
Ohanian, who was very vocal in his protest of Congress’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) earlier this year, stresses that the purpose of this tour is to show the country–in a nonpartisan way–how important Internet freedom is. “The stories of farmers in Kansas who rely on smartphones, people who take care of families with the profits from their Etsy stores, a retiree who makes extra money renting out his home on Airbnb, I want to show all the demographics. I want cameras on those people, I want tweets quoting these people, and I want to show them telling their own stories.” It’s basically one long Reddit IAmA, but this time with a flesh and blood community.
[Image: Kate Fredriksen via Shutterstock]