Steve Huffman says he’s embarrassed by the underlying programming that currently powers Reddit, the social media platform he cofounded in his dorm room alongside Alexis Ohanian in 2005.
“My identity is of an engineer, programming is my first love, and when I’m talking to engineers at work and giving them advice they’re like ‘Go away, Grandpa, I’ve seen the shit you wrote,'” he said.
Having such outdated underlying code powering America’s fourth most visited website (the world’s ninth most visited)–with approximately 300 million monthly active users–has made innovating the platform difficult. After all, the company just released its first mobile app last year and only just began allowing users to upload videos directly this past summer.
As a result that bare-bones interface has become a trademark of the platform and a key part of its charm. Huffman acknowledges that Reddit’s users are quite protective over the platform, and that some may fear that a redesign will alter those elements that attract them to it today.
“People fear change, and we share their concern, because we love Reddit too, but in order to survive we need to evolve, so that’s what we’re doing,” Huffman told Fast Company during the Web Summit technology conference in Portugal last week. “I’m trying to set (users’) expectations and get some feedback so I can adjust (our plans).”
In an effort to ease the transition, Reddit hasn’t put many firm dates around the development and rollout of the redesign, allowing for additional testing and tweaking if necessary.
Huffman says the redesign process began last spring with the team using a combination of data and intuition to create some initial prototypes and mock-ups, before they began gathering feedback from users.
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“We’ve got real users using it, and we keep expanding that pool of real users,” he said. “We’ve got another big wave next week, and later this month or early December we’ll allow people to opt-in and volunteer [to test it].”
Though the website seeks to achieve the critical mass of other social platforms like Twitter and Facebook, Huffman doesn’t really consider them competitors, nor does he fear Reddit is in danger of losing what makes it distinct from them.
“Our success doesn’t have to come at the expense of someone else, we just try to build the best thing we can for our users,” he said. “I think there’s room for people to be edgier [on Reddit than Facebook].”
Where the social media sites do overlap, however, is in the backlash they’ve received in recent years for not doing enough to prevent cyberbullying, political interference by foreign governments, and allowing controversial viewpoints to spread through their platform.
Reddit refined its content policy last week and is working to enforce those standards aggressively, according to Huffman. In accordance with that effort Reddit recently banned a number of controversial communities from the platform, including one that advocated violence against women and others used by neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.
Though previous attempts to rid the website of controversial content was met with backlash from some who called it an attack on free speech, a recent study by the Georgia Institute of Technology suggests the latest wave of bans have been successful in reducing hate speech on the platform overall.
The new content policy defines the unwelcome content as anything that can be considered spam and illegal (such as unlicensed entertainment), involuntary pornography, anything that encourages or incites violence, personal or confidential information, or anything that misrepresents or impersonates others.
“Our content policy isn’t long, but it’s crisp,” said Huffman. “That stuff we enforce aggressively, and we’re getting more and more effective at it over time; but those are behaviors, not beliefs.”
Huffman explains that while the website is becoming more vigilant in policing abusive and potentially dangerous behavior, it’s not up to them to censor the viewpoints expressed by its users, so long as they are in line with that content policy.
“I feel very strongly that you should be free to have beliefs and share them and talk about them, even if they’re offensive or not mainstream; sometimes because they’re not mainstream,” he said. “I’m concerned that we’re in a political environment where I’m hearing more and more conversations about policing what people can say and what beliefs are right and wrong, and I believe that’s dangerous and contrary to the founding principals of the United States.”
It’s a tough line to walk for a company that wants its users to feel like they can be free and unfiltered while still being friendly and welcoming to new users.
As a result the redesign will seek to better identify various types of users and cater to their individual needs, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, regular users will continue to see the subreddits they follow on the home page, along with suggestions of new ones to consider, while new users will be greeted differently depending on their path of entry.
“For example, if you ask a question on Google and arrive to a comment page on Reddit, that’s not the time to say ‘Hey, we think you’ll like these other communities,’ you’re in the middle of a chore,” said Huffman. “That’s very different than someone who just comes to check the site out to see what’s going on, and we’ll treat you very differently.”
Huffman predicts that the redesign will launch in the first quarter of 2018, but stresses that the site will continue to grow moving forward.
“That’s the whole point; now we have a platform on which we can evolve and continue to evolve,” he said. “We’re not going to launch this and wait another five years to fix things again. I hope.”