Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The problem with reddit

I remember when I first found reddit. It felt like I found a place online where I belonged. Interesting links was posted and the discussion was civil, informative and on topic. It was a place I looked forward to check out, every single day.

Of course this statement will tell you nothing about how reddit was back then. Mainly because it's centered around me, me, and even more me. Reddit used to cater to me and as you might suspect, I'm writing this short piece because it no longer feels like it does that. Now why is that?

Back in the days, reddit used to be a rather small community. As far as I know, it consisted mostly of hard geeks, programmers and people with a general interest in technology. In other words: A rather homegenous userbase with few if any needs of structuring or managing the content posted and with no needs for an ability to seperate or filter out the parts which was or wasn't relevant to you.

Taking a look at reddit these days, it should be fairly obvious that this is no longer the case.

The userbase

Reddit is a site where all the content is user-submitted, and it's fair to say that the userbase has literally exploded the last few years. Where they've come from, I have no idea. Digg? K5? Slashdot? Dailykos? Who knows? Who cares? It's really not relevant.

What matters is that the userbase has widened massively. Now you will encounter more people, more viewpoints and all that stuff which is supposed to be good. But you will also encounter more cultures which in theory and ideology also is good, but in practice it's not all that rosy red.

There will be parts of reddit considering all the new users uncivilized. They will consider the topics they post and discuss to be insulting to any intelligent being (Disclaimer: You might position me here). On the other side you may have parts of reddit who consider these old-timers grumpy, undiplomatic, demanding, elitist or simply taking online life way too seriously.

On both sides you may have people who couldn't give a bigger shit about the US election and they are tearing their hair off seeing the influx of US election related posts and topics. Where's my awesome python hacks or hilarious lolcats?

Some people (disclaimer: again, like me) wants substance when they visit reddit. Nothing pisses them off more than half the frontpage being self-posts only looking for having their views acknowledged. Add "Vote up if" posts to the mix and the same crowd will get grumpy, real grumpy.

The problem

In short: People have different tastes, and when the userbase explodes, this does cause problems. You get conflicts on every single thing you can get conflicted on: content, topics, nettiquette and general culture. This leads to friction, hostility and people feeling alienated, overrun or ignored.

The main problem facing reddit these days (in my opinion) is that this is starting to affect the civility and general quality of the community and discussion on the site.

The solution?

Any good solution to this problem should be me-centric. What made reddit special was how it made you feel at home, how you felt it catered to you and allowed the same for everyone else. A good solution should allow the user to be selfish and greedy about what they are exposed to, without it negatively affecting the rest of the userbase. It should allow the user to make reddit theirs. A good solution will also allow this for a maximum number of users.

The solution so far has been to allow for subreddits and user-created subreddits. This has worked out reasonably well, although not one hundred percent. However Looking for a solution which satisfies everyone fully is futile.

Subreddits however no longer seems to be good enough to deal with the different cultures on the site and keeping cultural clashes to a minimum. For every second story posted, you can now predictably find people complaining about what's posted. This creates hostility and benefits noone.

Currently, the two major issues I have observed causing friction within the userbase are the following:

  • Self-posts
  • Vote-up posts

No doubt others will have other issues, but from my point of view (and let me be selfish here) these are the ones that needs to be adressed the most.

Starting with self-posts, self-posts can more or less be summarized as forum-style threads. They provide no content: They provide discussion. At best the discussion can be informative, at worst the headline can be a declaration of a particular stance, with the submitter merely seeking reinforcement of his view. The latter is particularly notories when combined with Vote-up posts.

So should we ban self posts? Require that an actual link to something is provided? As much as I would like to see these posts gone, wiped of the face of reddit, there are obviously enough users who like them, and there is this whole thing about not alienating the userbase in the quest to make reddit "yours".

Some people, in fact many people, have argued for reddit getting into this century and getting some damn tags. They argue that subreddits are arcane and 1-dimensional and that just getting some tags in there instead would solve most of the problems discussed above, not to mention be somewhat future-proof.

Like any easy solution, it has some shortcomings. My major beef with this solution is increased fragmentation in the community. You can feel a sense of community in the subreddits (hello bacon!), but it's hard to feel a sense of community around tags. How on earth can you feel any beloning to something as mundane as a tag?

I suspect replacing subreddits with tags would effectively kill any and all sense of community currently found on the site. We would be trading community for selfishness. I'll just be selfish and admit I have a problem with that.

As for the solution being future-proof, this is (in my humble opinion) normally a good thing, but I am somewhat biased against big, major changes and solutions designed to handle every single case in the universe, when the problems you are encountering can be counted on a single hand. We don't need the big, bad solve everything solution just yet. Let's not fix what isn't a problem if it means turning everything else around.

So how about just setting up a forum.reddit.com where people can discuss all they like? That would obviously be too disconnected from the main site to work. Again we have the issue with user-alienation.

My solution

Before jumping to any conclusion, you need to adress what the real problem is. As far as I see it, the real problem is that the current userbase not only want to narrow down the world to their respective interests and topic, they also have a preference for content type.

Some people want discussion-only self-post. Some people want things they can vote on to express their opinion. Other people just wants some stuff to read.

I hereby humbly suggests that the masters of reddit take their codebase to the next dimension, that is adding content-types to the submissions and let people also subscribe to the content-types they seek. This would allow to keep the communities we have today and it would allow reddit to expand on the ways which content is treated while letting things stay on topic with whatever subreddit it is submitted to.

Instead of having "Vote up if" posts, you could have actual polls with maybe even multiple choice where the results would more telling because people are probably not voting on the actual poll just to get it away.

For self-posts you could be allowed to add some context, some extra text besides the headline if you want it. If your main objective is to express yourself, my guess is that a headline alone is probably not enough. You also may notice how I decided to make a lengthy piece about this instead of a simple self-post. I'm convinced making this a self-post would sound bitter, angry or just bitchy. Being able to provide some context for your stance is good. Reddit should allow that!

Adding content types will allow people to get what they want without intruding on those who doesn't want it. It also has the benefit of being somewhat future-proof as opposed suggestions such as just adding the ability to filter self-posts.

I'll just round it off here. I hope this wasn't "TLDR", and I would appreciate some feedback on this idea.

More details on this link: The problems facing reddit

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