Reddit: A Pre-Facebook Community in a Post-Facebook World

We need a range of social media platforms that connect us in different ways.
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Reddit, by way of Facebook (Facebook.com)

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival last week, co-founder of Internet community site Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, shared a joke that's popular on his site: "Facebook makes me hate the people I know, and Reddit makes me love the people I don't."

Given Facebook's $60 billion market capitalization and unchallenged position as the world's most-visited website, Ohanian's quip sounds like sour grapes. (Ohanian and his parters sold Reddit to Conde Nast in 2006 for an undisclosed sum, likely orders of magnitude smaller than Facebook's valuation.) But there's reason for Ohanian to imply a competition between a site used by 6 percent of American Internet users and one used by 67 percent, according to recent statistics by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Reddit, which calls itself "The Front Page of the Internet," is more influential in shaping Internet culture than its comparatively small reach would lead you to believe. Content featured on Reddit frequently "goes viral," spreading to other websites, including Facebook. As a result, it's become a popular destination for politicians and other public figures, including President Obama, to meet their online audiences, often through distributed interviews called AMAs -- Ask Me Anything.

There are reasons why Reddit makes Ohanian love total strangers. Reddit has a well-deserved, if eclectic, reputation for charitable giving. Redditors raised $700,000 to send a bullied senior citizen on a vacation, $4,000 to send to correspondent Helen Thomas after she asked White House spokesperson Dana Perino pointed questions about torture, and over $200,000 for World Vision, Doctors Without Borders and Islamic Relief in a competition between "sub-reddits" focused on Christianity, atheism, and Islam. And Reddit is emerging as a significant political force on issues that concern the Internet, serving as breeding ground for a massive protest against Internet registrar Go Daddy over the controversial SOPA/PIPA legislation and recently promoting "Take Back the Fourth" rallies to oppose NSA surveillance.

But the interesting piece of Ohanian's comment is the idea that Facebook and Reddit operate in radically different ways. For many Internet users, "social networks" are sites that build online links between people who already know each other offline. This was an idea exemplified in early social networks like Six Degrees (named after the six degrees of separation concept promoted by Stanley Milgram) and used in Facebook, Linked In, and Google Plus. When you join Facebook, the service mines your email inbox for friends, then asks questions about your education and work history to identify other possible contacts. Who you know on Facebook closely parallels who you know in the real world -- according to a Pew study, only 7 percent of Facebook friends are people a user knows only in an online context.

Because social networks like Facebook are all about who you know, they tend to be obsessed with authenticated identities. From its roots on elite college campuses, accepting only users with .edu email addresses, Facebook has had a "real name policy," which allows the site to remove the accounts of users who are using pseudonyms, arguing that online behavior is better when people are required to own their words. Google has followed suit, urging users to use real names on Google Plus and on YouTube. (These policies have raised questions from the human rights community, which points out that activists using online tools have valid reasons to conceal their identities, as do youth exploring sensitive questions around gender and sexuality.)

Presented by

Ethan Zuckerman is director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT and principal research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab. He is the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, published by W. W. Norton in June 2013.

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