THE BLOG OF
DR. JOSH C. SIMMONS
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WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED TO REDDIT?

7 MIN READ

Cover Image for WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED TO REDDIT?

Screenshot is of some Reddit-scraping NLP script I wrote around 2016. Just from seeing some of the front page headlines you can see how Reddit used to be less-serious, interested in ideas, and sometimes even funny.

I've been using Reddit at least occasionally for 12 years. For me, its entertainment and usefulness have outlived Facebook, MySpace, Instagram, Snapchat, and Digg (RIP). Reddit used to be novel in the juxtaposition of moods and purposes of the site. The next post under a funny meme could be a semi-serious discussion about philosophy. Not only did Reddit get me through downtime at most of my menial part-time jobs during college, the posts there also taught me a lot about whatever subject I happened to be interested in. As a child who used to read encyclopedias, I felt that Reddit was a natural evolution of consumable knowledge.

So what the fuck happened to Reddit? It seems to get worse year after year. I've been making excuses for its downfall for at least five years now, constantly telling myself that it would get better again i.e. become the Reddit of Old. Now I know I'm no different from anyone still living in San Francisco - making every excuse for why the city is how it is and living under the delusion that the city will make a comeback.

Here are the driving forces around Reddit's downfall and why it is now one of the most toxic spaces on the internet.

“Organic” Sales/Astroturfing

Reddit used to be incredibly useful for sourcing product recommendations for virtually anything. Way back when it was a site that most advertisers ignored, there simply wasn't enough traffic to warrant a strong sales effort toward its user base. Among the useful things I've bought and benefitted from based on Redditor recommendations over the past decade:

  • $20 IKEA chef's knife that I have been using daily. I have had it since I lived in Ohio.

  • Uplift standing desk (writing this essay on it now)

  • Buying Wrangler jeans instead of Levi's for better quality workmanship at comparable price.

  • Various name brand shoes that fit well and are comfortable - I would only wear low quality shoes from Walmart and Payless prior to a Redditor writing a post about how “you get what you pay for” in terms of shoes (to a point!)

  • A 2007 Honda Fit that I owned at a time when I couldn't afford much car maintenance. Multiple Redditors vouched for its reliability (that year specifically) among a few other cars I was looking at.

Things are now different. Reddit is now among the top 10 websites visited in America. It is impossible to ignore Reddit as a sales channel if you are a business. This means sponsored ads that are marked as such, but more nefariously it means fake accounts posing as regular Redditors suggesting products. Reddit moderators profess to thwart this behavior but I don't think they really do past the obvious cases. Why would they? These fake accounts encourage more traffic and ultimately more ad-spend on the platform. It's in their best interest to allow this behavior to continue.

Reddit is no longer a useful product-recommendation page.

Compliance-Based Thinking

Reddit leaned left when I joined. This was one of the fundamental characteristics that initially drew me to it, not out of any partisan or philosophical allegiance, but rather because I am high in openness (98th percentile in fact) and I enjoy creative spaces where there are few rules. Those high in openness tend to be more creative/exploratory and those that are more creative/exploratory tend more politically left.

There is a piece of music called “I Am Sitting in a Room” by composer Alvin Lucier. The concept of the piece is beautiful in its simplicity. A short text piece is read by the performer in a somewhat reverberant room. A microphone picks up and records this audio. The audio is then played back over a loudspeaker in the room. The microphone picks up and records this playback, then plays back that new recording — so on and so on. The result is a gradual devolution of the original spoken content into more abstract tonal washes — the pitches and subtle qualities of which are primarily determined by the acoustic qualities of the room. Play the same initial “clean” recording in another room, run through the same number of iterations, and the result will sound significantly different.

Predictably, as with I Am Sitting in a Room, the alcoves and corners of the room “Reddit” were slowly revealed and the content made less and less relevant. Over the years more rules were created for how users must conduct themselves on the site. Due to this influx of rules, subreddits began to be “quarantined” and then “banned” altogether. Some for good reasons such as doxxing individuals. Many were banned for political reasons. Right-leaning subreddits were disproportionately affected by this trend. Upwards of 50 subreddits were quarantined for the heinous crime of questioning various governments' responses to COVID-19. It's hard to believe that just ten short years prior, a genuine conversation around such a controversial topic could have been had in a Reddit thread.

Leaving aside my own political beliefs, I can't stand spaces that have too many rules or taboos. This kind of environment shuts down interesting thought experiments and conversations.

As spaces scale, they become more financially lucrative to outside interests. These spaces, once populated entirely by obsessives and weird thinkers, become flooded with generalist midwits. In order to keep this demographic in line, more rules must be created otherwise it is impossible to maintain some sort of relative stasis — the culture has grown too rapidly. Too many rules at this stage are necessary to allow the organism to keep functioning without devouring itself, but the weirdos that initially carved out the space are no longer interested in it, why would they be?

There's a continuum, here are the poles:

Those that have more fun out in Bureau of Land Management land vs those that have more fun at Disneyland.

Those that would rather work at a startup vs those that would rather work for a megacorp.

Walled Garden Enforcement

Bestowing an arbitrary amount of power on someone often (definitely not always) turns them into an asshole. One of the primary shifts in mechanics on Reddit has been the delegation and reverence of moderator power. Moderators have absolute power within their fiefdom (usually a subreddit, sometimes multiple). They can write and enforce more rules on top of Reddit's existing rules. They can remove comments on a whim for completely subjective reasons. These subjective reasons can change at any time for any reason and their power is unchecked.

Most of the popular subreddits have turned into a digital version of the Stanford Prison Experiment with moderators assuming the role of “warden that needs to keep the criminals in line”. This attitude is clear in the condescension with which the rules are exacted, if the moderators were doing a necessary duty, why would they feel the need to get recognition for it?

Here are just a couple of examples of Reddit moderators doing God's work:

Among the highest anti-moderator sins one can commit on the site is “SELF-PROMOTION”. What constitutes self promotion is, of course, at the discretion of the omnipotent and entirely impartial moderators. Self promotion almost always involves linking to another site outside of Reddit. I suspect this is a stance passed down from higher up, if for nothing else then the practical reason that it drives traffic away from Reddit, and since Reddit is now an ad platform, traffic loss means money loss. Contrast that to Hacker News which relies almost entirely on external links and, up until its recent Redditification, provided generally more-intelligent and nuanced conversation with multiple viewpoints represented. Follow the money.

Conclusion

Reddit is not a useful or interesting platform anymore. I have had trouble letting go of using it for sentimental and practical reasons. It will take a long time to break the habit of searching the web for “best wireless router site:reddit.com”. I used to search this way to avoid the massive amount of sponsored and heavily biased (publicly or secretly) “reviews” on products, services, entertainment, and information. Now I realize that if I go to a Reddit thread on my query, it's just as likely to be as biased as any other site, likely with some intern on Netgear's social media team posting to the site as an “average home-network enthusiast”.

I am transitioning to two different types of outlets online to fit my need for entertainment and information — ones that are far less likely to be compromised (at least for now).

  1. Personal, self-hosted blogs. I practice what I preach by writing here instead of Substack/Medium/etc. I can write what I want and nobody can tell me otherwise…other than AWS/GCP I guess… I have a bookmarks folder of other writers whom I trust on various topics and read regularly. They are all enthusiasts in their area of interest, none big enough to have financial incentive to bend results. I'd rather take imperfect information from someone like that than risk consuming a paid advertisement in blog form.

  2. Niche forums. I currently frequent very small forums on Christianity, photography, and books. Most people are familiar with who the regular posters are. There's a sense of responsibility there and not wanting to Redditify the space by making it so general. Even if I mentioned the sites, which I won't, I doubt they would gain much popularity because they each occupy a specific niche in the topic they occupy.

The old web was “decentralized” in a manner of speaking. In a lot of ways that web was much more sane and humane. There were more failure points and less financial investment. It seemed like the content was more important than the advertisements. I'd like to get back that way a bit.

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