Update: A few months after this interview took place, Victoria Taylor left reddit due to a controversy over the site’s popular AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum, which Taylor was responsible for organizing. Her dismissal caused many of the voluntary moderators at reddit to protest by shutting down hundreds of sub-forums on the site.
It's a big year for reddit. Next month will mark ten years since the company first launched its website and quickly became one of the world’s most popular online communities with millions of daily users. I met with reddit's Director of Talent, Victoria Taylor, to discuss why “The Front Page of the Internet” is still going strong after a decade---and why they recently decided to enter new media territory.
It was only 10 A.M. when I sat down to chat with Taylor in reddit’s trendy coworking space in Lower Manhattan, but the company already had the Internet buzzing with excitement. It was the morning of April Fools’ Day and reddit had posted a mysterious blue button to its website, which reddit users—or “redditors”—were only allowed to push once. Next to the button was a timer that counted down from 60 seconds, and every time a redditor pushed the button the timer was reset. For months, no-one knew what would happen when the timer hit zero. The prank drove users wild with anticipation (more than one million people pushed the button) until, finally, it ended on June 8th with a short message from reddit, simply reading: “The experiment is over.”
The button may have been a rare and unusual event, but the buzz surrounding reddit is not. Since the company launched its website in 2005, it has become one of the most popular online communities in the world—one of the biggest highlights being a visit from President Obama, who did an AMA live blog (reddit language for “Ask Me Anything”) in 2012. Last month, more than 172 million people from more than 200 countries visited the website to share and discuss their stories, thoughts, and ideas; and, over time, reddit has managed to raise millions of dollars for charity.
Thus, it would seem that the two reddit co-founders, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, who initially set out with the simple goal of making the world “suck less,” could easily say mission accomplished. But there is much more to come. In January, reddit announced that it will now be creating original media content from the pool of stories that users share on their website every day. “There are so many media companies that are so good at harvesting that content,” Alexis Ohanian told Inc.com in an interview this past January, adding, “What I want to do is allow those stories—and the story behind their story—to be told by the people who are actually responsible for them.”
The first content of this kind is the free podcast series “Upvoted,” which was published in January. But reddit isn’t limiting itself to audio and wants to experiment in other areas as well. Taylor talked to me about this new turn and explained some of the reasons for reddit’s seemingly never-ending success.
Victoria Taylor. Well, it’s very immediate but it also lasts a long time. Let’s say, for example, that I’m someone who has an ingrown toenail. You don’t necessarily want to broadcast that on Facebook or talk about that on Twitter, like, “Hey guys, anybody out there got an ingrown toenail?” That’s just weird. But you can go on reddit, do a search for “ingrown toenail,” and you’ll probably find a lot of disgusting photos of people’s ingrown toenails. You can also talk to others and even read a two year old thread asking for advice about it: “Hey guys, I went to the doctor. He said that I don’t need to get treatment. What should I do?” It’s a combination of so many different things. You can learn about other people’s experiences, you can ask for advice, you can share pictures of what happened to you—and it’s all in an anonymous or pseudo-anonymous way. So it allows people to talk about or connect around issues that they might not necessarily be open to discuss, like ingrown toenails. It’s just a very versatile platform, because you have unlimited space to write, people can be sharing their stories and anecdotes. I get this kind of feedback from a lot of people who work in media, saying that reddit is where they go to be themselves. On other social media platforms they have to present a very professional version of themselves. “I can only be so and so on Twitter. I can only be so and so on Facebook. But when I’m on reddit I get to be myself.”
So many. It’s like looking at a massive mosaic and trying to pick out individual tiles. You really can’t do that. I would say that, obviously, having President Obama stop by and do an AMA a few years ago, that was definitely huge. I would also say being a part of so much social good. I think a lot of people don’t realize that redditors are very generous and they’ve donated millions of dollars to help different charities. People will respond very quickly to those in need, so when you see a story that goes viral on reddit and it has a component of “this kid needs support,” or “this organization needs support,” people will rally around that very quickly and they’ll donate.
I don’t think of it as being a competition. I think of it as being a collaboration between so many people—media outlets, television programs, board games, you name it. reddit is really a way of keeping fandom alive. It’s a way of helping people discuss your story, and bringing people to your journalistic outlet or your event and talking about your brand. It’s about creating additional ways for people to get excited about something, and that is not always going to be predictable or controllable. I think that everyone likes to benefit from it—but not everyone likes to not benefit from it. For example, let’s say you’re a big yogurt brand and everyone is like, “Oh, I love your yogurt,” and then one day an article goes viral on reddit that says “This yogurt brand actually contains these preservatives and it’s really bad for you.” Obviously, that’s not going to be nice for that company, but it’s an organic conversation; it’s a space where people are going to connect and discuss multi-faceted issues. It’s a space that belongs to the community and that is very different from most social media platforms, which typically are controlled by someone or something. If I’m on that yogurt brand’s Facebook page, they can be taking down comments related to that article. They could be like, “Don’t pay attention to that article, we are the best yogurt brand out there.” If it was a Twitter chat, you don’t have a lot of space and it is really easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of hashtags that are being thrown around. On reddit there is the opportunity to have a thoughtful conversation where people can present pros and cons. It can be a really interesting space for a dialogue, but it’s definitely not like any other space because there is no editor. We have moderators, but moderators are essentially voluntary participants who moderate individual subreddits. Each subreddit has its own rules and policies just the same way that Salon has different editorial guidelines and a different voice than the New York Times.
It’s a way of helping people discuss your story, and bringing people to your journalistic outlet or your event and talking about your brand. It’s about creating additional ways for people to get excited about something, and that is not always going to be predictable or controllable.
Basically, the goal was to make it easy for people to connect around what’s interesting for them. It is very much driven by interest, so that means it can be very on trend and it can move a lot faster than anything else. So for example, when the TV show Better Call Saul launched, the Better Call Saul subreddit was the fastest growing television subreddit or community ever. That is pretty crazy. The thing is, if you were looking at it from a traditional perspective and you said, “OK, all these shows are launching, let’s start a website for each show,” that wouldn’t necessarily be sustainable as a traditional entity. But, if you are letting the fans do stuff, and letting the fans connect about what’s important to them, it makes it very nimble and that means that people can essentially see what’s interesting to them and connect around it. I think that that’s really what it’s all about—the fact that there are 500 subreddits created every day. Obviously, not all of them are going to make it. Some of them are going to fall by the wayside because maybe it’s something timely or random—like the shark at the Super Bowl. Obviously, that got tons of viral discussion and people started a subreddit devoted to the shark, but that’s not something people are necessarily going to be talking about six months from now. And if you compare that to Better Call Saul—that’s something they’re going to be connecting around for months or years to come. So not all of the communities are going to make it, but it is very easy to create a community and to connect with other people who share your interests.
Yeah, that’s something due to Alexis Ohanian, our co-founder. He recently re-joined the company and we’re really glad to have him back. He brought his own passion for doing podcasts, putting content out there and sharing things that he finds interesting, and helping highlight different parts of the reddit community. reddit is a wealth of ideas, inspiration, funny pictures, and wacky things; this is just one way that we’re trying to highlight interesting events or stories that may have taken place on the platform. So all the things that are featured on the Upvoted podcast have to be connected to the site in some way. It’s just digging a little bit deeper to why such-and-such occurred, or why it was so important for someone. It gives additional context and explores a specific story and by giving it additional dimensions. People on reddit will do all this stuff all the time too. There will be people who will post, “Hey, I recorded myself reading your poem. You can listen to that on my Soundcloud here.” reddit is essentially whatever you decide that you want it to be. If people want to listen to podcasts, that is great. If they want to just go and watch funny videos that’s fine too.
Well, we revealed a new community policy, which is that if people report photos that were taken of them in any sexual way without their consent, we will remove them. We were really the first people to put that policy out there and then other websites started doing it too. It is important because it’s changing the media landscape. Although this isn’t a new problem, as it was happening in the 1980s, it is not like anything anyone has ever seen before, so it’s something that we are all learning together.
We revealed a new community policy, which is that if people report photos that were taken of them in any sexual way without their consent, we will remove them. We were really the first people to put that policy out there and then other websites started doing it too.
Right, but it also comes back to respecting the individual. It’s obviously something that we’re going to be helping everyone on a case-by-case basis.
It’s really not regulation. It’s a responsive policy. It is not going out there and actively saying that, “Your submission will not be approved unless we go through it.” This is a huge important step because in the past it has been very difficult to reach out to help, and historically we’re such a small team. We have always had a contact form, but being able to go out there and say, “If this happens to you, reach out to us and we’ll help,” that is a huge step. That’s not something that anyone else was really doing. So I think that’s just one step towards fixing what is obviously a multi-faceted issue that affects all social media platforms, not just us. But it’s a step in the right direction; I think the other announcements that are made by other social media companies are just showing that we’re all working together.
Victoria Taylor tweets at @happysquid
Sara Wilkins tweets at @wilkins_sara
Edited by Carlo Mantuano