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How Reddit Became the Internet's Vigilante Voltron

From Karen Klein to SOPA, the social news site Reddit can now muster tremendous financial, promotional, and political influence.

We all heard about it. On the afternoon of June 19, 68 year-old Karen Klien, a school district worker in upstate New York, was on board School Bus #784 as a monitor when four middle schoolers began taunting her. They called her fat, dumb, sweaty and ugly. They made fun of her family—her son committed suicide 10 years ago—and laughed as she cried.


Across the seat from her, one of the middle schoolers recorded the incident on his cellphone and later posted it on YouTube.

Rallying around that video, a group of anonymous strangers organized online, brought the incident to national attention, and raised an astounding $600,000 to give Klein an early retirement. The middle schoolers, for their part, faced disciplinary action from school administrators and local law enforcement, as well as the ire of a nation.

On the evening of March 17, a Virginia man stopped at a red light was rear-ended in a hit-and-run. Markings along the man’s bumper revealed fragments of a license plate number, but nothing conclusive. The same online community that came to Karen Klien’s defense used advanced photo processing to reveal the license plate number, leading authorities to the perpetrator.

This group of samaritans are the users of Reddit.com, a popular social news site, and these acts of altruism are hardly rare for the community. Reddit operates on user-submitted content, and while most "Redditors" post standard internet fare—memes, funny images and viral videos—occasionally a submission will highlight an injustice that’s gone unnoticed or unsolved. That's when Redditors mobilize, donning the virtual buckskin and six-shooter of a digital Shane.

Taken individually, Reddit users are sitting in office park cubicles, working retail, waiting tables, job hunting, studying in a dorm, or otherwise out of sight. Together though, they comprise an incredibly potent force—35 million strong, most under the age of 35, and digitally savvy. The sheer immensity of the community gives it a collective knowledge and expertise as broad as it is deep. When Reddit rallies around a cause it's like a magnanimous, vigilante Voltron of the internet.

Reddit’s most recent campaign struck close to home. To fight the internet censorship bills SOPA and PIPA, Redditors lead an offensive that snowballed into a mainstream movement with participants including Wikipedia, Google, WIRED, and us here at GOOD. The ensuing publicity brought the issue to the top of Facebook feeds—and the fore of public consciousness—and the bills quickly imploded, with supporters and co-sponsors fleeing the wreckage. Similar bills in Canada and Europe have met the same fate.

Not all of Reddit’s causes are so grand. They can be as mundane as a Redditor asking for legal or personal advice, for feedback on an original song, or help organizing a flash mob for a friend’s birthday. And while the internet’s anonymity infects many online communities with an inane rancor (read the comments on any popular YouTube video), Redditors often look after their own. A Redditor employed as a flight attendant sent another Redditor—recently dumped by his fiance—enough frequent flier miles to take a vacation in Europe. The two had never met, and likely never will.

The crushing success of the internet censorship offensive was proof of Reddit’s political power, and the site shows no sign of slowing down. In the last two years, it’s jumped from a global Alexa rank of 300 to just shy of 100. As a news site, its broad and connected user base can dictate digital news cycles—what appears on the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and Gawker today broke on Reddit yesterday. Even the fleet-footed Twitter can find itself playing second fiddle. As a forum for activism, Reddit's multitudes can muster tremendous financial, promotional, and political influence.

So exactly how did Reddit become the de facto headquarters of internet vigilantism? The website 4chan.org and the hacker group Anonymous both successfully crusade in more mischievous—and sometimes dangerous or illegal—ways. Kickstarter is a purpose-built fundraising platform, and other news sites have larger reach. But Reddit, with its broad spectrum of users, wider appeal, and active community, provides a saner community for the everyday person.

When competitor Digg awkwardly fell on its sword, Reddit emerged as a leader in social news, truly establishing itself as the "front page of the internet." By aggregating the silly, funny, and inane with the serious and concerning, it created an appealing cocktail to the fickle generation raised in the age of the internet. Perhaps more importantly, it truly is a community, and we humans want to be part of a community, even if it’s virtual.

In the last 6 months, mentions of Reddit have more frequently made their way onto teleprompters, with news anchors air-quoting a name they’d never heard of. By the end of the year, those anchors could be referencing Reddit with the same familiarity as they do Facebook or Twitter.

Reddit, like all online media, runs the risk of bloating up and burning out. Even now, veteran Redditors recall the "glory days" and lament how much the site—and specifically its mix of content—has taken a turn for the worse. But judged solely on its activism Reddit has never been stronger, and what it does with its growing might is a topic of great debate amongst users. It is, after all, up to them.

Articles
via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

Amazon's "The Man in the High Castle" debuted the first episode of its final season last week.

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via Mike Mozart / Flickr

Chick-fil-A is the third-largest fast food chain in America, behind McDonald's and Starbucks, raking in over $10 billion a year.

But for years, the company has faced boycotts for supporting anti-LGBT charities, including the Salvation Army, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the Paul Anderson Youth Home.

The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, "We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage". I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.

But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

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Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

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via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

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