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.