Creating a more curious generation through memes: Q&A with Reddit GM


It’s a slightly gloomy Seattle day but the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) is packed with students and members of the public. I am sitting at the museum’s cafe with the General Manager of Reddit, Erik Martin, (who, like me, had a slightly rough night out with Microsoft’s Imagine Cup group).

The cafe is a bit noisy as the staff get ready to feed the hoard outside.

“I hope you don’t mind if I record this, I am rubbish at taking notes” I ask him.

“Not all,” he responds kindly.

Martin has been at the helm of Reddit, arguably one of the internet’s most influential and highly trafficked sites. The story of Reddit is amazing. Founded by Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman in 2005, this seemingly simple content submission network has turned into a formidable platform on the internet. It was acquired by Condé Nast Publications in 2006 but as of August 2012, Reddit operates as an independent entity.

Martin’s current focus on what the platform can achieve, as it allows its users to take control of what happens, and who and what gets heard. He reckons that journalists don’t take enough advantage of the platform in the storytelling process, which he feels is due for a major shakeup.

Martin believes that the future of content consumption will lie with the story and that the role of the journalist will be to craft deeper, more personal stories; stories that lead the reader into a rabbit hole of discovery, and that introduce the human element.

He says that, with the aid of platforms like Reddit, the internet can hopefully deliver some semblance of democracy in the world, and if not, help make the process more interesting to people.

Rewriting how journalism is done

Memeburn: Let’s begin with journalism and media. I think Reddit could be a great media tool. Is this something you have noticed?

Erik Martin: Yes. We’re starting to see journalists use it not just as a place to get story leads, at a basic level, but more as a place to get feedback from readers who read their work. But more importantly, I think, as a place to get input from different groups that might be affected by whatever they’re covering in the news.

If you cover healthcare in the United States, you can go on Reddit and see what new parents think about this, what people in Oklahoma think about this, what people with chronic pain or some sort of disability think about it, and so forth. Reddit has all these different communities, you can observe conversations without interaction. So I think for a journalist it is a fascinating and useful resource.

MB: Why do you think more journalists don’t see Reddit as a news source, and not just a tool to share stories?

EM: I think it’s just habits, and part of it is maybe generational. I mean it’s unfortunate that when you talk to a lot of journalists and say “well you have comments on your site,” and they have a ‘don’t care’ attitude about it. Everyone thinks it’s awful and that it’s not gonna get any better magically. It’s not about the technology – it can help, but its more about how active you are, do you have/are you paying people to moderate it and get involved?

MB: Do you think Reddit should put together a journalist toolkit, the way Facebook and Twitter do?

EM: We created some presentations. We hopefully will be able to actually add a section to the site, a sort of “Reddit 101 for journalists” with Reddit basics like how to search. Being able to explore the “other” discussions tab on article threads or related tab, and being able see all the different communities that are linked to that story. For example, if your story gets linked to ten different communities you can say “Oh, what does the Bitcoin community say? What does the Wikileaks community say? What does the libertarian community say?” Indeed this is something we need to look into.

MB: How do you think we’re going to start thinking about consumption of content in the future?

EM: I am not sure to be honest. I think “story” is going become even more important, journalists are going to really have to be able to frame something in a story, and also use story to take people from one thing to another. You see that on Reddit all the time, you open up a comments section and something happens somewhere in the world and you read the comments that someone tells a personal story about it, or someone mentions a historical event that influenced what’s happening in the news and you wind up on a Wikipedia page about Russian poetry. It becomes a sort of rabbit hole that happens on Reddit, and other sites too, like StackExchange and Quora.

Right now the general public aren’t comfortable with the internet enough to find those rabbit holes. I think that’ll be the responsibility of journalists to point the public in the right direction. It will be a case of, ‘here’s that thing that happened in my town or country or the world and I’m going to show you the different reactions people are having’. Again, you can do that if you’re on Twitter or Reddit all the time, you can see, okay this group thinks this and this one person has an interesting anecdote about it but that takes a lot of time and a level of internet comfortableness. Whereas journalists in the future can help collect all those things and show, instead of just presenting one voice. They can say: here’s all the different voices that’ve talked about this one thing.

MB: Data journalism?

EM: Exactly. Data is indeed part of it but it’s more first-person stories. Perhaps in ten years time we could be talking in videos instead of comments. It will highlight key points, so if you really want to understand this story from a human perspective, here’s the 10 videos you have to watch of people just reacting to this natural disaster or this political decision or something like that.

Managing the communities and Africa expansion

MB: Reddit’s communities have grown into formidable platforms of their own. How does Reddit manage the platform and try to contain it from getting out of control?

EM: Our approach is to give the community moderators or curators as much control as possible so that they can shape and cultivate the type of communities they want. And then also to give users as much control as they can to customise their experience and vote and actively participate in some communities but not others.

There are a lot of things we want to do that we just haven’t been able to yet. Being able to give people the ability to really create the communities they want. We want some parameters of control but as little as possible because we are the least qualified people to judge what’s useful or what’s appropriate in different communities especially as Reddit expands even more outside the United States. The people should be making the decisions and deciding what is appropriate for the audience, not us.

MB: You mention expansion outside the United States. What are some of the key regions you guys are interested in? What is the strategy for Africa and emerging markets?

EM: It is a lot like the strategy was in the United States, six, seven years ago. Outside of the English-speaking countries, Reddit is still known mostly in the sort of tech and programming and engineering circles, some in gaming. That’s where the initial audience in those countries start. It’s the same way in the United States. As more as people create different communities in German, or Spanish, it tends to expand. Scandinavia is really big, Germany is pretty big, and Western Europe. And the tech cities of course.

Though there are other examples. Podemos is a political party in Spain. It is sort of left — kinda like the precursor to the Occupy Movement in the United States. It created a subreddit — the party leaders — to use as a tool. It gets a million impressions a month, and these aren’t people who happened to be on Reddit and then got interested. They are emailing it, tweeting it. They’re really using it as a tool to talk about issues and strategies and events and political issues.

MB: That’s quite a twist because generally we see politicians doing AMAs. Are you guys seeing that a lot, people flipping the way they use the platform?

EM: Yeah, we see it a lot. Gaming is a really interesting area, especially for journalism because you have all these sort of new journalists. Maybe they’re not professionally trained or classically trained — but they are reporting on eSports — like Starcraft and League of Legends — and these huge communities take notice. They’re journalists in the sense that they are reporting on gaming, doing interviews, but they are also very active in their communities, in a way that people aren’t in traditional areas — they are in that world.

For them if an article is not being discussed on Reddit they might as well have not written it. What happens is that they are interacting in the comments, which doesn’t happen in traditional news, maybe local news, but that’s really interesting.

We rolled out this “Reddit Live” feature, that works like a live blogging tool. We are already seeing people in Brazil and France using it like IM chat, which we thought, we’d play around with in the office ourselves, like “Oh yeah you can use it for that”. We didn’t think that it would take off especially in Brazil — they’re chatting in Portuguese and just using the platform to talk about anything and everything.

Making it work and democratisation

MB: Is Reddit thinking about UX and design at all?

EM: Yeah, we definitely think that the fundamental interaction of Reddit works. Same can be said for Wikipedia or Craigslist. There’s something about that sort of minimal text and links that just work. It’s mainly not for everybody, but you know, for people who spend a lot of time online that’s very efficient and it works.

We don’t want to mess with that but we do want to make it better for mobile, or make it better for other platforms such as tablets and smart TVs. We also want to keep giving the subreddits the ability to make their pages look great.

MB: Yeah, that’s actually quite interesting… What’s your favourite subreddit?

EM: I really like Fifth World Problems. It’s a little like first world problems which is like “oh, my iPhone’s out of battery and I have nothing to read in the bathroom”. There’s fifth world problems which are imaging omnipotent, multi-dimensional beings and what their daily annoyances would be. It’s absurd and ridiculous but fun. If you were all-powerful you would still have things that you’d be annoyed by, like I lost one of my galaxies and I can’t find it, or I accidentally obliterated the world, or I can’t find my car keys. It’s really fun. Then there is neutral politics. It’s very heavily moderated and it’s people, sometime in vain, trying to approach politics from completely neutral standpoint.

MB: That sounds like an impossible task.

EM: Yeah, it is I think. But it’s interesting to watch. How do you talk about something like gun control, or health care from a completely neutral standpoint?

MB: You think Reddit’s that platform though where politics can actually be neutral? A place where you can try to discuss politics in the most democratic way possible. I always feel that people talk about democracy but there’s no such thing as pure democracy.

EM: It’s not really, but I like to think that Reddit in some ways is like democracy – in that it’s not a perfect system but it has to be better than anything else. Right?

MB: I interviewed one of the founders of Jawbone a couple of months ago. He had just launched a site called State. He said that the internet hasn’t yet delivered democracy the way democracy promises.

EM: It’s funny, I’m half Swiss, my dad’s Swiss, and I was in Switzerland not too long ago and Switzerland has a pretty direct democracy and they vote on everything. They were voting on whether to buy new fighter jets, everyone votes on that. Yet they were very sceptical of the idea of like Reddit because they just had a vote that called for harsh immigration policy and they were “You can’t trust people… you trust people to determine what story’s more important?” I thought they would be excited about it because they were super into democracy but no, they were the opposite, very sceptical.

MB: That’s quite interesting.

EM: It is. I hope the internet will help. I think it makes people more interested in the process, even if it doesn’t deliver that democracy. It makes them more curious about things outside their own world. I think that’ll end up having a really big impact on this next generation. Even something like a joke, or a meme or a video that goes viral, the fact that they could see it when it was just starting before it got popular. It gives them insight into how things become bigger issues, how things spread, how things develop in a way that’s just hard to grasp before now.

MB: That makes sense. I find that people’s world will open up more the more they have access to information about it.

EM: Indeed. They become more curious.

Image: Christina Xu via Flickr



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