A few months ago, I saw Catey Shaw’s music video for “Human Contact” for the first time. It was a flawless concoction: an infectious summer Pop jam mixed with a quirky, aqua-haired girl dancing in street-wear. All I wanted to do was cash in my vacation days, trap my scantily clad body in a room, and destructively gyrate until my joints were irreparably damaged. Unfortunately, I wasn’t blessed with the spryness or the hips, so I decided to opt for something less dangerous.
Without too much thought, I posted it to Reddit right before going to bed one night hoping that others would enjoy it as much as I did. When I woke up the next morning, to my surprise, it had generated almost 200 upvotes (part of Reddit’s voting system, explained later) and had risen to the top of the r/listentothis subreddit (a community on Reddit that concentrates on sharing music). The video, which initially had less than 1,000 views on YouTube, had garnered more than 10,000 in the span of a few hours, and artists such as Meghan Trainor and Betty Who were posting about it on Twitter. I could feel the Earth’s axis tilting from the relentless force of thousands of people violently shaking their butts to this music at the same time.
The speed at which people were consuming and reacting was incredible, as the power of the Internet was beginning to manifest itself in front of my eyes. Upon seeing this unbelievable reception, I came to the illuminating realization that Reddit was, in fact, what people call “the Internet.” Let me clarify: Reddit was to what people were referring when they personified the Internet. It’s the ambiguous noun that was being described when you heard statements like “That made the Internet really angry” or “The Internet loves cats.” Though it sounds ridiculous, as the video’s view count continued to climb at an exponential rate, this seemingly grandiose notion grew increasingly real. Do you remember in Lost when the characters realized that the scary creature wasn’t just a bear or the wind but rather, a black smoke behemoth? Yeah, it was kind of like that.
Described as “the front page of the Internet,” Reddit is an online content aggregator with a strong emphasis on its community of users. People can submit anything from funny pictures of animals to poems they wrote, all which will then be seen and voted upon by the community. Contrary to popular belief, Reddit isn’t just that website that “your one friend visits.” Rather, it’s a colossal infrastructure whose audience spans the entire spectrum of ages and demographics.
To put its size into perspective, it’s the ninth most trafficked website in the United States right behind Twitter and the 30th most trafficked website in the world. The website has hosted AMAs (“Ask Me Anything” — a subreddit that hosts interviews between its users and notable people) with people ranging from Bill Gates to President Barack Obama, the latter of which actually crashed the website’s servers. It has also bred innovations from its users including Imgur, one of the world’s most popular image hosting websites. Even other highly-trafficked sites such as BuzzFeed are known for promulgating viral content that is directly lifted from Reddit. The sheer mass and influence of Reddit coupled with the fact that there is a community for almost every interest imaginable makes it one of the most dominant gatekeepers of content that exists today.
If you didn’t know much about Reddit before, you may be foaming at the mouth to take advantage of the website’s social clout. I mean if some dopey, quasi-hipster millennial can post a Pop song to millions of people and watch it get traction, there’s no reason you can’t do the same, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Though it may appear that Reddit is a viable platform for your next great marketing stunt, it should be noted that trying to use Reddit as your personal street team via veiled promotion may actually backfire. In fact, there’s a history of brands attempting to self-promote on the website which ultimately lead to backlash as well as public shaming/banishment from the site.
Reddit is very cognizant of the amount power it wields and does everything in its own volition to make sure that it’s not exploited. The users themselves, who are very savvy, also perpetuate a system of checks and balances which ensures their influence is not being swayed dishonestly. For example, there’s an entire subreddit that is dedicated to sniffing out suspicious posts that function with the sole purpose of promoting a product. Since the website is a leading arbiter of online opinion and because hell hath no fury like Reddit’s scorn, it sometimes leads to destruction and evisceration fueled by a snowball of negative sentiments. Additionally, due to some recent unfortunate events, Reddit has put even stricter measures in place to guarantee that its power is used responsibly (like Spiderman).
Along with community moderation, there is a very complex algorithm that determines which content gets exposed to eyes of the community. Reddit functions on a voting system that includes “upvotes,” positive votes, and “downvotes,” negative votes. The more legitimate upvotes a post generates, the higher your post will be shown on users’ feeds. The more downvotes a post generates, the more likely it is to be buried and shown to virtually no one. It ensures that the best content rises to the top and the rest sinks into oblivion like a dying star. Once again, this makes it tougher to game the system as a post’s success relies heavily on validation from the rest of the community.
Now, there’s probably an aura of dejection spawning as you continue to discover that there are measures inhibiting you from disseminating your content freely to Reddit’s massive audience. Despite these seemingly stringent digital contraceptives, there are definitely ways that your content can be seen by others. The best and most effective way that anyone, including marketers, can use Reddit is to legitimately become part of the community. This means creating an account, subscribing to subreddits that interest you, and being active in terms of commenting on others’ posts and submitting content of your own. The website is extremely rich and overflowing with content that is relevant to anyone, so finding relevant communities shouldn’t be difficult.
For example, if you like Girl Talk, you might want to subscribe to r/mashups which has 68,000 subscribers. If you’re a male interested in looking good on a budget, you could subscribe to r/frugalmalefashion which has almost 150,000 subscribers. Even if you’re looking for something simple like having a quick laugh throughout the day, you can subscribe to r/dadjokes, which has almost 200,000 subscribers. The massive nature of the Reddit community allows people to find others who have similar niche interests and share content amongst and for one another, and, like any community, it’s important to get involved if you want to understand it better and be accepted.
When I posted Catey Shaw’s song, my intention wasn’t to try and turn her into an Internet sensation. Rather, I wanted others to hear a song that made me feel something significantly positive. There’s a concept called cognitive surplus that perfectly encapsulates the mindset and the way that the Reddit community functions. The term, coined by social media theorist, Clay Shirky, refers to the time that people spend participating in activities that are more about engaging with one another than purely consuming. The ideals of Reddit fall into this paradigm, as the most significant aspect of the website isn’t necessarily about the content that is consumed but more about the discussion that it breeds.
This is why the proper way to use Reddit is to post content that’s engaging to the community. It is immeasurably more important and successful than using the website for self-promotion. Therein lies the critical aspect of Reddit that should be understood: it’s not just a public garden at which to be ogled, it’s a nuclear reactor that is powered by interest and conversation. Though most of the content posted on Reddit will never been seen or heard by the community, sometimes people listen and sometimes people react.