The untold truth of Reddit

When Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian co-founded Reddit in 2005, they were two recent graduates of the University of Virginia who had an audacious goal for the site: to be the front page of the Internet. And their site became just as successful as they dreamed. As of March 2017, Reddit is one of the top 10 most popular sites in the world, according to figures from Alexa. But it didn't get to that lofty point smoothly.

How did Reddit initially get popular? Lots and lots of fake accounts

Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman has admitted that he and co-founder Alexis Ohanian created a slew of fake posters to seed the site with the content. He said in a 2012 video for Udacity that the two of them wanted to set the tone for the site, and the fake accounts allowed them to do that. It also made the place look populated and not a "ghost town," Huffman said.

It worked. Reddit started in June 2005 and became hot quickly.

Although Ask Me Anything Q&As are a Reddit staple, the concept didn't start there

Ask Me Anything interviews (or AMAs in Reddit parlance) are Q&A sessions where both celebrities and regular people will field and answer questions posed by Reddit readers. But Reddit didn't create the idea. It started in the 1990s at America Online, of all places.

President Barack Obama's 2012 AMA was the most popular of all time, even if it was a little boring (saying Michael Jordan was his favorite basketball player wasn't exactly groundbreaking) but some other lesser-known AMAs have garnered a huge number of questions, like when someone who played Goofy at Walt Disney World dished inside Disney dirt.

Some of the AMAs have been real disasters

Redditors take the concept of Ask Me Anything sessions seriously and quickly turn on those who don't do the same. Woody Harrelson had what is universally considered the worst AMA of all time, where he kept on wanting to talk about his new movie Rampart (2012). These days, whenever Redditors think a participant is avoiding questions, somebody will invariably make a Rampart reference.

The subreddit /r/AMADisasters is illustrated by Harrelson's picture, but there are some other doozies besides his. One of the more intense ones occurred when Ann Tompkins, an 85-year-old American woman proud of traveling to China in the 1960s to help with Mao's Cultural Revolution, got called out by Chinese people who pointed out the horrors of that time that they thought she was glossing over. Other trainwrecks included when Redditors asked musician Wyclef Jean why money donated to him to help Haiti reportedly ended up elsewhere. Charlo Greene, the news anchor who cursed and quit while on the air, cursed and quit the AMA in the middle of it.

When actor Jon Heder and Nick Peterson, director of The Visitant, did an AMA about their project in 2015, a moderator deleted Peterson's posts for spam (he kept on posting links about the movie) and briefly banned him from participating. And when ex-baseball player and admitted steroid user Jose Canseco participated in an AMA in 2013, multiple people told stories about how much of a jerk Canseco was to them in real life. Then Canseco lived up to this rep by being just as much of a jerk on Reddit. Shocker.

There was a third Reddit co-founder of sorts who later committed suicide

According to a 2015 profile in Wired, when Huffman and Ohanian were in college and wanted to start a business about making food deliveries via text messages, they reached out to famed Internet entrepreneur Paul Graham, who was involved with a startup incubation company called Y Combinator. He rejected their idea but encouraged Huffman and Ohanian to brainstorm another one, which became Reddit.

Graham later hooked them up with 19-year-old Aaron Swartz, an "Internet whiz kid" who had founded a company called Infogami. This company merged with Reddit, and Swartz helped rewrite much of the new site's code into Python. When they sold the company in 2006, Swartz received a share of the money, with the total amount the trio earned estimated to be $10–$20 million, according to Wired.

Swartz quickly got fired from Reddit for not showing up to work. He later started calling himself a co-founder, something that both Huffman and Ohanian disputed, with Ohanian writing that "Aaron had nothing to do with any of this." On the other hand, Graham wrote on Reddit that "the company behind Reddit was a merger of two startups, one that made Reddit and one that made Infogami, and in that situation, the founders of both startups are considered founders of the combined company."

When Swartz was arrested in 2011 for allegedly hacking into MIT's computer systems to access the JSTOR paid articles database, the Bits blog in the New York Times initially described him as a "Reddit co-founder," but the headline was changed after Ohanian complained. The URL still says "Reddit co-founder," though.

Swartz reportedly battled with depression for several years. According to a 2013 New York Times profile of Ohanian, he was worried enough about Swartz being suicidal that he once called the police after the wunderkind wrote a blog post that appeared to imagine Swartz's suicide. Ohanian had once had a girlfriend who had tried to kill herself, so he told the newspaper that he was "very sensitive to the warning signs."

In 2013, when Swartz was still awaiting trial on the MIT hacking felony charges, he killed himself. A documentary looking at his life called The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz was released in 2014.

The number of up votes vs. down votes is not real

Reddit has a democratic system in which post submissions and comments are voted on by the site's readers, who can vote up or down. The higher the submission or comment score is (upvotes minus downvotes), the more likely it will be featured high up on the subreddit's page, or maybe even make it to Reddit's home page.

But Reddit admits in its FAQ that while the ratio of upvotes to downvotes is accurate, the actual number of votes are "not 'real' numbers." Instead, the numbers have been, as Reddit puts it, "fuzzed" to stop spam bots. The FAQ notes that "if five users upvoted the comment, and three users downvote it, the upvote/downvote numbers may say 23 upvotes and 21 downvotes, or 12 upvotes, and 10 downvotes." In this case, "the points score" of 2 is accurate, but the number of votes are "fuzzed."

Redditors helped in good ways with breaking news

When James Holmes shot up an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012, a redditor in the area listened to the police feed and provided updates that kept people posted. He also was sent an image from AdultFriendFinder of a dating profile that appeared to be Holmes. The New York Times noted that other media outlets ran the screenshot without crediting Reddit.

One redditor posted from the theater at the time of the shooting, telling what was happening in real time at the Dark Knight Rises showing. Other people at the scene, and who saw the police raid Holmes's apartment, weighed in. It makes for compelling reading even today.

And The Daily Dot notes how many news stories are generated from what is popular on Reddit. Many digital editors, the site says, lift story ideas from the site, many times without giving credit. It also called Reddit "the first draft of new media history."

Redditors made bad news even worse in the Boston Marathon bombing

Some redditors went too far when they tried to solve the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing case. They misidentified the bomber as being Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student who had disappeared the month before. This caused needless grief to his loved ones. It was later discovered that he had killed himself before the bombing.

Time magazine noted that Reddit co-founder Ohanian called the misidentification "an awful thing that happened." But he also said that blaming the platform for spreading the rumors would be like "blaming Twilight on Gutenberg" or giving Twitter credit for the Arab Spring. (Perhaps he didn't realize that people do give Twitter credit for the Arab Spring.)

Their sleuthing also had a negative impact in another way. The FBI released photos of Suspect No. 1 and Suspect No. 2 in part to quell such baseless amateurish attempts. While this did lead to the Tsaranev brothers being identified, it also led to them first going on what the Washington Post called a "violent rampage," where Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsaranev shot and killed an MIT school officer, carjacked a vehicle, and tried to run down cops. Even Edward Davis, Boston's police commissioner, thought that "we may have forced their hands" by the images' release. But he still defended it as the right thing to do.

How the fall of Digg benefited Reddit

Digg was a very similar site to Reddit. It started in 2004, the year before Reddit did, and once had an incredible 40 million unique users. But in 2010, Digg released Version 4. As Search Engine Land put it, "This new version of Digg gave these publishers an extraordinary amount of power on the site and revoked the ability of users to create the news." The Digg controversy definitely helped Reddit. They grew from 1.7 million to 9.2 million monthly users a little more than two years later, thanks in no small part to Digg users fleeing the site for Reddit. Digg had once been valued at $60 million, but it was sold in 2012 for just $500,000.

Ohanian talked to Fast Company in 2016 about "the underdog nature of Reddit." He said, "When we learned about Digg—that at the time was a Silicon Valley–funded startup with at least $1 million in funding, darling of the press, the founder was a celebrity—we were just two 'randos' out of the University of Virginia with $12,000." Ohanian said that "we very much felt like the underdog until we eclipsed Digg," adding that the underdog mentality is "an important thing to preserve."

Reddit's free-wheeling nature has caused a lot of controversy

Reddit has walked a fine line between free speech and chaos. In 2014, the site was part of The Fappening, when hacked nude photos of female celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence were leaked online. The subreddit called The Fappening ("fap" is slang for masturbation) gained an incredible 100,000 subscribers in 24 hours and had 141 million page views in one day. The photos and subreddit were later removed from Reddit, but the damage was done. Reddit was also involved in the 2014 GamerGate controversy, and some subreddits on the site automatically banned redditors who participated.

The site was becoming more known for harassment and doxxing than anything else. So in 2015, Reddit instituted an anti-harassment policy to "prohibit attacks and harassment of individuals" on the site "with the goal of preventing them." They ended up banning several subreddits, including /r/fatpeoplehate, but said they were "banning behavior, not ideas." Some redditors fled to Voat, a community that promised no censorship, but the site is nowhere near as popular as Reddit still is.

A Reddit employee's firing led to Huffman's return

In 2015, Victoria Taylor, Reddit's director of talent, was fired. She managed the popular Ask Me Anything subreddit. Apparently there was a conflict between her and Ohanian, who had returned to the company the year before. Some moderators were so angry that they made their subreddits go private, which hid many of the site's most popular places to visit. This included /r/pics, /r/askreddit, and /r/todayilearned, according to Wired.

The controversy, as well as the tumult at the top with interim CEO Ellen Pao leaving the site after facing much criticism, led to co-founder Huffman returning to the company. He told Wired: "I knew I was going back. Some of my friends were like, 'you're running into a burning building." His eyes grow red here. "I was like, 'I've got no choice. This is my burning building."

Reddit's co-founder Ohanian has a very famous fiancée

He may be a big name in the tech community (they don't call him "The Mayor of the Internet" for nothing), but Ohanian is a no-name compared to the woman he is marrying. That would be superstar tennis player Serena Williams.

She announced their engagement on Reddit on January 2017 in a subreddit called "isaidyes" and Williams also showed off her engagement ring on Reddit. The engagement announcement featured a poem and a drawing of two Snoos depicted to be Ohanian and Williams, with him proposing to her. Awwwww. (Or is that /r/aww?)

Huffman gets into hot water with Donald Trump supporters

In 2016, the New York Times reported that according to employees, Reddit decided to change its algorithm to make it harder for posts from groups like pro–Donald Trump subreddit The_Donald to reach prominence. Later that year, the site banned the potentially libelous /r/pizzagate subreddit.

Reddit and CEO Huffman didn't stop there. In November 2016, he edited the comments of redditors in r/The_Donald who were angry with him, replacing his name with the names of moderators of the pro-Trump sites. This didn't go over well. Huffman told Kara Swisher of Recode.net that this editing was a "prank" done "in the spirit of fun." He shared: "I figured, I'm just going to mess with these bullies, and I have the capability of messing with them, so I'll do so." (Who is the bully here, exactly?) He also claimed, "I wanted to do something. I didn't do the right thing, but that was my mentality."

But not many readers saw much fun in him meddling with people's posts. As one redditor told him: "Now everyone should wonder what other comments you have changed. You've really ruined the credibility of Reddit."

Then in 2017, Reddit redesigned the front page to be what The Verge called "more palatable for first-time users and lurkers who have yet to sign up for an account." In the announcement, the company said that this new page, called "popular," would filter out NSFW subreddits, subreddits that did not want to be in /r/all, and "a handful of subreddits that users consistently filter out of their r/all page." The subreddit that was most notably affected from this change? The one known as /r/The_Donald.

​ What's next for Reddit?

In March 2017, the site announced the ability for users to have public profiles where they could share items and follow other users. Reuters described it as "in line with the model of social networks such as Facebook Inc and Twitter Inc." Previous rules against self-promotion had limited such sharing. "If you yourself are someone who wants to share something, it's pretty daunting," Ohanian said in explaining the change.

The article also noted that Reddit has hired "over 100 new employees" and "has created new teams to fight spam and curb harassment." Unlike what happened to Digg, the new rules have not seemed to made a dent so far in Reddit's popularity.