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The top-scoring link of all time on the social news website Reddit is a post that users were never meant to see at all. It is titled, “test post please ignore,” but almost 27,000 Redditors found it so amusing that they voted it up.
That is testament to the website’s impassioned community—and their brand of dry, often geeky humor (the site’s logo is an alien, after all). But Reddit’s user base, which a recent PBS documentary pegged as 72 percent male, has wide-ranging interests. Other top posts include a link to a news item about the elderly volunteering to clean up nuclear waste in Japan following the 2011 tsunami, and a question-and-answer session with the famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Reddit is one of the country’s most highly trafficked websites, but its general manager, Erik Martin, keeps a remarkably low profile. Most Redditors know the 33-year-old Martin solely by his username: HueyPriest.
“Part of that’s just me, but part of it is like, we never wanted Reddit to be about the people who work there,” said Martin from the second floor of a San Francisco café that was swiftly inching toward sweltering in the late April heat. Dressed in a plaid button-down and jeans, with dark circles forming beneath his eyes, he looked every bit the startup ingenue. “We don’t want it to be this cult of personality thing that I think some sites get turned into.”
Owned by Advance Publications, Reddit is not a publisher but a platform that allows users to share links, stories and multimedia. Often referred to as the “front page of the Internet,” it is notorious for inside jokes. While cartoon rage comics, for instance, may have originated on the ever-more-offensive 4chan message boards, they certainly reached their apex on Reddit. Users also can create their own “subreddits”—or sections—based on any topic of their choosing, and volunteers with no formal association to Reddit moderate them. Democratization is inherently woven into the site’s functionality: users vote posts up or down at their pleasure. The more votes a post gets, the better chance it has of making it to the “front page,” where the most readers will see it.
And an eye-popping number of users do see it: The site averages 2.5 billion pageviews a month. With user statistics like that, and an especially loyal following, detractors have derided it as a “hive mind,” but that doesn’t fully account for the complexity and generosity of the community. A few months ago, the site hosted a poignant question-and-answer session with a survivor of Norway’s Utoya massacre, for example, and there are countless threads that help collect donations for the community’s sick or needy members.
“‘Hive mind’ is often used pejoratively, and I definitely understand what people are referring to, but I think the idea of a hive mind works pretty well for bees,” offered Martin, when asked about Reddit’s “upvote now-assess later” tendencies. For bees, he explained, a hive mind means that it takes a democratic consensus to make an important decision, like where to construct a new hive.
“[The hive mind] is a very fast, sort of reactionary thing, and that has bad results sometimes, results where people are not as skeptical as maybe they should be. You need to make sure enough bees are going to double-check the new location. You need a bunch of bees going like, ‘You are right, that is a pretty great new home, it has a tire swing.’’’
A little history: In 2005, the site’s young co-founders, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, were accepted by the startup incubator Y Combinator for its first-ever round. A year later, in a push to expand its online brand, Condé Nast acquired Reddit for between $10 million and $20 million. At the time, Reddit averaged just 70,000 unique daily visitors.
After the sale, Condé worked feverishly to fold Reddit into its stable of well-established print brands, like Vogue and Wired. “We thought of Reddit, [technology blog] Ars Technica and Wired as what Condé Nast deemed the ‘innovation group,’’’ said Jena Donlin, who runs business operations for Reddit and still works out of the Condé Nast office in Times Square.
Martin, who had majored in American Studies at Tulane and worked in the documentary film industry, served as the site’s community manager at the time, a role that he said entailed “answering user questions, dealing with spam and finding cool things in the community to promote.”
By all accounts, Martin also played a significant role in ushering in a successful transition from an independently run website to a division of a major publishing conglomerate. What made the job even harder was that Reddit’s approach to publishing exemplified the democratizing influence of the web, which at that very moment was violently destabilizing the whole we-speak-you-listen model that Condé Nast, with its pantheon of all-powerful editors, had long since mastered.
As Reddit’s user base continued to grow following the acquisition, the tension between the democratized user-generated site and its ancient publishing parent became more pronounced. Reddit does not offer traditional advertising, so its primary stream of revenue came in the form of Reddit Gold, a paid premium membership subscription, as well as what Martin called “self-serve ads for mom-and-pop shops” and carefully selected marketing partnerships.
The site, which boasts a barebones user interface that harkens back to the halcyon days of ’90s Usenet groups, has always shunned traditional advertising, a stance that even a cash-starved, ad-hungry Condé Nast couldn’t change. Monetizing Reddit is something Condé Nast “has still not been able to figure out,” Ohanian said in a 2010 episode of Big Think (bigthink.com), adding, “Reddit has a fantastic audience ... How do we advertise to them in a way that isn’t screwing them as a user and at the same time providing enough value to an advertiser to want to do it?’
But in August 2010, an advertising controversy erupted between the stodgy parent company and its willful child. The activist group Just Say Now wanted to host self-serve ads on Reddit in support of the proposed California marijuana legalization law Prop 19, but Condé Nast refused. The Reddit team responded by agreeing to host Just Say Now’s ads on their site for free, a move that was still technically within the bounds of the parent company’s rules, but made a strong point.
Reddit’s traffic continued to explode, and in early 2011, the site was getting upward of two billion pageviews a month. Condé Nast wasn’t equipped to handle the technological and cultural challenges that came with that kind of traffic. And the tensions between the little-website-that-could and its old-school parent company were starting to take their toll. “In the spring of 2011, we had one programmer and two system administrators and me,” Martin explained. “It was kind of a rough time, and I was like, ‘If Reddit needs me to move out to San Francisco, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever Reddit needs. I can’t let this fail.’’’
Martin agreed to move to San Francisco at the behest of Condé, and took on the general manager role. He began to grow the team, hiring a handful of programmers to administer the site. Finally, in September 2011, the company spun Reddit out of the Condé Nast family into its own standalone subsidiary, while still retaining ownership.
“We don’t want to get in users’ way,” Donlin explained. “We want to serve what the community is already doing. Condé Nast understood that, and it’s why we’re independent. They understood that we needed to be able to do that in order to grow. And they realized in the current structure of Condé Nast, it wasn’t as easy to [grow] because there wasn’t a precedent that was set. We’re more bottom up whereas Condé is more top down.”
Martin agreed. “The process didn’t allow for [what Reddit needed], that was the main tension. [Condé’s] process is set up for sales cycles that take longer and there’s more sort of time for that kind of vetting and decision-making. But most of the Condé brands have more people on the sales side than we have total employees.”
Reddit hired its first-ever CEO in March 2012, an ex-Pay Pal and Facebook engineer named Yishan Wong. Now, Reddit is a subsidiary of Advance, separate from Condé, and reports to a board populated with executives from both Condé and Advance, along with Ohanian. “We’ve been working with Advance Publications to complete [R]eddit’s spinoff,” Wong wrote in a triumphant blog post on Reddit, “[including] a revamped capital structure that will allow Reddit to manage its own finances and operations.”
“The way that the site works,” said Kevin Morris, a staff writer at the Daily Dot, in a recent PBS segment about Reddit, “[is that] it tends to attract people who want to know the truth.” In January 2012, the Reddit community’s large-scale vocalization of their opposition to SOPA and PIPA, coupled with support from equally passionate communities on Tumblr and Wikipedia, eventually persuaded lawmakers to table the legislation. Reddit, an online community that had only been around for six years, had successfully helped to defeat the American government.
In April 2012, much to his surprise, Martin was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. For the event, Martin donned a tuxedo for only the second time ever—the first being a friend’s wedding—and completed the outfit with a shiny pair of Reddit cuff links.
“It was very surreal,” he confided a few weeks after the event. “I’ve never been to something like that. I got to meet Ralph Nader, who is adorable. He asked about Reddit and I explained it to him, but I don’t know if I was successful.”
Martin is unfailingly humble about his contributions to Reddit. “Any credit I would get,” he said, “would be for not fucking it up.”
“At Reddit, he doesn’t say, ‘Hey, check me out,’’’ explained Nils Olsen, an old friend of Martin’s. “He says, ‘Hey, check you out.’”
“He can be very humble,” agreed Donlin. “That humbleness has also been what’s made him so successful.”
Martin will be moving back to New York in July to focus on the business and media aspects of the site and to run the New York office.
As for that Time 100 award, it doesn’t appear to have gone to his head.
“Ralph Nader went to give me his business card and he said, ‘Well, I kind of ran out of my current cards, but I grabbed this stack of cards from the 1970s.’ All it had was a P.O. box. It didn’t have a phone number, so he scribbled it on the back,” he said.
“I was like aaahhhh, I am framing this! It was amazing.”
That sounded like an upvote.
First published in The New York Observer.