How Reddit Went From a Second-Tier Aggregator to the Web’s Unstoppable Force

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Jan. 19 2012 6:32 PM

The Great and Powerful Reddit

How the site went from a second-tier aggregator to the Web’s unstoppable force.

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That the Occupy movement and SOPA got Redditors riled up isn’t surprising. OWS’ simple, us-vs.-them message jibed with Redditors’ underdog sympathies, while the piracy bills confirmed the site’s suspicion that nobody in government nobody in government understands the Internet. During OWS, Reddit became the source of the movement’s enduring memes, including the Casually Pepper Spray Everything Cop. It was an online counterpart to Zuccotti Park—a place where people who had no real-life connection to the movement could add their virtual support.

When the piracy bills sparked outrage, Redditors joined together to lash out at everyone on the other side of the issue. They sponsored fundraisers for political opponents of SOPA and PIPA, they led a boycott against GoDaddy (the domain name company that was forced to drop its support of the legislation), and they pushed for the world’s largest sites to go dark this week. Today Redditors are reveling in their victory: The site is overrun by news that scores of lawmakers who supported the piracy laws have backed away, and the site’s denizens are now contemplating ways to push legislation that will guarantee their online freedoms. I don’t know if their new push will go anywhere, but I like that they’re trying. And we should all be thankful that Reddit helped save the Internet from some of the worst tech-related pieces of legislation that Congress has ever considered.

A few weeks ago Gawker’s Adrian Chen—the Web’s closest follower of Reddit, and its most punishing critic—argued that “Reddit has gone mad with power,” and that its chaotic hive mentality can’t sustain long-term political action. “The thinking of the Internet hive mind is shallow and frantic, scrambling from one outrage to the next,” he argued.

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It’s true, as Chen points out, that the Reddit hive isn’t always a force for good. For example, the site has long been plagued by an awful section called “Jailbait,” which collects pictures of scantily clad young girls; when administrators shut it down last fall, users quickly resurrected it. Last year, one Redditor got it into his head that a woman who was raising money for kids with cancer was actually a scammer; the hive made her life hell for a few days, even though she was telling the truth.

Still, I suspect Chen misses the point about Reddit-born activism. Reddit isn’t meant to inspire sustained political participation; the hive mind is frenetic, and I’m sure it will soon tire of SOPA and move on to something else. Reddit’s powers can sometimes be terribly misused, and sometimes it’s a force for good. Question its might at your peril.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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