Reddit is the Mos Eisley spaceport of the Internet—a hive of scum and villainy that can carry you to the stars if you ask around in the right places. While the site was originally developed to facilitate social bookmarking, it is most interesting today for the conversations that unfold in the comment threads of its almost uncountable subreddit communities. Content—racist diatribes, clever quips, and everything in between—from those threads frequently finds its way onto other websites, but when it does, the link back to Reddit is often broken. That’s about to change, and the site’s users should be worried.
In a recent blog post, Reddit administrator Tiffany Dohzen announced that comments posted to the site would now be embeddable. This means that it will be easier than ever to display the wit, wisdom, and wretchedness of its core users elsewhere on the Internet. As with Twitter embedding before, it also means that the visual style of Reddit will bleed out onto other websites, helping to develop the site’s branding.
Many commenters quickly jumped on this new feature’s potential for trolling, suggesting that it would be possible to edit a comment after it was linked to make those who cited it look bad. Others quickly chimed in to point out that Reddit’s developers had included a feature that would allow you to hide a comment if anything about it changed, an option I have selected here:
More troublingly, for the site, this feature may make it easier for critics to demonstrate the worst that it has to offer. Where Gawker and other sites tended to screencap or summarize the vitriol of some Reddit users in the past, they’ll now be able to more directly stage display the site’s ugliest elements in a way visually and technically linked to its corporate brand. Reddit’s much discussed racism and misogyny may become more visible than ever in the coming months.
If comment embedding is risky for Reddit, it also promises rewards. Reddit comments—especially those derived from its joke threads, its explainers, and its other, more approachable segments—have long been appropriated by sites like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post where they are often used without attribution. Reddit’s administrators claim that their new embedding feature was meant to fight back against content theft. Dan McComas, an admin who posts on the site as kickme444, writes in the comment below, “This is something we will be spending a lot of time on this year, making sure you all get the attribution you deserve. It's pretty frustrating to see your content on the homepage of buzzfeed every day.” And others, such as site co-founder Alexis Ohanian, likewise insist that this change is about “making sure you all get the credit you deserve.”
These assertions play into a corporate myth that Reddit has carefully calculated over the years, one of deep intimacy with its users. Its administrators often make themselves available for questioning, producing the appearance of trustworthy accessibility. We’re not regular tech administrators, they seem to be saying. We’re cool tech administrators!
More tellingly, they almost always address their users in the familiar second person, employing a vocabulary that suggests partnership and equity. McComas, for example, speaks of “your content,” while Dohzen explains that this change will make it easier “showcase reddit comments on your website or blog” (emphasis added). This language suggests that Reddit’s main interest is in keeping everything in the family, making life easier for a close circle of friends.
In practice, however, these changes probably have less to do with protecting a tight-knit community than they do with expanding that community while making more money. When other sites draw from Reddit without linking back to it, it’s harder for Reddit to pull in new users. Though some commenters on Dohzen’s blog post optimistically suggested that these changes would spell doom for BuzzFeed and Gawker, the truth is probably that Reddit is hoping to enter into a more symbiotic relationship with its erstwhile competitors.
Perhaps more importantly, Reddit’s own policies conflict with the language of ownership employed by its administrators. At present, users will receive no notification when their comments appear elsewhere on the Internet.
What’s more, users of public subreddits cannot opt out of comment embedding, meaning that “your content” can be used without your permission. As one commenter pointed out, this is woven into Reddit’s own user agreement, which grants the site “a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, unrestricted, worldwide license” to do almost anything they want with material posted to the site.
Reddit wants its users to think that they’re special, that they’re part of the team. Ultimately, however, they’re no different from users of Facebook or Twitter: They are the commodity. Their bon mots, their discoveries, even their outbursts are all marketable. The trouble is that sites like BuzzFeed have done a better job of selling that product than Reddit itself. By convincing other sites to embed comments instead of merely appropriating them, Reddit hopes to regain control of their most valuable product.