This week I resolved to get to know Reddit.
The ginormous social forum made headlines over the summer when President Obama answered questions live on the site, then again earlier this month when Gawker revealed the identity of one of Reddit’s biggest trolls, a guy who went by the name of Violentacrez.
A Sunday New York Times piece that looked at the dark side of the site in light of that ouster compared Reddit, and other sites like it, to cities.
That’s when I realized — to get to know this place as a visitor, I need to take a tour.
I asked around to see if any Seattle Redditors could serve as guides, and longtime Redditors Tim Tan (4 years on Reddit), Courtney von Nieda (4 years on Reddit) and Shannon Edris (1+ year on Reddit) stepped up, sending me their take on what to see — and what to avoid — to know what all the fuss is about.
The result? I’m officially a Reddit fan. Here’s how I got there …
First stop: reddit.com. First impression: Plain. It reminds me of Craigslist in its functional simplicity. I looked around. Headlines from its vast interest communities, known as subreddits, ran down the page.
The Reddit alien smiled from his perch on the upper left. My eye caught the word “controversial” on a tab along the top and I realized I had my biases. I expected a cooler-than-you insider clique to haze the newbie.
Next, I signed up. Differently. I’m moniguzman everywhere, but Shannon convinced me to follow her lead and pick a new name and roam free. So I did. And no, I won’t tell you what it is. “Pinky promise I’m not a Reddit troll,” Shannon wrote. I guess I’ll pinky promise the same.
Signing in to Reddit subscribes you to the site’s hottest content, but also its craziest, Courtney told me. “They hand you a map. Throw it out. You are not ready for this world.”
She directed me instead to r/TodayILearned (that’s subreddit shorthand, by the way; the actual URL is reddit.com/r/TodayILearned) and said it would blow my mind.
Touching down, I saw this splashed across the top of the page: “For the love of all that is holy, PLEASE read the rules in the sidebar before posting.”
Wait — rules?
“Each subreddit has their own rules built over the top of site wide reddiquette,” Courtney said. “Read them and follow them.”
Here are some: Submissions must be verifiable and specific. The headline must start with TIL (Today I Learned). Moderators will delete anything political. You must include a supporting source.
I glanced at the top voted headlines. “TIL that if North Koreans used their largest nuclear bomb on the Empire State Building, it wouldn’t even reach Central Park,” read one. “TIL that in Lassie, Timmy never actually falls in a well,” read another. Ha! Really?
Call it newbie Reddit revelation no. 1: Reddit has rules that work.
Except, of course, when they don’t. “Politics & Atheism are two of the largest [subreddits], and unfortunately, if you hang out to long in either one of these, you’ll end up passed out in a gutter, missing your faith in humanity, and your wallet,” Shannon warned. But I couldn’t resist. I walked in to the infamous, 1,287,166 member r/atheism. The comments on the second link mentioned bananas and bottoms and made no sense. I walked right back out.
I’d had enough with the tourist traps. Like a sophisticated traveler, I’d asked my guides where the locals go. Shannon and Tim plugged r/iama. The gist: People with interesting backgrounds prove their claims to fame and offer themselves up for questioning. For example: “I am a man who has owned slaves at a time in his life.” “I am an albino.” “I am 34 years old and was circumcised yesterday.”
“You never know what to expect,” Tim said.
Next, I headed for a delicious sounding spot both Courtney and Tim brought up, r/Random_Acts_Of_Pizza. “Go check it out. One of the most fascinating online ecosystems you’ll ever see,” Tim said.
Once I got there, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. “Feel like giving a random redditor a free pizza, but don’t know how or who? Well this is the right place for you!” the subreddit reads. Posts tagged as “offers” and “requests” filled the page, some simple, some elaborate. This couldn’t be real. I dug deeper and waited for the punchline. It didn’t come.
Perfect strangers online are actually giving each other free pizza.
That’s newbie Reddit revelation no. 2: Reddit surprises you with kindness.
Feeling upbeat, I made a turn for what Courtney described as a nice neighborhood —r/TwoXChromosomes, a forum for women. I read the rules, read a couple items, liked them. It was there that I left my first comment and posted my first Reddit post. It would get 30+ thoughtful comments and make me feel fantastic.
I wanted more.
Tim pointed out the “Random” subreddit button on the top left. I gave it a spin. First stop was r/DJs. Then r/itookapicture. Then r/futurology, with its cosmic header and visionary tone.. My guides weren’t kidding. Each subreddit really does have its own personality.
“In order to get the most out of Reddit, you have to ask yourself some questions,” Shannon said. “What do you enjoy talking about and learning about? Odds are very good that there’s a subreddit for that.”
She checks in at r/fitness and r/nutrition. I found r/BreakingBad, r/dreams, r/scifi and even r/serendipity, a “meta-subreddit” that reposts a popular post from another popular subreddit every few hours.
Which leads me to Reddit revelation no. 3: Reddit is what you make it.
I ended my tour at a place where Tim and Courtney hang out — r/seattle. It was a mix of news, observations and questions. Someone posted the Fry from Futurama image meme with the caption, “Not sure if clouds … or mountains.” A man from Houston wanted to know where the good photo booths are in the city. Then this: “I just went to my first Sounders game and it was f****** awesome.”
So was my first trip to Reddit.
It won’t be the last.
A big big thanks to Shannon, Tim and Courtney for helping me get to know the site! Here are a few more of their tips, for anyone else who wants to take a tour …
Think of Reddit like a sprawling metropolis. A Manhattan-esque city, with boroughs that reach far out into the internet space. Actually, maybe it’s more like Paris, where you love the city, but aren’t so sure about the locals. In the center, you have your tourist traps, the places so busy and noisy that, if that were the only place you went, you’d wonder WHY people bother with this place. But as you get more comfortable with exploring, you begin to find far flung niches with interesting cafes of knowledge you can’t imagine not knowing.
If you enjoy learning new things, r/AskScience and r/AskHistorians are two wonderful places where the jokes and the memes aren’t allowed and honest, intelligent answers are the norm.
Like most cities, Reddit is what you make of it, it can be big, and intimidating and daunting, and not worth the trouble. Or, you make it your own, tailor it to your interests and find a sub-city within the city. You only get out what you put in, so pull up a chair, come up with a clever user name and get to work.
The way I see it: If Reddit is a city, each subreddit is a neighborhood. Within subreddits are posts, which I’d say are city blocks, and comments, which I’d say are buildings (sub-comments are rooms inside?). It’s easy to get lost and can be intimidating if you’re new, but there are (usually) plenty of helpful locals to point you in the right direction.
My personal impression of Reddit is that the primary demographic (and thus tone) comes from 20-30 year old liberal atheist video gaming web-saavy men. If you make a spelling or grammar mistake, IT WILL BE CALLED OUT. Redditors can be quite the spelling/grammar nazis. Redditors also have a pretty good sense for BS, so the #1 tip is to be as authentic/genuine as you can when you’re a new member.
As far as where to avoid, I would say these are mainly the places where those weak in the stomach SHOULD NOT visit. These typically include the subreddits populated by NSFW (not safe for work) red-flagged links. If it’s not porn or r/gonewild, it’s likely a NSFL (not safe for life). I would link you to examples but you might never talk to me again…
It can get tricky to remember how to act in each area but the rules keep the place in order. There’s a lot of inside jokes, stick around awhile and learn them. If you really want to be loved buy them a pizza on r/Random_Acts_Of_Pizza
So /r/ruralporn isn’t porn. /r/gonewild is. You’ve got to be careful with that distinction, especially if you’re visiting from work. Stay away from /r/aww if you ever want to get any work done. You’re going to need a thick skin if you want to jump into the /r/politics discussions with abandon. And whatever you do never ever ever go to /r/spacedicks. (I really mean this.)
Reddit is something different based on the experience you choose to create there. Choose your own adventure. Too many people have discounted Reddit based on the actions of a few bad neighborhoods, but there’s too much good going on in the other neighborhoods to skip Reddit as a whole.
Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist, freelance journalist and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.
Photo by Canadian Pacific, via Flickr.