Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Reddit Dead Redemption

Is Reddit dying - or just dead?

Recently, there has been a lot of hoopla over the "social media" site Reddit and its efforts to monetize API's and the subsequent "strike" by volunteer moderators.  All this on the eve of a proposed IPO and, well, you can sort of suss out where it is going.

What the hell is Reddit?  It is sort of a mix between social media and a discussion group.  Originally, people posted links to articles they read online, hence the name Reddit, as in, I read it.  But over time, it morphed into something not quite like usergroups or 4chan - and not like Facebook or Twitter.  Rather, it has become a site of sites - different "subreddits" with discussion groups for various topics, from online games to offline games to femboy porn to gun fetishes to anime fetishes and other earth-shattering stuff you no doubt want to read every day.

They also have a subreddit for "news" which is somewhat useful in that it sort of provides a synopsis of breaking news stories.  The Achilles heel of the site is that every posting is upvoted and downvoted by users, so popular dreck floats to the top of the septic tank, and stuff maybe that isn't popular but should be read sinks to the bottom.

The site is anonymous, which is to say, you can make up a user name and post nasty things and in most cases, it can't be traced back to you.  So, people post nasty things - it is the inevitable consequence of online postings, even when your real name is used.  When anonymous?  All hell breaks loose!

The site is also prone to bots and brigading - where people use 'bot accounts to massively upvote postings and make them show up on the first page.  During the 2016 election, they used this technique to push Trump SPAM to the front page every day.  If you were from another planet and looked only at Reddit, you might think that Donald Trump was the smartest guy on the planet, and that the three most popular sports on planet Earth were gaming, Formula 1 racing, and mixed-martial-arts.  It is hardly a cross-section of America or the world.

To counteract the bots and SPAM, as well as doxxing, swatting, and just general nastiness - and keep it from turning into 4chan, they instituted a moderation system.  Prior to that, Reddit - which was owned by Conde Naste (New Yorker) had "subreddits" with titles such as "Watching [Black People] Die" - except they didn't use the term "Black People."  Yea, it was 4chan back then.  Free Speech!  Right?  Yuk.

So they "hired" these moderators who were unpaid, but could ban people from a subreddit for bad behavior, as well as delete postings and whatnot.  They also deleted several subreddits that were racist or advocated violence or showed gore or were just bot farms for Donald Trump.   This improved the site much, but some argue that it is now leaning far to the Left these days - or is that just a reflection of the world, once you remove Vladmir Putin's bots and trolls?

So what's the big deal?  Well, like most social media sites (e.g., Twitter) it isn't making any money, or if it is, not enough to justify a decent share price - and they want to do an IPO and cash out.  They were allowing "third party apps" to access the site through an API - Application Programming Interface - to download millions of postings per day and then present them through their own third party app.

What's the problem with that? Well, Reddit makes money from advertisements and also subliminal promotions posing as postings from users.  The third party apps stripped the ads from the downloaded content and then presented the excised content to their own users, and inserting their own advertisements they were paid for.  I mean, what's not to like for Reddit?

I noted before that Cable Companies have to pay retransmission rights to networks that transmit over-the-air signals. In the early days of cable, this was not the case, and networks, if anything, were happy their signals were getting to a larger audience, which increased their ad rates.  But over time, the networks realized that they were often the reason people got cable TV to begin with (particularly Fox viewers) so they demanded fees for carrying their channels - and got them.  Not insubstantial fees, either!

Now imagine a Cable Company saying to Fox News, "We're not going to pay you anything for retransmission rights to our content!  Moreover, we're going to take your content, remove the ads and insert ads of our own!  How do you think that would play with Mr. Murdoch?  Lawsuits would result - and the Cable Companies would lose, too - the issue was long-ago decided.

So Reddit proposed charging these third-party apps a substantial fee ($20M per month) which was more than the app developers were making.  What that meant was, the third-party apps would have to shut down and have already done so. In response, the "moderators" of several subreddits have "gone on strike" and are no longer allowing anything to be posted on their subreddits.  Of course, this is only effective until they are removed as moderators, which Reddit hasn't done yet, but will probably do in the near future.

All of this, of course, is casting a shadow over the IPO as negative publicity is never good, and it calls into question the profitability of the site as a whole.

But I think there are other systemic problems with the site which may kill it off over time.  Like I said, the term Reddit meant "I read it" and was accompanied by a link to an article and this in turn generated discussion.  Over time, however, the "articles" became more and more links to YouTube, Twitter, Tick-Tock, Facebook, and other social media sites and fewer and fewer real articles - and the few that remained were behind paywalls.

Worse yet, many postings had no link to an article at all, but instead devolved into comment-bait, as I discussed before.  People would post long-winded stories about injustices that occurred to them and ask "Am I the asshole here?" which would generate a lot of comments - engagement - even through the long-winded story was probably made up. Lately, it seems these stories are generated by ChatGTP.

People post stories about "malicious compliance" or how they rage-quit or how their boss is an ass, or wedding fiascoes or how men are harassing them - or whatever.  That part of the site has become more and more like Dear Abby than "I read it" and increasingly, I suspect these stories are created by paid employees of Reddit to generate "content" and create "engagement" - which is what investors like to see in a website of any sort.

Still other postings are just garbage - stupid "memes" or just off the wall comments and youth slang. One common "engagement" tactic is to post something like, "What was your favorite television show from the 1990's?" - it is pure comment-bait! Not "I read it" but rather just a discussion group.  Why would I log on to read some anonymous comment about someone's favorite television show?  It isn't really informative, just an invitation to create content and generate engagement.

And the comments section?  Often just the same five people talking to each other and finishing each others' sentences.  Any posting about Hitler, for example, will have the witty retort, "I did Nazi that coming!" follow by a dozen more of the same old groan-inducing puns.  Maybe funny the first time, but after the 1000th repetition, well, boring.  And some of the comments are worse that the comment section on YouTube - even with "moderation."

Why do people do this?  Karma.  Reddit awards "Karma" points for every posting you make, and in many subreddits, you cannot post until you have so many "Karma" points.  Supposedly, if you get enough Karma, your posts become more and more visible, and you can sell your username and password to 3rd parties, who will then use this "reach" to post subliminal ads on the site.  Or you can get paid to insert postings subliminally promoting a product, like Fallout 4.

I am not sure this is true or not, but users like "Beerbellybegone" are on the site every day and their postings are always floating to the top of the Reddit septic tank.  Is this even one guy?  Who knows? Who cares?

And maybe that is the point behind this whole "API" controversy at Reddit, which apparently has involved John Oliver of all people (who I assume would not consent to his content being accessed, stripped of ads, and rebroadcast for profit by a third party).  Maybe we are being trolled here, to raise awareness of the site before the IPO drops.  After all, if everyone is talking about it, it must be important!

And here I go and add to the problem by writing about it.

These sort of sites have a story arc - they start out as obscure websites and hardly anyone visits them.  Then, word-of-mouth spreads, it becomes hip with the kids, and it gains traction.  Older people log on, after reading an article about it in the paper - either talking about increasing use of the site, or some controversy about it.  There is no such thing as bad publicity on the Internet.   Then it gets SPAMed to death and the site owners struggle to deal with that, which costs money as you have to basically hire people to read every entry and decide whether it violates the rules or not.   Eventually, the owners of the site want to cash out and either sell to some conglomerate that basically ruins it, or they do an IPO and have to monetize the shit out of the site in order to justify the stock price.

Meanwhile, your audience has moved on to the next bright shiny object on the Internet - and there are a host of bright shiny objects out there, too.

I liked the comics subreddit, but it had its issues as well.  Since what you see is based on "votes" an unpopular but decent comic strip might never appear on the site.  Like most of the online world, misogyny abounds, so comics by women are downvoted (unless they are "hot") because you know, women are incapable of being funny.  Incels strike again.  More and more comic artists will move their strips to other sites, such as Instagram, GoComics, or their own website, where they can control content, comments, and advertising revenue.  They may use Reddit to drive users to their own site, but often, they find their own content in the trash bin of downvoted oblivion.  As a result, you see the same three comics always at the top of the page - not necessarily the three best comics, either.  Bad taste or bots at work?  Hard to say.

Sounds like time for the next bright shiny thing!