What is Reddit?

Reddit (often stylized with a lowercase “r” on the site) may be referred to as a “social news site” (Potts and Harrison, 2013, p. 143), a “social link” site, or a “news-sharing” site (Massanari, 2015, p. 3), but it has also been called a social aggregator or a social bookmarking site. Adrienne Massanari (2015) noted that it “is not, strictly speaking, a social networking site” because of the lack of public and clearly defined connections between users (p. 6). Reddit does, however, share many features in common with social networking sites and may appear similar to these sites to some users. Describing what reddit is and how it functions can be somewhat confusing. In certain ways, it is very similar to message boards from the early days of the internet, but instead of text posts, the content is focused on links, images, and videos. Early in the days of reddit, all posts were links to other sites: news stories, images hosted elsewhere, and other interesting content found on the Web. Over time, reddit also began to allow “self posts,” that is, content that does not link to an outside source. These were initially only text posts: questions for the community, text-based stories, and so on. Recently, reddit has also begun hosting media content as well: users can post images, GIFs, and videos directly to the site instead of linking to other sites.

Image of Upvoting on Reddit, showing action figures waving at a toy store
Figure 1: Upvoting in Context

Once a post has been made on reddit, other users “upvote” or “downvote” the post (Figure 1). An upvote indicates that the user likes the content or at least thinks it is worth other users seeing it. A downvote means that the user does not like the content or does not think it is worth seeing. Some subreddits may disable the downvote feature to encourage more positive interactions. Rebecca Tarsa (2015) noted that even in the subreddits where the downvote is enabled that “there’s a lot more ‘upvoting’ than down” (p. 23).

Posts get a score based on their total upvotes minus their total downvotes. For example, if a post were to get 12 upvotes and 4 downvotes, it would have a score of 8. The scores update continuously as more upvotes and downvotes come in. Each user can vote only once on each post but can change from upvote to downvote and vice versa. The posts with the highest score go to the top of the page but move down from the top position as time goes on. For example, if two posts both have a score of 8, but one was posted 30 minutes ago and the other was posted 60 minutes ago, the more recent post would be higher on the page. This means that new content cycles to the top continuously. For a post to stay at the top of a subreddit, it would need to have an ever-higher score.

Users can also comment on posts in order to add to the discussion about the topic. Scoring for comments works the same way as scoring for posts: comments are upvoted and downvoted, and the comments with the highest score are at the top by default. Users can change how comments are sorted if they prefer, however: for example, they may choose to put “new” posts first or to sort by “controversial,” which puts posts at the top that have a high number of both upvotes and downvotes.

Reddit interfaces

Reddit has three primary ways of being viewed: The “old” interface, which is the one that's been the view for most of reddit's history and is still the primary view for many users (Figure 2); The “new” interface, which has been rolling out over the past year and is the current default interface for new users (Figure 3); and the mobile interface for cell phones and tablets, which resembles the new interface (Figure 4).

Reddit's Old Interface
Figure 2: Reddit's "Old" Interface
Reddit's New Interface
Figure 3: Reddit's "New" Interface
Reddit's Mobile Interface
Figure 4: Reddit's Mobile Interface

What is a subreddit?

Image of Default Subreddits
Figure 5: Default subreddits, such as news, sports, and gaming

A subreddit is a community within reddit with a focus on a specific topic or kind of content. There are subreddits for Harry Potter fan fiction, do-it-yourself home improvement, pictures of puppies, and about anything a person can think of (Figure 5). In total, according to Reddit Metrics, there are currently over 1.2 million active subreddits (Reddit Metrics, 2018). Each subreddit was made by a reddit user, and reddit users moderate all of the subreddits. Because reddit users control content through upvotes and downvotes and because moderation is done by users, reddit tends to have a bottom-up structure where the discourse is controlled “through communal agreement rather than from upon high” (Vie, Balzhiser, & Ralston, 2018).

Image of Rules for Pics Subreddit
Figure 6: Rules for R/Pics

When a user creates an account, she is promoted to subscribe to several “default” subreddits. Which subreddits are defaults and how many there are changes over time. As of the summer of 2019 there were 49, which ranged in subject from jokes to news to sports. Users can choose to subscribe to the default subreddits or choose not to. They can also subscribe to any other subreddits they prefer. There is no upper limit to how many subreddits can be subscribed to.

Each subreddit has individual content and rules (Figure 6). For example, some subreddits allow only text posts, while others allow only images. Many subreddits ban things like hate speech, nudity, and violence, but these are by no means banned on all subreddits. How strictly rules are enforced also varies by subreddit: many have very strict policies that may get posts removed or users banned from the subreddit. There are relatively few rules that apply to all subreddits, but they do exist. These rules are called “reddiquette” and include things such as not releasing personal information of other users and not engaging in illegal activity.

Reddit is only subreddits. When a user creates an account, their main page shows content from the subreddits they are subscribed to and nothing else. If they were to unsubscribe from all of their subreddits, the page would show no content. Because reddit only shows users the content they subscribe to, it is more effective when it is personalized. If users take the time to subscribe to subreddits they enjoy, it makes the experience much better for them.

How can people find subreddits?

To have a good experience on reddit, users should subscribe to subreddits they enjoy and remove subreddits they do not. Reddit user Dakota, one of the interviewees from Massanari’s (2015) study, stated that “once you curate your subreddits to your liking, almost all of the content is directly appealing to you” (p. 9). Finding new subreddits can be overwhelming because there are so many, but here are a few general tips. One method is to simply try to add “r/” and the content the users is trying to find to the end of the reddit URL. For example, the Harry Potter subreddit is located at https://www.reddit.com/r/harrypotter/. This can be tedious and time consuming, however, and users often create subreddits with jokes in the title. When the subreddit “marijuana” was banned, a user created the subreddit “r/trees” to focus on marijuana. Because “r/trees” was taken, a user who wanted to post about trees created the subreddit “r/marjiuanaenthusists” instead: in other words, “r/trees” focuses on marijuana, and “r/marijuanaentusists” focuses on trees. Because of things like this, just adding “r/” and the desired content is not the most reliable way to find subreddits.

A more reliable method is for users to look in the sidebar of subreddits they enjoy. For example, I enjoy the subreddit “r/happy.” In the sidebar of that subreddit, users will find links to “r/GetMotivated,” “r/LifeGoals,” “r/GoodFeelings,” and “r/wholesomememes.” It is also possible to search using the reddit search feature, but this feature is generally poor at returning good results. Users are often better off going to a search engine and typing “reddit” plus the content they would like to find. For example, the first result when I search “reddit Harry Potter” is the main Harry Potter subreddit. Of course, there is also a list of subreddits on the main reddit page, but the sheer number of them makes this list hard to navigate.

Warning!

Reddit is both a wonderful and a terrible place. Experienced reddit users will already know what I mean when I say this. Reddit is occasionally in the news because of hate-filled or disturbing context. Subreddits such as r/incels, r/jailbait, and r/fatpeoplehate became national news stories because of the content they produced. The site has a history of supporting these types of “toxic technocultures” (Massanari, 2017, p. 329). While these three subreddits above have been banned from reddit, new communities pop up daily. This means that many toxic, offensive, or hateful subreddits still exist. While these are easy to avoid, users should use caution when searching for subreddits: it is possible to see hate, nudity, violence, and other objectional content on reddit. Users can filter content to remove "not safe for work" (NSFW) content such as pornography or extreme violence, but even this will not catch every instance of these posts; posts that are text only but use offensive, violent, or hate-filled language will not be removed. The best method to avoid this type of content is to carefully select subreddits that outright ban these posts—which many subreddits do.

A good start

In order to start new users off on the best possible foot, here are a list of 10 subreddits where the likelihood of objectional content is very low:

And here are five more that are just weird fun:

Reddit Walkthrough

This video is a walkthrough of the main features of Reddit. A transcript of this video is available here.