How reddit became reddit - the biggest smallest community online

Before I begin, let me reiterate that I left reddit over a year ago. Steve departed to enjoy married life (then to start hipmunk with Adam Goldstein, which I joined a week before launch) and I to Armenia to volunteer as a Kiva fellow. Since cutting the dead weight, the site has catupulted to a top 100 website and most recently broke 1,000,000,000 monthly pageviews.

Steve Huffman & I started reddit in a rented apartment in Medford, MA. The two of us spent about a month sketching, debating, and finally building the first version of reddit, which went online June 23, 2005. (I'm really happy I took all these screencaptures.) For the first few weeks after launching, aside from a few friends we begged into submitting to the site, most of the submitters were just me or Steve with different usernames. Our first breakthrough came a few weeks in when either Steve nor I had to do any submitting, we just used the site like any other redditor. It was fabulous; maybe we weren't wasting our time.

We never expected our alien spawn to grow into the titan it's become today (as the site's tagline now aptly reads: "the voice of the Internet - news before it happens") but looking back on it, I've got some ideas about why it happened:

  • Better software
    I wish more people would listen to me when I suggest copying the reddit "hotness" algorithim & commenting system. We're open-source after all. Over five years after Steve first built a front page where links are constantly rising and falling based on essentially their upvotes minus downvotes over time, it's indisputably the most efficient way for good content to race to the top and continue to get attention if it deserves it.

    This has the benefit of nurturing discussions for longer, which are on a comments page sorted in a similar manner. There's a reason reddit comments generally don't suck; commenters operate in a system that quickly promotes the good and hides the bad. It rewards good commenters and punishes bad ones -- I wish more sites copied it.

    update: A redditor named Uncoolio brought up a good point in the reddit comments (go figure) about this article: having self-posts, which let redditors 'submit' a comments page and basically generate content within the site instead of linking somewhere else. They now account for over 1/3 of all submissions the last time I heard.

  • Empowered users
    The entire spirit of 'social news' came from an idea that the front page of the web would be curated by the readers, not editors (see how I came up with "redditors"?). Over the past half decade, nearly every product decision we made was framed by what was best for our users (try putting a crappy user experience in front of Steve Huffman and see how long it takes until he starts cursing). When it was time to write an ettiquette guide, I jotted down a few obvious-seeming rules and we put it up on a wiki for all to edit, which the community did with gusto. Now they're canon.

    Product-wise, what won the day for reddit was user-created reddits. The more tools we gave to users, the more they impressed us (partially why I reasoned turning away from a user-centric model would turn out so poorly). It was a gradual process though, as it took a good year of house ad promotion and cultivation to finally take off (I can't tell you how many /r/gaming ads & submissions I made to get us to critical mass). But when they did, the exceded all expectations.

    Nearly all of our best and most original communities on reddit are entirely redditor-created and -run. /r/IAmA is an endless treasure trove of fabulous content being created within reddit. When we started, publishers were thrilled to see reddit in their referral logs - now they're thrilled to see our content so they can use it on their own websites. Any clever blogger needs only read the reddit about their field to know what they should be writing about (or linking to).


  • Nurtured community
    I've yet to encounter a site as large as reddit that has comparable strength of community. Admittedly, 4chan would be the closest, but there's a very different, err, culture, there. This is the question I'm asked the most and yet have the worst answer to: "What did you do to build such a strong community on reddit?" My crappy answer is simple, at least: we gave a damn.

    What else is a non-technical co-founder supposed to do? Aside from ordering the pizza and all the tedious tasks of managing a business, I lived in gmail or on reddit (remember, this is before twitter) doing whatever I could to learn from and interact with redditors in everything from feedback email to comments.

    Whether it's redrawing our logo hundreds of different waysreaching out for a partnership with DirectRelief.org for a fundraiser for Haiti, or buying a crowbar, spraypaint (to paint it the correct red & silver) and headcrab hat to send to a physicist at CERN who looks like Gordon Freeman, I was all too happy to do it.

    It didn't take the hivemind very long to realize that we weren't even necessary for spontaneous events small and huge -- see the almost $600,000 reddit raised for DonorsChoose to catch the attention of Stephen Colbert and generate a tsunami of buzz around the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Management is just around to keep the lights on, make sure everyone is having a good time, and keep the spammers out.

    If users see how much the staff cares, they'll care too. This especially mattered when someone didn't have a great experience. A free shirt, stickers, poster, or postcard signed by the team pays dividends far bigger than their cost and some postage. People are generally so abused by companies that it doesn't take much to exceed expectations.

And just think, while reading this entry, another redditor has created another reddit that could be the next thing hundreds of thousands of people are spending their workday reading and participating in. I'm extremely proud of the team Steve & I built at reddit, but we're not that smart and even if we were, there aren't enough hours in the day for a team of geeks in an office to produce the kind of innovation produced by the hivemind.

Good luck, online community builders! It's been an incredibly rewarding and humbling experience, absolutely worth the time and energy. Granted, this is all basically from one datapoint, but I'm trying to recreate the same thing with breadpig and hipmunk, neither of which are community-driven sites, so let's check back in 5 years and see if the guidelines applied :)

Sewermutt on reddit correctly pointed out I got my headline backwards. I've flipped "smallest biggest" so it makes more sense. Thanks!