May 22, 2024

Reddit, please don’t become like Facebook, I beg you

Reddit, the so-called “frontpage of the Internet,” just got a fresh injection of cold, hard cash, having raised $200 million from a consortium of top-tier investors. The site, which is now valued at an astonishing $1.8 billion, intends to pursue new avenues for growth, including a venture into user-uploaded video, and a fresh redesign.

It could certainly use a lick of fresh paint. Reddit looks today much like it did ten years ago. Speaking to Recode, the company’s CEO Steve Huffman said Reddit suffers from “perception debt,” and “Reddit feels old. We don’t want to be associated with old.”

That’s certainly true, as seen by huge amount of third-party Reddit applications for Android, iOS, and Windows, as well as the ubiquitous Reddit Enhancement Suite.

Recode got a sneak-preview of an early version of the new design for Reddit. They described it as looking “similar to Facebook’s News Feed or Twitter’s Timeline: A never-ending feed of content broken up into “cards” with more visuals to lure people into the conversations hidden underneath.”

This could be awesome, or it could be really crap.

Let’s start with some optimism. Reddit’s long ceased to be a newsroom for nerds (that mantle has since been claimed by Hacker News). Most of the top boards now have a general appeal, and are fundamentally visual — think /r/funny, /r/videos, /r/aww (my favorite), and /r/earthporn.

But the current design does a major disservice to this type of content. Pictures and videos are resigned to a thumbnail the size of a postage stamp, so you don’t really get a feel for what the thing you’re clicking on is, before you click it.

If the redesign does a better job of showcasing this content, awesome. And it stands to reason that a fresh redesign could help broaden Reddit’s appeal.

I’m also pretty enticed by the idea of a “never-ending feed of content.” Reddit, like Wikipedia, has a weird quality where you fall down a rabbit hole, spending hours and hours scrolling and clicking, until you realize that it’s 4AM and you ought to go to bed. With that in mind, AJAXifying the homepage with some kind of endless scroll would be pretty neat.

And now, it’s time for a bucket of ice-cold water over your head, because if Reddit becomes yet-another Facebook clone, it’s suck more than Digg v4 did.

A huge part of Reddit is text-based content. Subreddits like /r/ProRevenge and /r/TIFU are hugely popular, and they’re literally just people telling stories. If the redesign relegates these posts to a second-class status, it’d be a real shame.

Reddit plans to double-down on geo-specific views of the site, where visitors see a curated frontpage specifically chosen for their region. It’s good to see Reddit become less US-specific, but I do worry about the prospect of filter bubbles — and I’m not alone.

And while the Recode post didn’t mention it, I’d be very wary of Reddit trying to emphasize the social aspect of the service. Reddit isn’t really a place where people interact with a close group of friends, or make meaningful connections — although there certainly subreddits where that happens. Rather, it’s one big group conversation, and its denizens are all ships in the night.

If the site suddenly started emphasizing the friends-list aspect of the site, or god-forbid, introduced pokes and waves, there’d be an exodus of users not seen since… well… Digg v4.

My concerns are probably groundless. For starters, investors don’t typically give away huge amounts of cash to create derivative versions of other sites (although that’s not always true). And it seems like the Reddit leadership are eager to pave their own distinct path. In a Reddit thread, Huffman said that the profile will be about content sharing over community.

“The main goal of profile pages is to give folks a place to host their content, not to build a social network. While the feature is far from complete—it’ll be much more cohesive in a couple months—you won’t be required to share your identity, have friends, etc.”

But you can forgive my anxiety. Like so many people, Reddit has been my home online for several years, and it’d be a shame to see it lose what makes it so unique, and so special. I guess we’ll all find out in October, when the company starts to gradually roll out the new redesign.

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