Reddit Is Not the Front Page of the Internet
Reddit is not "the front page of the Internet," as its slogan proclaims. The site is a massive generator of web traffic but, in demographic terms, Reddit might more aptly be called the front page of a very specific Internet, a mostly young and mostly male Internet.
That's not to dismiss its worth tout court—young guys are just as entitled to their corner of the Internet as anyone else—but, in the wake of embattled ex-CEO Ellen Pao's sudden resignation Friday night, there seems to be some confusion about what, exactly, Reddit is.
In The New York Times report on Pao's exit, Reddit is described as a "community ... made up of more than 160 million regular users who use the site to talk about anything from current events to viral cat photos."
Time introduced Reddit as "a popular online message board," a statement as nondescript as it is understated.
NPR simply noted the number of monthly users without bothering to ask who these users are—demographic data that is readily available to anyone who can use a search engine, let alone a journalist.
Whether Ellen Pao was a potentially effective CEO stymied by Reddit opposition or an already ineffective CEO thrown into a viper pit will be a subject of hot debate—as it has always been, and especially so now that she has resigned. But as that conversation continues, one important fact is bound to get buried if we continue to describe Reddit primarily by making breathless references to its gargantuan footprint: Reddit is huge, sure, but it's not synonymous with the Internet.
In a TIME profile that printed just this week, Alexis Ohanian doubled down on the idea that Reddit's community is a stand-in for a vocal Internet census.
“Reddit reflects the Internet, and the Internet reflects humanity,” he said. “Unfortunately, humanity is always going to have jerks.”
Reddit is not so much the generic front page of the Internet as it is its spacious, tricked-out man cave: a lot of people can fit inside, but only some people feel comfortable hanging out there.
Let there be no doubt: as far as basements go, Reddit is a big one. Analytics website Alexa ranks it as the tenth most trafficked website in the United States. Still, it's worth noting that social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube all rank higher than Reddit in terms of traffic, although Reddit derives its true clout from the traffic it generates for other sites through referrals and link aggregation.
But Reddit became a web destination and a traffic powerhouse by virtue of the clicking, viewing, and typing habits of a relatively narrow subsection of Internet users. Seventy-four percent of Reddit users are men, the highest of any social networking website. Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube all come much closer to gender parity. Describing Reddit without making reference to its gender asymmetry is akin to reporting on Pinterest, which is 72 percent female, without noting that the site caters to women.
And, indeed, when The New York Times reviewed Pinterest in 2012, they rightly referred to it as "female-oriented," but when the CEO of a 74 percent male social network resigns after facing intense criticism from its users—much of it laced with misogyny—they somehow forget to label Reddit, in turn, as "male-oriented." Reddit too often passes in the media as unmarked and neutral territory while sites like Pinterest get pigeonholed as girly.
Reddit is also one of the most youthful social networks, with nearly 60 percent of its visitors coming in under age 34. For comparison, over 60 percent of Facebook users are above age 34. Increasingly, younger Internet users seem to perceive Facebook as a network for grandmas but, in 2015, grandmas are as vital a part of the Internet as anyone else—even if they'd never be caught dead on its supposed "front page." Only two percent of people over 50 use Reddit.
When we dial back the reverence with which we regard Reddit's visitor numbers, it's clear that the site is not at all representative of adult Internet users in the United States. According to data from Pew, a mere six percent of online adults in the U.S. are Reddit users, and even then, this statistic is driven by young men, who are three times as likely to frequent the site as young women. By way of contrast, Pew found that 71 percent of online adults use Facebook, 23 percent use Twitter, and 28 percent use the female-oriented Pinterest.
Pew data also paints a much more diverse picture of the overall population of social media users in the U.S. The data shows virtually equal gender representation overall, with 65 percent of online adults age 50 to 64 and nearly half of adults 65 and over participating in one network or another. Social media is no longer a young person's game, as your grandpa's incomprehensible Facebook updates can attest.
With this demographic data in hand, Reddit shows itself as a traffic juggernaut that competes with more widely-populated social networks. In fact, Reddit is punching so well above its weight that it has apparently tricked us into believing that it is the very essence of the Internet—its GIF-hungry, cat-loving, video-sharing soul.
But Reddit is not an unmodified "popular online message board" so much as it is an online message board that is intensely popular among young men. It has 160 million monthly users, sure, but nearly 120 million of them are men and only about 3 million of them were alive when the Beatles played Shea stadium.
It would be impossible to deny some sort of connection between the demographics of Reddit's narrow but vocal online user base and the tumultuousness of Pao's tenure. When Pao and her team removed several of Reddit's most vile subreddits (such as /r/fatpeoplehate) and fired popular staffer Victoria Taylor, the Reddit community retaliated with a level of vitriol that was clearly gendered in its expression. Particularly disgusting memes of Pao often made their way to the Reddit homepage.
But it's also true that Pao had a vision for Reddit that was incompatible with its very identity, one that likely could never be executed. When she and her team announced the removal of certain subreddits, they wrote, “Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform.”
Reaching the 94 percent of online adults who don't use Reddit makes sense as a business strategy, but the Reddit community doesn't seem to be as invested in boosting its numbers as it does in maintaining an absolute freedom of expression. And when a tiny sliver of online adults can make Reddit into the tenth most popular website in the country, Reddit users are keenly aware—as the recent blackout of some of its most popular subreddits proved—of precisely how much power they wield.
Still, it's worth remembering that the current drama surrounding Pao's resignation, no matter how much bandwidth it consumes in the coming days and weeks, no matter how many articles it spawns—this one included—primarily concerns a narrow, if particularly engaged, slice of the Internet.
Treating Reddit as the Internet's public piazza without acknowledging the specific contours of its community sends the outdated message that the Internet is for young men only.
Reddit isn't the front door to the rest of the Internet. It's a basement with a built-in bar. That's not always a bad thing in and of itself—but, with Pao out, it's time to finally see past its size.