In July 2015 a user revolt nearly sank the company. Now there are new users, new execs, new apps, and hope.
Follow-Up Friday is our attempt to put the news into context. Once a week, we’ll call out a recent headline, provide an update, and explain why it matters.
JULY 10, 2015
A year ago,Reddit had a very bad week. A group of the most popular of Reddit’s fed-up volunteer moderators, or “mods,” took their chat threads private, making vast portions of the site disappear. In trying to talk with the moderators, cofounder Alexis Ohanian, who had returned to the company full-time a few months earlier, made things worse. Interim CEO Ellen Pao announced she was leaving. And on that Friday, July 10, Reddit cofounder Steve Huffman returned to the company as CEO.
(A quick disclaimer: Backchannel is owned by Condé Nast, which is owned by Advance Publications, the majority shareholder of Reddit. Condé CEO Bob Sauerberg is on the board.)
Reddit is a giant collectionof message boards edited by volunteer mods. Beyond being a large social network, it is significant for what it represents: Huffman started it in 2005 with his college buddy, Ohanian, as a front door to the world wide web. It was intended to reflect the democratic principles of the original web; anyone could say anything.
But a decade later, it had become a platform for racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic and other hateful conversations. Inside the company, the code was old and the employees were burned out. And mods didn’t have the tools they felt they needed to moderate their threads effectively. So when a popular employee who’d been a liaison between the mods and the company was fired unexpectedly, a group of moderators for the site’s most popular chatboards switched their sections, or “subreddits,” to “private,” which meant those sections effectively went dark. (For a deeper look, check out the feature I wrote for WIRED last fall.)
Fixing Reddit fell to Huffman. It was a gargantuan task. The company was low on tech know-how: it had one iOS engineer, one Android engineer, and one-and-a-half mobile web engineers. The company’s newly hired engineering chief quit days later.
ONE YEAR LATER
Things are looking up at Reddit.The company has grown to 243 million visitors a month from 164 million a year ago, while attempting to curb the trolls. It has also doubled in size to 150 employees from 75 last summer, expanding to fill up two floors of its downtown San Francisco headquarters.
To address the company’s myriad issues, Huffman concentrated his efforts on building technical talent at the team and restoring its relationships with its moderators. He made a slew of important hires this year, starting with a head of engineering, Marty Weiner, who joined from Pinterest. He also brought in two heads of product: Kavin Stewart, and Alex Le. Stewart had run product earlier for failed homecleaning startup Homejoy and Le had cofounded the journaling app Hey. And to work with publishers more closely, he brought on Mark Luckie, who had managed news and journalism at Twitter.
In April, the company finally launched Android and iOs apps. Now, more than half of the site’s users access it on mobile devices. In an email exchange, Huffman told me he thinks the company has “a lot of low-hanging fruit on the product side, and a huge opportunity to make Reddit more accessible by engaging non-Redditors on the platform.”
In an attempt to quell hate speech — and clean up the site so advertisers will want to advertise on it — Reddit has improved its feature to block users. Last summer, Huffman introduced a quarantine for offensive content, making it more difficult for people to find. Huffman said it’s “not a perfect solution, but is effective because it requires users to actively opt in with email — it impacts behavior without impacting speech.” And it recently introduced a new photo uploading tool that gives it more power to identify and remove offensive or illegal photos.
As a result, there are signs that some advertisers are embracing Reddit , and the company plans to introduce new analytic and measurement tools for advertisers later in the year. The company is not yet profitable, but after raising $50 million in 2014, it still has time to prove its business.
If Huffman succeeds in transforming Reddit into a growing business that’s also a platform for anyone to say anything safely, he will have proven that the early ideals of the web can still exist. On the other hand, in trying to ensure Reddit is both free of hateful speech and safe for the advertisers that will make it into a sustainable business, Huffman may discover it will need the same takedown tools that Facebook and Twitter deploy. In other words, it will become just another social network.