The death of the last comment section on the internet

When Reddit decides to monetize

Vicki’s note: This is a post by request from Rian, who runs the Elezea newsletter, which you should definitely check out. As always, please send me requests and juicy tech company tips. :)

Early last week, I was looking around for parenting advice, as I usually am at 3 in the morning these days. More specifically, I was looking for a way to make my older kid go to bed earlier so my husband and I can have ten minutes of peace between when she goes to sleep and the baby wakes up.  

If you Google anything related to childcare advice, you’ll get a lot of commercial sites that pay childless copywriters to research online for five minutes and write filler content that optimizes for SEO ranking. Or you’ll find communities like The Bump, which used to be an amazing place to find moms asking for and giving advice. But, as of a couple years ago, it’s now hyperfocused on monetization, which means the forums and community features are much harder to find and search through. 

My new go-to communities are now the beyondthebump and parenting subreddits, which are full of people who are just as sleepless and miserable as I am. And the most important thing is that they are all kind, semi-anonymous, and leave long, detailed notes about what they’ve done, what works for them, and what doesn’t. It’s the best to be able to commiserate with them, learn from them, and to not be constantly beset by advertising. 

I found out from the parenting subreddits that what I needed was to buy my toddler a special sleep clock that would help her figure out when to go to bed. Fingers crossed; it’s coming soon from Amazon (with its requisite kipple.)

That subreddits are useful might come as a surprise to anyone who reads online news casually. Reddit is usually portrayed in the popular tech press as the last bastion of radicals, red pillers, and generally the very worst of anonymous internet society, where perverts roam the land: 

Judging from his internet footprint, Brutsch, 49, has a lot to sweat over. If you are capable of being offended, Brutsch has almost certainly done something that would offend you, then did his best to rub your face in it. His specialty is distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit.

It’s so interesting and sad to me to read articles like these because I don’t recognize them as my Reddit at all. My Reddit – full of subreddits of helpful, funny, and interesting people – is exactly what’s missing from the rest of the internet in my opinion.  

In a post about Reddit in 2015, I wrote, 

Its mostly text-only format, no-nonsense posts, puns and humor abounding in the comments, and often generosity to complete strangers was a welcome relief from the shimmering sheen of the post-Facebook and Twitter socialized, “CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE”, Buzzfeed-ized version of the monetized internet that I have come to hate.

Some of my absolute favorite subreddits (in alphabetical order) include:

And many, many more. It’s hard to find this type of content online anymore - meaty, deep content that doesn’t live in Twitter threads or on hyperbolic articles. And, just as importantly, content that’s dissaociated from people’s real online identities.

As I wrote in my piece on Reddit: 

Because no real names are required, people are free to share all kinds of information. I’ve learned about everything from other women’s experiences with pregnancy, to the worst IT environments to work in, to the best books, to what a normal day in Russia is like, to what people looked like in 1914, to how to manage my finances, to what’s going on in my city, to why certain languages work the way they do, to reading actual professors write about history.

But Reddit, like the remnants of the old internet, is dying. Why? 

The first reason is that good things don’t scale. As social media platforms have become larger and larger and need to maximize returns on VC investments, they become blander. In order to appeal to more people, you need to be as unoffensive as possible, something Facebook and its issues with content moderation has been finding out painfully for a bunch of years now. How does someone from one cultural background decide what is offensive for the whole world? How do you moderate something but not censor it? It’s a very hard issue, which is why the best groups and social networks are small and self-moderating. 

Second, good content requires good moderation, which is an unpaid skill of emotional labor that’s not valued by the marketplace. Most good subreddits are run by moderators that perform thankless labors, and incur their own emotional costs in the process. The best moderators also know about their subject area. For example, to be a moderator in r/science,

you have to hold a Bachelor's of Science degree. "Then we'll check and make sure they aren't a troll," Crocker explained. 

A large-scale company conscientiously trying to pay all these people would, ostensibly, go bankrupt. Or, as is the case with Stack Overflow, who is also on the monetization bandwagon after recently hiring a CEO with a background in management consulting, get in a huge fight with moderators.

Finally, aside from moderation, it’s really hard to monetize the best parts of the internet because they don’t involve outrage and clickbait. They involve complicated discussions that people have to think about. Or, they’re weird and niche, and advertisers don’t want any part of that.  For example, how do you monetize a discussion on couplets in Paradise Lost?

Reddit particularly has struggled with this problem the whole time it’s been around, for precisely these reasons.

The Reddit ethos is inherently anonymous, cynical, and anti-censorship, which makes it anti-advertising: 

Unfortunately for the website, selling advertisements poses two major problems. Since Reddit is built by and valued on the strength of its users, excessive advertising could lead to further censorship and drive community members to seek alternatives. In fact, on multiple occasions, user protests have occurred in the wake of attempts to institute changes that would pave the path to monetization

Secondly, in an effort to keep the community happy and anonymous, Reddit does not require email addresses for account registration and does not track users’ personal data. Without obtaining more targeted data about its users and the high CPM revenue that flash and pop-up ads command, Reddit will not be able to increase its advertising revenue without upsetting their users. 

Reddit is really trying though, most recently with New Reddit. New Reddit is a site redesign it rolled out this spring. New Reddit prioritizes visual content, removes the trademark wall of text that makes Reddit so valuable, and, ironically, takes much, much longer to load. 

The idea behind new Reddit was that the Reddit c-suite wanted it to be much more welcoming to new users - aka, generic, bland, and Facebook-like: 

The team's efforts mark the first visual refresh of Reddit in over a decade. Steve Huffman, Reddit's cofounder and CEO, signaled the need for a tidying-up in a post last year. "Many of us evangelize Reddit and tell people how awesome it is, what an impact it's made in their life, how much it makes them laugh, etc, and then when those new people decide to check out Reddit for the first time they're greeted with dystopian Craigslist," Huffman wrote. "We'd like to fix that."

The Normcore translation for this is that Reddit needs more money, quickly, and the redesign is the way to attract digital advertisers.

New Reddit looks just like New Facebook, New Twitter, and every other consolidating site that’s figured out how to monetize eyeballs in 2019.  New Reddit also sucks, and is terribly slow

I've seen some posts stating that the new Reddit "feels" slow, but I thought I'd try quantifying it for myself. It's true, the new Reddit is twice as slow as the old version.

If I pop open the Inspector and look at the first GET request, old Reddit takes just under 1 second, whereas the new Reddit takes about 2 seconds. Just for the root page. This is compounded by the fact that the new Reddit downloads a lot more content after the initial load, which can cause a single page load to take upwards of 10 seconds in total. In contrast, a full page load takes 3-4 seconds with old.reddit.com.

As I’ve written, users always hate site redesigns but site redesigns, like Twitter’s recently, will make a ton of money because the site redesigns are for advertisers:

In this context, it’s not surprising that the new site redesign features sections that are clearly paths to get people to click on trending content, hashtags, and other pathways that are easier to measure for advertising purposes. The enormous pictures and video expansions that make it impossible to read more than 2-3 tweets at a time are to spur user engagement, which is always higher on visual media than plain text (From Vicki: I’ve found this to be true in my own experience of creating mediocre data science memes as well.)

Alas, new Reddit is going to make Reddit a TON of money, because advertisers will be able to understand it better and show more ads.

To see evidence of Reddit’s pinning everything on the future of the redesign, just look at who announced it The VP of Ads.  When a company tells you who they are, believe them. Who Reddit used to be was a site for The People. Who Reddit is now is a company desperately trying to make money to stay afloat and grasping at any straws it can find. 

I said as early as 2015 that Reddit was dying, and it still is, now even more quickly than ever.

But, until it goes away entirely, you’ll still find me, at 3 am, on the beyondthebump parent subreddit, cherishing the little community that’s left on the internet in 2019. 

Art: Death of Fedor Chizhov, Ilya Repin, 1877

What I’m reading lately

  1. Thanks to Dan for sending me the link to this Substack, which discusses the issue I wrote about last week of keeping/deleting data.

  2. Imgur readers are also fed up with ads. The meme hosting company has had to change its policy.

  3. This machine learning community scandal would make a good….music video.

  4. Consulting company tries to be cool.

  5. This report on TV tracking

  6. RIP Madpreduce, the Hadoop engine:


About the Author and Newsletter

I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. This newsletter is about tech and everything around tech that I don’t see covered in the mainstream tech press. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a newborn, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.

If you like this newsletter, forward it to friends!