Beyond the front page of the internet

JAMES MANNING
Last updated 10:56 27/09/2012
Barack Obama
Reddit

EMPOWERING: Even US President Barrack Obama recently took part in an Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit.

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Jake Villanueva from Vancouver, Canada, first posted on online community Reddit about his battle with kidney cancer three months ago.

Within hours, the 23-year-old was flooded with expressions of sympathy and charitable donations. "Stay strong," said one user. "I hope you enjoy your life to the fullest."

Reddit users went on to raise US$30,000 for Jake, as well as offering him accommodation in countries around the world, including Chile and Switzerland.

"I'm crying my eyes out over [your] generosity," wrote Jake. "I think the world's going to be okay as long as there are people like all of you around."

Described as "the front page of the internet", Reddit is a social news and networking site that was created in June 2005 by two University of Virginia graduates.

In 2006, it was bought by Advance Publications, a US media company that counts Vogue, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker among its titles.

Despite the buyout, Reddit (a merger of the words "read" and "edit") remained, for the most part, unchanged as a grassroots, community-run website that is moderated by the crowd, for the crowd.

In spite of the website's simple, text-heavy layout that is somewhat reminiscent of Craigslist, it has grown steadily from having a small cult following to more than 4 million unique monthly visitors viewing approximately 3.5 billion pages.

If these figures didn't speak for themselves, Reddit's status was cemented last month when US President Barrack Obama did an "AMA" ("Ask Me Anything") on the site. After answering questions on subjects as diverse as money, politics and beer, Obama commented that Reddit was "an example of how technology and the internet can empower the sorts of conversations that strengthen our democracy over the long run".

The website has burgeoned into a hub for well-wishers and do-gooders to lend a helping hand.

Users not only post innocuously addictive photos of cats, but also help each other out with anything from learning a new language to helping raise money for charities, including more than US$200,000 for Doctors Without Borders.

The posts, which live on pages called "subreddits" according to their subject, are voted for or against by users, the most popular of which appear on the home page, thus garnering more attention. Users, called "redditors", are overwhelmingly male (87 per cent) according to a demographic survey conducted on the site about its user-base last year.

The survey also found that a whopping 85 per cent of redditors are aged between 18 and 30, with the average age 24.7. Half of the users identified as single, but Reddit won't be used as a dating service any time soon: its ratio of single men to single women is 12 to one.

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While many social media websites are overrun with scathing insults, known as "flaming" and "trolling", Reddit has largely avoided this trend. Dr Christine Satchell, senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, believes that this behaviour is indicative of the merging of our online and real-world identities.

"We often ignore the potential of things that go on online to have an effect on everyday life," she says.

"This is a great example of technology galvanising real-world action for the better."

One story that captured the eyes of click-happy good Samaritans was that of three-year-old Lucas Gonzalez, a toddler with a rare blood disease. His family desperately needed funds for treatment, and within 12 hours of posting the story on Reddit, users had raised a whopping US$31,000 ($29,600). "Thank you all again for your incredible kindness," said Lucas' father. "I can't even begin to convey our gratitude."

Bus monitor Karen Klein, 68, was being viciously verbally abused by teenagers on their way home from school in New York. A YouTube video of the ongoing attacks was posted on Reddit in June this year and soon went viral. In a month, 32,000 people from around the world donated more than US$700,000 ($670,000). It was originally intended to be a holiday fund for Klein, who has since retired and set up the Karen Klein Anti-Bullying Foundation. "Because of my own personal bullying story, I've now decided to become an advocate of change," she says in a video for the foundation.

There is an entire subreddit dedicated to talking to and helping people who may be struggling with suicide. This community, called "r/suicidewatch", has more than 2.2 million subscribers and apparently has been responsible for helping to save many lives. "Reddit saved my life," wrote user DwedPiwateWobberts. "I really didn't want to die. Somehow you all knew that as well. So thank you. I owe my life to everyone who helped."

The company's logo ... the Reddit Alien.

In December last year, a few days before Christmas, one Reddit user single-handedly managed to track down the biological parents of user steezy-wunda-bred, who was adopted, in a matter of hours. He didn't have the money or resources to hire a private investigator, so he posted everything he knew on Reddit, including a photograph he had of his birth parents. "So I'm looking for my birth family after nearly 24 years," he wrote. User syllabell took less than five hours of hardcore Googling to locate his birth parents. (She may have done her job a little too well, uncovering not only his birth sister, but topless photos of her too.)

The list goes on, including raising more than $100,000 for victims of the Haiti earthquake, and buying a hearing aid for a 23-year-old woman who had never before heard in stereo sound. All of these good deeds came about from posts made by redditors either asking for help or simply describing their circumstances. But Reddit also has its own section called Reddit Gifts, which actively organises initiatives such as donating school supplies or giving gifts to troops away at war. In 2011 alone, more than $1 million worth of gifts were exchanged through this part of the website.

A few weeks ago, a "donate" button was introduced on the website, making it easier than ever to give to the cause of your choice. In the past, many users have found it relatively easy to generate interest in causes, but have had difficulty mobilising that interest into donations, due to restrictions and limits on payment processing websites such as Paypal and WePay.

Last Saturday, September 22, was the Reddit Dedicated Day of Service, where people used the site to organise charity initiatives for their communities. Thirty-nine meetups took place around the world, ranging from volunteering at animal shelters to arranging a blood drive.

Of course, with this kind of good will on the anonymous medium of the internet, there is always the potential for fraudulent behaviour. But Dr Satchell believes the open nature of the site and the massive amount of users provides a huge base by which to expose fakes and frauds. "By its very nature it would stop that happening, or limit it," she says. "Reddit's got a better chance of keeping it honest."

However, the site is not completely immune from the nastier side of the net. Unpleasantness still exists on the platform, says Dr Satchell, but dwells largely unnoticed at the bottom of the site, due to the process of users voting up the "good" content and voting down the bad. "Things happen at a lower level, whereas on Twitter it's all on the surface," she says. "It can be pretty brutal, actually, if you go a bit deeper."

Indeed, much darker subjects are explored on subreddits such as "Redditors who have killed (in self-defence or defence of others, in the military) How did that affect you as a person?" and "I am a recently diagnosed psychopath". This is due to the fact that the site is largely unfiltered, being moderated only by the redditors, for the redditors.

In October 2011, site administrators shut down the subreddit "Jailbait", in which users shared photos taken from underage girls' social networks, after one redditor used the section to disseminate child pornography. The section was reinstated a week later, but was eventually permanently closed down. "This subreddit has been shut down due to threatening the structural integrity of the greater Reddit community," reads the page where it used to be located. A subreddit that posted photographs of dead bodies has also been shut down.

Another questionable subreddit, "photobucketplunder", is still in full force. More than 10,000 users subscribe to this section where "n00dz", aka nude photographs (mainly of women), are posted from accounts on the photo-sharing website Photobucket. The accounts are not actually hacked, but "fusking" programs are able to access and distribute the URLs of supposedly private photos uploaded to the site, not meant for public viewing.

There is a related subreddit, called "requestaplunder", where you can ask the so-called "fuskers" for naked photos of specific photobucket users. There is currently a campaign in place seeking to get a similar subreddit, called "CreepShots" removed. The thread has almost 9000 subscribers, viewing candid photos of unsuspecting women, some of whom are underage. One user even claims to be a high school teacher posting photos of his female students. The thread has been attacked by many Reddit users, especially on the subreddit "Feminism". "I feel really disturbed," posted one user. "Does Reddit have no sense of morality?" wrote another.

But good and evil seem to be able to coexist on this conundrum of a site. From cat memes to crowd-funding, if you have a request, chances are you will get what you are looking for on Reddit.

"It's got a very strange, ephemeral nature," says Dr Satchell. "I still don't get it, but I think maybe no one really does."

-Fairfax Australia

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