The General manager of social news site Reddit wants it to become the engine for civic and political action.
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There’s social media, and then there’s Reddit, where users both socialize, edit each another’s work, recommend stories and attempt to uncover government secrets. That has made Reddit the world’s most powerful viral machine, with its featured stories quickly racing up search engine rankings. However, Reddit is potentially dangerous, as when its users identified the wrong suspect after the Boston Marathon bombings. But, argues General Manager Erik Martin, the site encourages civic participation and even helps Generation Y get involved with politics.
Reddit seems like a forum for would-be talking heads with a bit too much time on their hands. What’s Reddit’s main contribution to society?
It’s a place where people can go to talk with people who have similar interests, live in the same neighborhood, work in the same field.
But how does society benefit from people opining on matters online rather than getting together in real life?
There are benefits to society: what we’re seeing a lot is that people make a connection online and then meet offline, or vice-versa. It’s especially valuable in places where it’s hard to congregate to talk about shared interests. If you don’t live in a gigantic city, it will be hard to find people who’re interested in World War I history, a certain type of programming language or music. So, Reddit is a forum for all these people.
Your users are anonymous. Do you know who they are?
Seventy percent of our users come from North America and an even larger percentage from the English-speaking world. They tend to be young and male, and we have a large percentage of users who come from a computer or engineering background. But beyond that, we don’t know a whole lot. We don’t require any information, not even an email address, when people sign up.
Doesn’t that affect the public’s trust in Reddit? If user XYZ has an exposé of government secrets, how can I verify the information?
There are some subjects where that’s the case. But there are some subjects, like sex, religion, politics and mental health, where you really need an anonymous or pseudo-anonymous identity. These are all things that are difficult to talk about when a real name is attached.
WikiLeaks is your comrade-in-arms in your fight for freedom of information and government openness. Given the actions of Julian Assange, is WikiLeaks a good ally?
As a company, we don’t have any allegiance or relationship with WikiLeaks. But the younger generation, especially, wants to see everything, wants to see behind the curtain. Our audience is very interested in WikiLeaks, a small organization that gets a lot of impact by using an open-source collaborative approach, so in that sense we’re close.
Speaking of WikiLeaks, among its recent exposés were emails that showed Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian offering services to Stratfor, an intelligence firm hated by freedom of information activists for its close links to the CIA. Did that not embarrass you? Are users right to be worried that Reddit may not be fully committed to freedom of information?
The fact that WikiLeaks published these emails made it seem somehow dirty, but there’s nothing unseemly about them. We offered to do some basic consulting work for Stratfor, but we never worked with them. And I think our track record, from going open-source to fighting against various laws, speaks for itself.
After the Boston Marathon bombings, Reddit wrongly identified a man as one of the suspects. Are you worried about vigilante policing spreading on Reddit?
Yes. In the Boston case, we already had policies and rules in place, and they were basically followed, but it wasn’t enough. There was so much traffic. The threads you mention were up for an hour, which on a normal Tuesday is OK, but in this situation it caused a lot of pain and confusion, which was not OK.
The best way of preventing it from happening again is for every user of social media – be it Reddit, Twitter or Facebook – to remember that if you mention someone’s name, it’s not the same as if you’re speculating with the person sitting next to you. On the internet, the same conversation can have a vast impact, and we have to figure out how to deal with that.
The amount of time people spend on social media doesn’t seem to square with the nation of the stressed-out modern generation. Do we have too much time on our hands?
I know from anecdotal evidence that a lot of the time people spend on Reddit is time not spent watching TV. In general I think that’s a good trend. People participating in something, even if it’s just uploading or downloading or posting comments, means they’re having more control than when they’re just watching a show.
Can that translate into civic engagement – a solution to disillusionment with politics?
I think it can, especially when you look at the longer-term impact. We have a generation now that has grown up expecting to be able to make their opinion known. I hope they don’t lose that once they get older and start buying houses and having families.
This, I think, will lead to more people who haven’t traditionally been involved in politics getting involved in it. There are whole subreddits (online communities) designed to help people figure out how to run for office. If I wanted to run for something in New York State, I’d have no idea how to do it. It’s very confusing if you’re not in that world. Getting more programmers, teachers and artists into politics would be very good, and I think Reddit can be part of that process.
How would you rather spend an evening: hanging out with friends or uncovering government secrets on Reddit?
I’d much rather spend an evening hanging out with friends.
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