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The Problems with Reddit et Al

Somebody else seems to have noticed the recent decline in the quality of the stories on Reddit and most of the comments offer the same varying opinions, i.e. “no, it’s you and your fault” through to the more thought-provoking psychoanalytical stuff you’d expect from the intelligentsia.

Although Reddit may have changed, all sites suffer from the same problem — they’re a reflection of their readership. The New York Times could see a lot more copies if they dumbed it down and stopped writing all of those in-depth articles with long words. Just as I’m sure the BBC could become more like Digg if it stopped paying attention to its journalistic sensibilities.

However, it seems to me that Reddit and others are suffering from the same problem newspapers have suffered from for years. Thirty years ago in the UK I delivered newspapers every morning for 3½ years so I was surprised by the changes I noticed in my bag over that time from the traditional rivalry between The Mirror and The Sun and the rise of the Daily Mail. It was only a few days ago I was reading the Daily Mail online and surprised by the content, it now seemed to be chasing the same lower class market, i.e. filled with celebrity gossip and full of sensationalized rubbish — and then I realized I was getting old.

Years ago, kids adored MySpace and turned it into online hell. It’s still true today but now they’re moving to Facebook but they’re slowly taking over that space too. I’m just pleased that they can’t create their migraine inducing web designs on that forum.

The problem is the algorithm behind the site. Reddit’s simplistic algorithm can be overcome, just as easily as Digg’s or Slashdot’s. Therefore, when the majority of the readership changes, the site changes. I’m sure the audience numbers for Reddit has increased though and the former readers will just have to move on.

Reddit serves a single audience just as Digg does and Slashdot. A single snapshot of popular news will always show what’s valuable to most people. The majority of people in the world are not intelligent and are not interested in long articles. They want soundbites, celebrity gossip and fluff.

Some people watch CNN, some watch Fox News. Reddit may have changed and no longer serves the people it used to, myself included, but we’ll move on and find something else. If Reddit wants to pursue greater visitor numbers, it will go the same way as Digg. Otherwise it will need to change the algorithm.

Having operated some large web sites in the past I’ve always been interested in karma systems and I don’t think there is a perfect solution in their current guise. What we need from a karma system is a way of grouping like-minded people together. We need an algorithm that can identify traits, group them together as virtual friends and then make recommendations on your group.

For example, if I upvote a story and somebody else upvotes the same story then we have something in common. If we upvote the same stories time and time again, it would be reasonable to assume that our interests were the same. Therefore, if an algorithm could identify the 50 people that voted the most like me they’d essentially have a dataset that they could then use for predictive selection. If the majority of ‘my’ group liked a particular story the algorithm should then suggest the story for me.

This would mean that every person would then get a personal set of stories for them, based on their own peer group and past history. The algorithm isn’t difficult as I did it once before for a movie review project. Only then could a site cater to all sectors of the market and the intelligentsia can stop complaining that the dumb people are spoiling their site. Essentially, you split the site. Alternatively, you simply have multiple sites that cater to different groups. Digg has their fanbase, Reddit has theirs, 4Chan theirs and SonOfReddit will have theirs.

I usually pickup my news from Reddit via PopURLs so all I see is the RSS feed of the top news. I have noticed the plethora of AskReddit questions and I’ve been surprised by the voting on my submissions. Genuinely useful links posted and downvoted immediately. Comments that I thought would have been fluff at the worst were downvoted. There is an undercurrent of behaviour going on that I find difficult to comprehend. Personally, I only downvote offensive or time-wasting comments and submissions. Anything middle-of-the-road is left as-is and I upvote the interesting stuff. I get the impression that a lot of Redditors downvote anything unless it’s interesting or supports their own agenda.

Nonetheless I find it interesting to stand on the sidelines and watch the train wreck slowly happen. I just wish Thomas would swap Reddit for something else on PopURLs because I miss my list of interesting stories. Maybe I do need to check out MetaFilter more.

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