Reddit has long maintained a veneer of scrappiness that’s confused the media outlets that cover it. In part, that’s the result of its rough, kluged-together style, consisting primarily of text and miniscule thumbnail images.1 Over the last decade or so, the online flowering of professional visual design has caused a minor revolution on the Web, but Reddit has stubbornly lagged behind, adhering to an aesthetic distinguished not so much by simplicity—after all, flat, minimal design is in vogue on far more stylish sites—as by an almost willful naivety.2 That’s lulled many reporters into covering Reddit as though it were still a social news dark horse, rather than one of the 150 most popular sites in the world, hosting tens of millions of unique visitors each month.
Whether or not that makes it “the front page of the internet,” as the site’s slogan proclaims, is up for debate. It’s a premise that might have held true in the site’s early days, when the majority of its user-submitted links led offsite, but any expectation that Reddit will reflect what’s happening on the Internet in general has steadily faded as its popularity has grown. News, gossip, and buzz about the new hot thing still surface, but are able to claim less and less real estate on the site’s most visible and coveted soapbox, the front page. As a measure of what the rest of the Web is talking about, today’s Reddit is hampered by its appeal as a kind of open mic.
Thus, what you’re likely to find when you visit the site for the first time is a cascade of jpegs, most of them either uploaded (first to imgur, Reddit’s image host of choice) or modified by Redditors themselves, or “self posts” in the form of user-written text. One of the most popular forms of the latter is the “AMA“—short for “Ask Me Anything”—which the site uses to crowd-source interviews. AMAs started out as a way for users to talk to one another about their own diverse experiences, but has, over the last few years, concentrated increasingly on celebrities willing to interact with the hoi polloi in order to promote their projects or enhance their brands.
In that regard, AMAs are indicative of the direction Reddit as a whole has taken. The new game is not to sort through the best of what the Internet has to offer, but rather to move what you yourself have to offer up to the top of the sort. Manage that, and “you win one free internet,” as the old saw goes. That joke used to be funny because it was nonsense. In light of the sheer volume of attention Reddit commands, it no longer sounds quite so absurd.
Yesterday, new evidence surfaced to suggest that the site’s administrators are comfortable with its shift away from a formerly curatorial role. The source is none other than Yishan Wong, Reddit’s CEO since March of last year, who left a comment in the site’s de facto policy think tank, Theory of Reddit. There, Wong floated the idea of providing a mechanism to optionally authenticate accounts by linking them to the user’s real name by way of their social media profiles.
“The benefit is authentication,” he wrote.
That is, in certain contexts it is useful to a user to be able to say “I claim so-and-so, and my name is Yishan Wong.” Being able to verifiably establish one’s identity allows one to make certain statements of meaning – for example, if you are whistleblowing or sharing certain insights, you may not have credibility if you are anonymous but if you can verify your identity, it means something.
Among other things, that would streamline the process of verifying the identities of celebrities for AMAs, which can apparently be a time-consuming hassle for the subreddit’s moderators.
In fact, Wong’s proposal doesn’t seem to lend any utility to activities that aren’t directly related to self-promotion. A user who simply wanted to share a link that they’ve found doesn’t have much use for authentication. When the content isn’t yours, putting your real name on it does nothing to enhance its value.
The broader effect of adding social media authentication, then, would be to make Reddit even more appealing as a platform for drawing attention to oneself. That can be a goal unto itself, and there’s no lack for people linking to pictures of themselves for the sheer exhibitionist thrill of being seen, but it’s also useful for people and companies that have projects to promote, brands to extend, products to sell, or politics to disseminate.
There’s a decided hypothetical slant to Wong’s comment, so it may never come to fruition. He’s clearly floating it to see what sort of response it elicits—not a bad strategy, since the Reddit community is famously jealous in defending its anonymity.3 At the very least, though, it shows that the site’s CEO is not merely acquiescent in Reddit’s transformation into an open mic format, but actively looking for ways to help it along.