In the opening moments of 2015, prodigal Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian shared his renewed vision for the so-called front page of the Internet with Inc.com. “The Future of Reddit is Media,” the headline read, sparking considerable industry fanfare. The 32-year old entrepreneur strategically paired the announcement with the launch of Reddit’s first podcast, a bold step in the direction of original content for a company that has always relied on its user base for these duties. Reddit was on the move.
Unfortunately, Ohanian’s ambitions were put on the back burner for the better part of the year as the company dealt with the fallout of ex-staffer Victoria Taylor’s controversial pink slip. When the dust of the Reddit Revolt had settled, CEO Ellen Pao was out, and Steve Huffman was back in. Reddit was back on track, the founding team promised in the platform’s most well-received announcement to date. It would only be a few months before Alexis revealed the keystone of Reddit’s media efforts.
It was a news website called Upvoted.
The launch couldn’t have come at a more important time for the company. Reddit was in dire need of some positive press coverage, and interest in its podcast had already grown stagnant (it spent only 18 days on the American iTunes charts, and listeners haven’t heard a new episode in a month and a half). Upvoted’s mission is simple — put Reddit’s best stories in front of new audiences, fill in all the details, and hat tip the users who brought them to life in the first place.
Immediate reactions from Redditors harbored a mix of confusion and skepticism. Users sparred with Ohanian in the announcement’s official thread, questioning the goals and motives of the Reddit top brass. But as Alexis explained to Bloomberg, Upvoted wasn’t built for Redditors. It was built for everyone else — the 2 in 3 American internet users that don’t visit Reddit, but consume its content every day in other ways.
He’s talking about articles and listicles from aggregators like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, who owe much of their growth to content-rich communities like Reddit. But Ohanian isn’t condemning them. He just believes Reddit (and by extension its users) deserves a piece of the multi-billion dollar pie viral media publishers have baked. Redditors don’t disagree. They understand the need for the platform to monetize, and would be ecstatic to see a solution that doesn’t affect the front page itself.
The problem with Upvoted
The content just isn’t that interesting. To illustrate, let’s consider a recent piece that had all the markings of a viral homerun — Darth Jar Jar. It all started with a crazed fan theory a Redditor submitted to /r/StarWars on October 30. In his post, user Lumpawarroo proposed that Jar Jar Binks, the insufferable Gungan first introduced in The Phantom Menace, was actually a dark and calculating Sith Lord. The evidence was as compelling as it was entertaining. Unsurprisingly, the thread exploded — in just 24 hours it had cracked the top 10 Reddit posts of all time. And it didn’t stop there.
Over the next few days, the fan theory spread like wildfire across the social web. Viral publishers like Buzzfeed weighed in first, followed by more thoughtful analyses from traditional outlets like The New York Times. Upvoted swung last, sharing their account of the story on November 12, nearly two weeks after Lumpawarroo first submitted his post. Since then the piece has been shared just 27 times across relevant social media platforms. Something is clearly missing in Upvoted’s strategy. But it isn’t only about bad timing. It’s about bad storytelling.
True to its content formula, BuzzFeed’s account of the story was a highlight reel, replete with catchy headlines and frenetic animated GIFs. Conversely, the New York Times’ account was a dissertation, diving deep into the art and implication of fan theories. Each piece was crafted for the appetite of its intended audience, and each was (predictably) successful as a result. Upvoted’s take is more troublesome. It feels more like a behind-the-scenes featurette, the kind you’d find buried on disc three of a special edition Blu-Ray set.
In the case of Darth Jar Jar, Upvoted isn’t concerned with telling the story. It’s concerned with how the story was told. Read through the piece, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The author’s focus seems to shift between the role Reddit played in piecing the narrative together, and the narrative itself. When you’re trying to court an audience who’s only interested in the latter, that’s a big problem. The author also goes to great lengths to credit everyone who played a part in the Darth Jar Jar theory. Though well meaning, there are problems with this too — they aren’t really people.
Does it feel real?
Reddit’s meteoric rise to prominence has had a lot to do with its commitment to privacy and anonymity. It’s what makes the content so controversial, the stories so salacious, and the arguments so fierce. And it works, at least when you’re on the platform. In an article, it’s sort of awkward. It’s tough enough that the main subject of the Darth Jar Jar story must be referenced as Lumpawarroo, the contributing Redditor’s username. When you start bringing other players into the picture — Zephyr4813, TheRealHeathbar, Koala_Guru, and my personal favorite, guiguilebref — it start to feel less like an article, and more like a ’90s chat room.
That is to say, it doesn’t feel real.
Back in early October, Ohanian gave Fortune magazine a short statement about the publication’s mission and core tenets.
“We’re very excited, because the best part of Reddit has always been users — the anecdotes they contribute, the photographs and illustrations they post, and the comments they leave. This is a new way for us to not only credit them, but also amplify that great content to an even bigger audience.”
His intentions are certainly noble. But if Upvoted wants to court a whole new kind of audience, it’s going to have to start putting content ahead of community. It’s going to have to stop selling Reddit, and start telling stories. And it had better do it quickly.
Luke Kingma is the VP of Content for Futurism.com, a magazine reporting on the future of science and technology, as well as a freelance tech and travel journalist. His work has been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Untapped Cities. Follow him on Twitter.
This post originally appeared on Medium.