The Reddit Phenomenon: How Social News Reveals What We Really Care About

By: Joshua Baruch

In this age of news-on-demand, instant reporting, and citizen journalism we have access to more news than we could possibly know what to do with. In the traditional media, the task of deciding which news stories deserve the most attention is handled by the news outlets themselves. As a result, which stories people see depend entirely on the editorial discretion of their preferred news source. Even news outlets which cover a wide range of events must decide which stories to put on the front page or at the top of the newscast. Those stories are likely to be deemed most significant by the audience; conversely, the other stories might be considered less important, or ignored completely. Additionally, certain stories may be covered by one media outlet but not another. As a result, people who rely on only one newspaper, television network or website for their news may never see the stories that their news source doesn’t cover. Consequently, people’s worldviews may be influenced—intentionally or unintentionally—by the editorial discretion of their news source.

An ever-growing segment of the population now relies on the Internet for its news. People who lack the time or the desire to filter through the thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of pages of news which appear on the internet each day may turn to a variety news aggregator sites to help narrow their choices. One of the biggest such sites is Google News, which pulls stories from thousands of news sources and displays them on its user-customizable front page. The criteria for selection of Google News’ front-page stories, however, are a secret.

Enter social news. Aggregator sites such as Digg and Reddit allow users to submit links to stories, which other users then vote on. The stories with more votes are listed higher on the page, displacing the stories with fewer votes. Reddit allows users to “upvote” and “downvote” stories; as a result, the stories which the site’s users collectively deem the best move to the top of the page very quickly, and the stories with the most “downvotes” are buried at the bottom. The stories on the site’s front page represent what many thousands of users see as the most interesting or noteworthy stories of the day.

The problem with this model, however, can be seen simply by looking at Reddit’s front page at any given moment. This is a screen capture of the front page on November 27, 2010:

The most striking thing about this page, at least for me, is that most of the “stories” aren’t actually news stories. In this example, the top post is an editorial. The next several posts appear to be meta-posts about Reddit itself. It’s not until the eighth post down the page that an actual news story appears—and even it has a highly-editorialized headline. Many other posts which reach Reddit’s front page relate to computer gaming, Internet memes, and popular culture. Websites like Reddit appeal to a particular demographic, one with notably different interests and tastes than many of the readers and viewers of traditional media. It would seem that the people driving the content of social news sites don’t particularly care about news. This would not be a problem, except for the fact that these sites bill themselves as news sites (Reddit’s slogan is “The Voice of the Internet… News Before It Happens”). What’s more, there is no real way to restrict the sites’ content to “actual news”, since regulating something so subjective would defeat the purpose of user-submitted and user-ranked content entirely.

Social news sites certainly have great entertainment value, and they can provide people with access to important, breaking news. But Reddit and Digg simply cannot be relied upon as everyday news sources; too many important stories simply get lost in the downvotes.

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This entry was posted in Section 2, Student Posts, Winter 2011. Bookmark the permalink.

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