Fixing or Replacing Reddit, some quick thoughts

Watching how The Death of Reddit spread across the net was fascinating. It’s been a while since I’ve written something that got that much interest and commentary, and to everyone that passed it along and talked about it or sent me feedback, thank you. The page has passed 25,000 page views and doesn’t seem to be slowing down much, so it definitely hit a nerve. Thank god for caching, the site was rock solid and stable. I was seriously worried it might attract the troll brigades, but at the end of the day, I muted one person and blocked none, and I had dozens and dozens of fascinating conversations that have had me thinking and pondering about many aspects of this. I am truly surprised that there’s so little pushback or disagreement on it. Reddit really should pay attention to — if not what I wrote — the opinions of everyone reacting to it. That, to me, is what’s significant here, the consensus opinion I’m seeing in the response.

I had started on a follow up piece on “how not to become Reddit” to try to bring out some of the design and building ideas that can help someone interested in creating communities avoiding ending up looking like Reddit, but that draft immediately declared itself to be a book and threatened to take an option on a trilogy, so I have some work to do to organize and control the topic into a manageable form.

Instead, I was having a twitter conversation today on this and got into a bit of a chat on how to build up a replacement Reddit. Or how Reddit could perhaps restructure to get away from the challenges of the content while still fostering the setup it wants (a non-censorious freedom of expression). For that, I felt going back to updated flavors of some old forms would work — a distributed, web-based federation of independent sites (much like a modern FIDOnet), and a central source that acts as a directory, PR vessel and marketing platform for the network (which is essentially a reinvented classic Yahoo portal).

One of the realities of this situation is that if you are hosting content of marginal acceptability, you are also effectively paying the rent for that content and you will be held, at least to some degree, as responsible for that content. In the real world, if I run a Chiropractor office and I rent out a room to someone who turns out to be using it for prostitution, I can tell the authorities all day I’m not responsible for what goes on behind that door, but in practice, they aren’t going to agree with me, and I’m responsible for that floorspace to my landlord when I sub-lease it. The virtual world tries to ignore some of these real-world models when inconvenient, but they have a habit of showing up and slapping you when you get big enough or important enough to warrant attention.

So I wouldn’t host the stuff. But I could build an easy to install environment that would be a standardized system that could be installed on effectively any hosting site. Start with WordPress, WordPress’s P2 theme, a forum plug-in, the Disqus commenting system and a couple of weeks of hacking some custom work, and you’d have something that could be easily installed and run by a non-geek on any hosting service that supports WordPress.

There are big advantages to this: If someone really wants a topic to exist, they can get it going for well under $100 (including domain name) and keep it running for $10-20/mo. Most of these sites will be very low traffic and a lot of them will in fact be pop-up and collapse as people figure out running sites is work and audiences don’t appear by magic — but the good ones will thrive and grow, and for most of these, it’ll be cheap enough to operate that most people can run them out of pocket. By building it as an independent site, though, that person would have the option of doing advertising, or running a Patreon or GoFundMe, or find other ways to pay for hosting the content of the site.

It also shifts the liability for the existence of the content to the owner and host of the site and away from the central authority. If that person wants to find an offshore hosting service that doesn’t care what the content is, that’s up to them. So you’ve removed the need for a central authority to have to censor to protect its own interests.

You still need a way for people to find these topic-specific sites. Enter the central authority. It hosts a directory, much like the original Yahoo! directory was. Building something like this is dirt cheap and easy to host, so someone (like, ahem,  Reddit) could do so at low cost so that it doesn’t have to host those subreddits any more but could still support them by hosting a directory of them where they could be found.

That’s a good, basic setup that would solve most of Reddit’s challenges and support a way for this content to still exist and move into places where it won’t be subject to the inevitable restructuring and restrictions that are coming. It seems like a possible win-win next generation at first glance.

I would go a bit further, and point out that you could likely fund that directory’s hosting costs by also using it as a marketing platform for the sites and not just as a base search engine. Add in a blog, add in advertising, create opportunities for sponsored placements so sites can buy high profile visibility and market themselves to this community, and I expect a small group could make a decent income off a system like this and fund support of the open source hosting platform as well.

You could even call it USENET-TNG if you want to amuse me, because at a basic level, that’s what it is.

With some basic integration and a little hacking, you can build a new thing to take over for Reddit that gets away from the problems that are dragging Reddit down and create an environment that (IMHO) reinvents Reddit in an even more interesting and vibrant way (because honestly, Reddit’s UI really kinda sucks). Reddit could even do this, or it could be done as a self-organizing open source group and maybe Reddit funds the initial builds and offers moral support while it goes off and transforms itself into a real business around the AMA concept. This all could work quite nicely together.

And it’s all built around stuff that’s well known, mostly with free and off the shelf parts, and in a very inexpensive and restriction-free way. All you need is a hosting service that won’t freak at your content (not hard to find if you look) and at the cost of a couple of Starbucks a month, you have a place for whatever content you want to distribute.

And if you want to try to make it happen, do so with my blessing. IMHO, it seems like something someone should at least explore the viability of and see if it’s as interesting an idea as it seems to be right now.