Going Viral — Thoughts and Feedback about the Death of Reddit piece

So a week ago I wrote and posted a piece called The Death of Reddit where I talked about the community site and my thoughts on the problems and challenges surrounding it.

It turned out to be pretty popular. Here’s what going viral looks like:

A site that averages 150 pageviews on a quiet day suddenly serves up 72,000 pageviews of an article over a week, plus another 4,000 pageviews of the followup I wrote, plus a significant increase of other content as a percentage of users explore the site — 91% of visitors only looked at that one page, but the other 8% tended to explore across my sites (and thank you for that!). Average reading time for the article was 7 minutes, which is amazing. The server held up to the spike in service, although there were a couple of times I wasn’t sure whether it would. Thankfully I had caching installed.

It seemed like the biker bar visualization and the concept of the so-called “basement groups” clicked with people, and in watching the ongoing discussion I’ve been thrilled to see others using those terms talking about the problem.

I’ll admit that in writing the piece I was worried I might end up in a firefight by attracting the attention of the negative elements I was writing about. If there’s a surprise I can point at coming out of this it was how little disagreement there was. If Reddit takes nothing else out of this discussion, that consensus about the existence of the problem is the thing they should take to heart and focus on solving.

That said, two quick clarifications I’d like to make:

  1. I did get taken to task by a couple of people for using the general term “biker” and pointing at much wider group than what could more specifically be thought of as the “outlaw bikers”. I understand this being an annoyance to the good bikers out there and I sympathize, but as I said to them, I feel the intent of the term was obvious in context, and I still feel that way, and to be honest, if we have to define out every term in explicit detail, everything in the universe would turn into TL;DR territory, and sometimes you need to simplify to keep things readable. I stick with my use of the term and believe that the reasonable person understands the context of its usage — but I wanted to call out this complaint and make it clear my intent and that I understand and agree with their problem with my usage.
  2. I want to make it clear that the proposal I outlined in the followup piece is *A* proposed solution, not *THE* proposed solution. There are many ways to get from here to where I think Reddit needs to be to be both a successful community and a financially viable one. My proposed plan is definitely not the only one worthy of implementing.

So, a bit has happened in the last week. Ellen Pao has exited as CEO of Reddit, Steve Huffman has stepped in to that place at least for now, former (and ousted) CEO Yishan Wong has made various statements about how Victoria Taylor was dismissed (hint: not Pao, although she took the fall for it) and other topics, and Huffman has announced that they will be working to create community standards and that not all groups will be welcome at Reddit down the road, but expressed a strong interest in maintaining their free speech ideals as much as possible.

Having soaked all of this up for the last week, I have a few further thoughts on all of this, but I’m not going to dive in deeply again — this will be a few quick comments, and then I’m going to roll up this discussion and move on to other things.

From what I’ve read, I think Huffman well understands the problems and the complexity of the cluster Reddit has become, and I feel like he has a good vision for how to solve them. I’m rather encouraged by his intentions, in fact, but I believe he’s going to find his ideas on ‘hiding’ the so-called basement groups out of the advertising tier will come to be seen as naive and probably not workable as he’s explained them. I don’t think that will fully resolve the reputation issues for the company or the site in the eyes of advertisers or investors, and it may not go far enough to make either happy. I think his heart is in the right place and his head is looking for real solutions, but I expect that while this is a good starting point, there are a few pivots along the way for him and his plan. I do think he’s going in eyes wide open and I wish him luck (he’ll need it)

My respect for Ellen Pao has gone up. I never felt she was unqualified from a business or management point of view for this role, and some people have made a case that the company and the organization within Reddit is such a cluster that this was the real problem, not her lack of understanding of the system or community. I’m not fully convinced but I’ve found myself agreeing with that view (and make not mistake, it’s pretty clear that the insides of Reddit-the-company is an absolute cluster that needs to be dealt with, and those organizational/political problems dwarf pretty much everything else in the discussion). I also find myself sympathetic to the discussion of Pao having been put up on a Glass Cliff and then pushed off (some great discussion of this on the Rocket podcast episode 26); it’s pretty clear she had no chance of success at all without both the support of the board and time to be able to muck out the stable that is the broken operations within Reddit, and she got neither. My bottom line on Pao is this: if I’m ever in a situation where I’m considering a position for a role in a company where Pao is an executive, her being part of that company will be a strong attractor to me. I also think at this point if we go out ten years into the future and look back, I’d bet my money on Pao being a lot more successful over time than Reddit right now.

Reddit is going to need to be given time to work out the details of their plan and work to implement it; I’d figure at least a year until we know for sure it’s succeeded (of course, if it blows up and burns, we’ll know it didn’t work sooner). We can expect more high profile departures and probably some equivalent hires. There’s going to be a lot of screaming and yelling, especially from the soon to be disenfranchised. It’s not going to be pretty and it’s not going to be painless and we won’t be making it any easier by going into hyper-focus and over-analyzing everything and declaring success or failure at every turn. This being the internet, of course, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, and Reddit’s going to have to stuff carrots in its corporate ears and just keep working at it and try to ignore what everyone is predicting and pronouncing around them (for advice on how to do that, call Apple)

In my case, that’s what I’m going to do. Shut up, give them some time to try to figure this out and make it work, and maybe check in later when there’s been time to see how well it’s going (or not) without attempting to micromanage the process for them from the outside. I suggest everyone else who’s not directly involved try to do that, too.

I wish them luck, I’m thrilled it’s not my problem.

Some stats on the Reddit pieces

Because this stuff amuses me, some stats and evaluation of the last week…

The early driver of traffic to the article was Digg, where it ended up on the front page. Digg pushed about 40% of total pageviews the first day. Facebook and twitter were #2 and #3. 16,000 pageviews.

Day 2 was the biggest day at just over 25K pageviews, plus 1,500 for the followup piece. Again it was Digg at about 20% of pageviews, with Techmeme and Hacker News kicking in and matching that. Twitter and Facebook continued to be strong in terms of sending traffic.

Day 3 traffic dropped back to 16K pageviews with 1,500 for the followup. Digg started to trail off and Twitter took over as #1 driver of content, followed by Jason Kottke’s kottke.org site. Techmeme and Facebook filled out the top five. Hacker News was already fading by this time. There are links from both Financial Times and Fortune that showed some traffic, as well as zoso.ro.

Day 4  drops to 10K pageviews with 40% coming from twitter. Kottke.org continued to send strong traffic, Gawker finally shows up at #3 on the sites driving, followed by facebook. Business Insider sent a tiny amount of traffic, just enough for me to notice that they’d evidently linked to me. Lots of smaller sites are now linking, most driving in < 50 pageviews.

Day 5, about 4,600 pageviews. Twitter continues to be #1 at about 25% of traffic. #2 today was bloomberg with about 80% of Twitter. Kottke and Facebook continue being in the top five.

Day 6 is when it really fades, down to 1,500 pageviews, primarily TWitter and Kottke.org (which showed up later but stuck around longer than most other sites other than twitter and facebook) Gawker is #4 and as of today, “search engines” is the fifth source.

Day 7 drops to 800 pageviews (which is still almost 10X what a top page would normally get on my site), and kottke.org is driving almost 30% of that, followed by twitter.

Notably missing as a major driver or traffic is Reddit. It was linked into at least five different subreddits but was never a primary focus point of conversation, these pieces seemed more explainers of the things the discussions were about. There was a lot of really interesting discussion going on, as well as a lot of, well, the kind of stuff Reddit is in trouble for. I’m happy none of that was particularly aimed in my direction. (and yes, this is ultimately the issue Reddit needs to grapple and solve, how to keep the bad stuff from making the good stuff findable and worth finding. Not an easy task).

Not all pageviews are created equal. Digg users tended to stay the shortest time and explore the site the least. they still seem very much in the “click link. skim. leave” mode. On the other hand, the readers from Kottke tended to be on site the longest, explore the site the most, and generally seemed to be paying attention and engaged with the content, not just surfing through. (2nd best there was twitter, followed by facebook). As someone who’s creating content, I’ll happily take 100 viewers from Kottke over 10,000 from Digg, as the former is more valuable to me because it seems the content is more carefully consumed and more likely to be reshared by the Kottke folks. Digg’s engagement is very shallow and not very useful to the content owner (and this is why I don’t see Pageviews as a great stat for judging success — it’s an easy stat, but not a great one).

Through this week, Twitter was the number one driver of traffic, Digg #2, Facebook #3, Kottke #4 and Hacker News #5, with Techmeme #6. After that, there’s a big drop off to Zoso.ro and gawker, and everything else is < 1000 pageviews.

Traffic was 72% US, followed by 7% canada, 6% UK, 3% Australia. I gained almost 200 twitter followers, a handful of mailing list subscribers, and who knows how many RSS subscribers since I don’t track that any more. I got lots of interesting email and had many many fun conversations on twitter and facebook, and had two groups see if I was interested in interviewing for positions (which I declined, since I like where I’m at right now — still, nice egoboo). Almost all of the feedback was constructive, which I appreciate.

My bottom line

My bottom line is simple: I’m happy I was able to help shape and foster the conversation, because it’s very much needed. The Reddit situation is one that impacts many of us well beyond the users of Reddit and the challenges it’s facing and the mistakes it’s made that got it here are ones that communities and communities sites can easily run into themselves. We won’t know for a while whether Reddit will be able to fix itself and thrive, and no matter what happens, I take no credit in those solutions or failures. this is just a small part of a very large and fascinating conversation, which is going to continue for a good while across the net.

And now I’m going to stop talking about it and let Reddit focus on figuring it out and fix things without micromanagement from me. I may check in later if there are significant events worthy of it, but I’m going back to focus on things that are more tied to my own creations and interests — I have this stupid podcast I’m trying to launch, and it’s not going to happen by magic if I keep ignoring it…