The Downfall of Reddit – Why Reddit Sucks, and How to Fix It

I was first introduced to Reddit in 2008 as a college freshmen when a roommate introduced me to the site. I was instantly hooked, checking it every day. It was an endless trove of information, and the comments section was filled with high quality discussion. I could always count on top comments to correct any potential disinformation from the linked content, and learn a thing or two. These comments would generally be a few paragraphs, critiquing or expanding upon viewpoints in the article or preceding comment, and not necessarily conforming to any particular narrative. People could actually respectfully disagree with each other, and comment sections were richer because of it.

But then the post and comment quality quickly started to degrade as the site became more popular. What used to be quality posts were replaced by memes and personal pet posts like linking to a photo of a cat/dog with the title “I’ve had a rough day, but this guy never fails to cheer me up”. Quality comments were replaced with sarcastic one-liners and pun threads (thankfully the pun thread trend is not as ubiquitous as before, but still common). Rather than top comments always surprising me and teaching something new, they became shallow, empty, and predictable. Rather than the most informative and interesting comments because upvoted to the top regardless of whether one’s viewpoint disagreed with the popular narrative, cheap, low effort, dumbed down noncontroversial pun threads were voted to the top while anybody who’s comment disagreed with the popular narrative was downvote bombed to censorship. Downvoting changed from a tool used to penalize toxic or off-topic comments to a tool used to censor viewpoints that didn’t conform to the hivemind, regardless of the quality of one’s argument.

Luckily pun threads no longer dominate all discussion, but sarcastic one-liners still do. It seems now the standard is for a comment to maybe have one sentence of information framed like a joke.

Case Study of Comments in Random Reddit Thread

For example, the following is the top comment in a random thread in /r/politics I took from the homepage titled “Russia was once enemy number one in the US. So how did Vladimir Putin infiltrate the Republican Party?”

The top comment has only one sentence of information, supporting the left-leaning narrative of the linked post, presented as a “Pepperidge Farms remembers” joke. The next 3 most upvoted replies add nothing to the discussion, while the fourth does seem to add more information, even consisting of 3 whole sentences and a linked source. (One trend I’ve noticed is often the top comment is a short sarcastic one-liner, with the first reply being significantly more substantive, agreeing with the comment and expanding upon it. In this random example however, nothing is really that substantive).

Upon first glance as a casual reader who didn’t even read the linked article, one would assume that the article is 100% correct, that Vladimir Putin has in fact infiltrated the Republican party.

When sorting the comments by most controversial though, you get a different perspective (actually I’m excluding the top comments “What a joke of a headline” with -16 votes, “How much stupider can the author of this article get?? Good story headline” with -5 votes, and “Remember when Obama did nothing when Putin annexed Crimea” with -45 votes).

Again, the comment consists of just a single sentence. The first comment stating the fact plainly gets downvoted, while the second comment reframing it again as a “Pepperidge Farms” joke gets 6 votes.

I ended up responding to one of the comments challenging the dominant narrative and supporting it with facts, and of course all I got was downvotes because Redditors abuse the downvote button as a “disagree” button. Users get punished for adding to the discussion if it ends up going against the hivemind narrative. (note: I only commented here just to prove a point, I know better than to waste time commenting in /r/politics)

I won’t post the entire thread here, but the point is that the comments sections contain very low information density or diversity of viewpoints, with all comments basically agreeing with each other and the popular narrative unless one goes out of their way to seek dissenting views (eg. sorting comments by “controversial”). Commenters are seemingly so convinced that they’re right that everything is presented as a joke. Comments are short, either out of laziness, or for the sake of minimizing attack vectors upon which one’s comment could be discredited. The least controversial and most boring comments somehow get upvoted to the top, while the most in-depth, critical, and interesting sink to the bottom.

The end result is a boring comments section that effectively just serves as a propaganda arm for whatever the dominant narrative is.

It’s also worth noting that due to the short, low information density, and predictable nature of the comments, these short comments would be fairly easy to auto-generate with bots, potentially posing as a security threat. Russia pays internet trolls and spammers to influence public discourse in U.S elections, so that’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

COVID-19 Censorship

The most toxic I’ve ever seen Reddit was during the height of COVID-19. Any questioning of COVID-19 restrictions or questions pertaining to travel was met with pure vitriol if not outright censorship. Even travel-related subreddits like /r/digitalnomad and /r/solotravel practically forbade discussion of travel and questions about COVID-19 travel restrictions. When I created threads in those subreddits asking which countries had the least restrictions, the threads were removed. Any talk of travel would be met with “How can you be so selfish to travel right now? Don’t you know there’s a pandemic. Stay home”. /r/changemyview, a subreddit dedicated to debating topics (not with particularly high quality I’d add), banned all COVID discussion. Even in a debate subreddit, COVID-19 policy wasn’t up for debate.

Thankfully now discussion has almost gotten back to normal, and there’s one subreddit /r/lockdownskepticism devoted to critiquing COVID-19 restrictions and misinformation. But like all subreddits, that leads to potentially turning into a propaganda arm in the other direction

Downvoting as censorship causes greater polarization

When downvoting is used as a knee-jerk “disagree” or “doesn’t conform to the hivemind narrative” button rather than being used to penalize low quality and off-topic comments, dissenting opinion gets buried to the bottom and auto-hidden, the effective equivalent of censorship. This further polarizes the community and reinforces the hivemind in a dangerous feedback loop.

Those with a non-hivemind opinion frustrated at the inability to express their viewpoints have no choice but to seek alternative subreddit communities, which then leads to the polarization problem in reverse. Now their new community polarizes in the opposite direction, driven by the anger of being censored in the mainstream, often feeding on itself to becoming more and more extreme. Sometimes these subreddits get so extreme that Reddit quarantines (/r/TheRedPill).or even bans it (/r/the_donald).

Clearly there’s a failure here on the Reddit platform in enabling balanced discussion on both sides.

Instagram-style picture threads (at least Instagram has captions)

Another unfortunate trend is that travel subreddits have been completely taken over by Instagram-style picture posts. In fact it’s worse than Instagram because at least on Instagram people can write captions – telling their stories, mentioning favorite spots, etc. On Reddit however it’s not possible to write descriptions on image posts, so on subreddits like /r/travel you just get posts like “Just spent 5 days in <City Name> and it was great!” with a picture and that’s it.. /r/digitalnomad basically just consists of people posting pictures of their laptops in exotic locations with titles like “It’s hard to concentrate on work with a view this nice.”

Subreddits like /r/TravelNoPics have cropped up in response to this trend. That subreddit has 15k members, but mostly just consists of questions.

In fact, all of these travel subreddits predominantly consist of questions. If memory serves me correct, I believe in the past there were more links to blog articles like “my experience traveling to X”. But with fatigue towards marketing blogspam and the general decline in blogging, it seems that that sort of content is not as much in vogue. People will occasionally write posts on these travel subreddits about their travel experiences, but on Reddit it’s not possible to embed images in posts which does reduce quality for the topic of travel that is visual in nature.

Also there is little incentive to write an in-depth post in a self post on Reddit because there’s really no sense of community on Reddit. Everyone is a forgettable anonymous username. There’s a follow button, but nobody does so and what value would that provide anyways. It would probably be better to create a Substack-style model where people can subscribe to your newsletter in order to encourage more higher quality content on Reddit.

Cryptocurrency subreddits

Crypto subreddits are among the most circle jerk of the non-political subreddits out there. The communities of most tokens generally consist mostly of bagholders asking “wen moon?” and re-assuring each other that their tokens will go to the moon. People will post price meme threads and posts like “just bought $500 of XYZ token, let’s take this rocket ship to the moon!” (I’ll add that when Matic/Polygon’s subreddit started being infiltrated with these meme posts early last year, I got concerned thinking that now the token is now just being hyped by moonbois who don’t actually know anything about the project, so I sold at $0.40, right before it pumped to $2.75. The lesson there is that communities being overtaken by memers and children isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a token price standpoint.)

Comparison to old-school forums

As a 90s kid I grew up on traditional forums (eg. gamefaqs, rscheatnet, bodybuilding, WallStreetOasis, some others that won’t be mentioned). Traditional forums naturally have a stronger sense of community because the communities are smaller, and users can have avatars and signatures so that you can more easily recognize other users.

At Columbia University there was BoredAtButler which was like a pseudonymous chat room with comment threads and avatars. Due to the small community size and avatars, you’d recognize the regular users and there was a strong sense of community.

Reddit on the other hand completely lacks any sense of community. There are no avatars (unless you click into one’s profile), and usernames are not prominently visible and nobody pays attention to them. Even if these features did exist, the large number of users might make it impossible to recognize others either way. This lack of community is what makes these “look at my dog” posts so cringy. This is not Facebook – nobody knows you or cares about your dog (unless it is a subreddit for dogs or wherever that’s appropriate).

Old school forums were definitely much better in feeling like a real community where you recognized other users. But part of this is due to the smaller size of these communities relative to subreddits with millions of subscribers. Also forum posts are sorted by the last comment, which can be abused (bumping), and discussion itself is linear/sequential which is way less efficient and more filled with noise than reading comment threads. Forums in general thus likely require greater moderation in order to prevent abuse. That being said, it’s certainly feasible that Reddit could be improved by adopting certain features of old school forums.

The Phases of Reddit

I’d characterize the eras of Reddit roughly as follows:

2008-09 High quality discussion

2009-2014 Memes, cat/dog photos, and pun threads. Political polarization

2014-2019 Hivemind / Circle-jerk with sarcastic one-liner comments. Marketer blogspam

2019-present Hivemind / Circle-jerk with sarcastic one-liners. Marketer blogspam replaced by Instagram photos captioned only by their simple titles, questions and low-effort self-posts

The Problem with Reddit

Let’s summarize the problems with Reddit:

  • Low post and comment quality
  • Groupthink/polarization of only the dominant politically correct narrative, with censorship of dissenting opinions (or confinement of dissent to extreme subreddits).

How to improve Reddit?

Here are my thoughts on how to improve Reddit:

Prevent the downvote button from being abused as a disagree button.

Again the problem with downvote abuse is that downvoting buries and ultimately censors comments.

  • Limit the ability to downvote to those with a minimum level of karma (Hacker News does this and I believe it definitely helps). This also makes the site more immune to downvote botting
  • Instead of auto-collapsing heavily downvoted comments, grey them out (Hacker News also does this)
  • Dissuade people from downvoting based on disagreement. Perhaps when one downvotes, there should be a modal that pops up reminding users that they should only downvote if the comment is hostile, off-topic, or adds nothing to the discussion, and encourage them to simply respond with a counter-argument if they disagree.

Improve algorithm

Comments can currently be sorted by best, top, new/old, and controversial. I don’t know how “best” works, but clearly it’s not working well for me.

Here are some ideas for better algorithms:

  • An “informative” or “insightful” sorting filter that prioritizes longer comments, and/or users with a history of writing longer and more informative comments. I think this would be the single easiest way to improve comment quality because short one sentence comments are almost always the least insightful, yet always dominate the top.
  • Using machine learning to try to prioritize showing you the type of posts/comments you tend to upvote. The obvious downside is that this would be computationally expensive to do for every individual user, but perhaps user behavior could be broken down into segments that users are bucketed into (eg. “meme lovers”, “information lovers”).

Avatars

Reddit could enable the ability to show avatars next to usernames. This could help foster a sense of community by making users more recognizable, similar to old-school forums. Or maybe Reddit communities are too large for this to work. Either way, it’s definitely worth testing. Some communities enable users to supplement their username with a flair (usually just some pre-approved labels or custom text), which I have noticed makes users more recognizable. But nothing beats a picture.

Substack Model

One of the main problems with Reddit is that there’s little incentive to write quality, in-depth self-posts or comments because you don’t really get rewarded for it. People can upvote your post, but you’re just another anonymous Redditor that they’ll never see again.

In order to greater encourage quality writing, Reddit could enable users to create their own blog on Reddit that doubles as a Newsletter, Substack style. Then at least quality contributes can get rewarded with followers, and ideally an email newsletter so that the creator isn’t tied to the Reddit platform.

I realize there’s already a “follow” button to follow a user, but honestly I have no idea how that works.


Watching Reddit’s downfall has been very difficult for me. At first I tried to protest, but then I realized there was nothing I could do as an individual because the community is so large now.

Reddit is one of the most important websites of our generation, if not the most important. Reddit is public discourse. The platform itself influences the community, which influences reality. With this great responsibility, it is important that Reddit’s platform encourages insightful, civic discussion rather than fostering polarization and circle jerk.

Update: I’m now working on building a better Reddit here: https://zsync.xyz. If this post resonated with you (or even if it didn’t), come join, create an account, and post an introduction in /p/introductions or any feedback/requests in /p/zsync-dev-update-masterthread. I’ve finally gotten tired of complaining and have decided that if no one else will build the type of community site I want, then I’ll build it myself.

15 thoughts on “The Downfall of Reddit – Why Reddit Sucks, and How to Fix It

  1. If you think Hacker News is the epitome of a perfect forum, then the joke is on you. It is guilty of far worse crimes than you listed. Leave Reddit alone and go seek comfort in the bubble you already know.

    Like

    1. Never said Hacker News was perfect, it’s also gone downhill.

      “leave Reddit alone and go seek comfort in the bubble you already know.”

      Lol why the hostility? Feel free to actually address anything I wrote in the article, it’s more interesting than emotional outbursts

      Like

  2. I agree that Reddit sucks (I’m praying for the day it finally dies), but I can’t take the opinion of someone seriously when they start using Orwellianisms such as “narrative.” That word is meaningless because it’s a term that now gets casually tossed around as a form of dismissing inconvenient facts. For example, “It’s a progressive narrative that police shootings of unarmed suspects has reached a critical point,” or, “It’s a Christian right narrative that rape porn has a harmful effect on society.”

    See how that works? Just call ANYTHING a narrative, and that’s the end of the debate because the implication is that you are the possessor of truth and enlightenment but the other person is a fairy teller, a mythmaker, a narrator putting spin on what you know to be true.

    Another reason why I don’t take your complaints seriously is that it’s always been a garbage platform that’s harbored everything from cyberbullies and doxxers to sexual predators and child porn apologists. So, it’s always suspicious that a person who happily used this garbage platform for years –and turned a blind eye to all the evil toxicity that was out in the open– “suddenly” has an issue with it. (Hmmm…)

    The last reason why I can’t take your complaints seriously is that just because Reddit is an echo chamber hive mind dominated by a clique, it doesn’t also mean that you are being downvoted for this very reason. Maybe you are being downvoted because Redditors are a bunch of petty manbabies who spitefully downvote people who don’t subscribe to their viewpoints but maybe–just maybe–you are being downvoted because you are wrong.

    I mean, if I went onto a site like Stormfront that had a downvoting system, would I be a victim of a hive mind if I was downvoted for saying that Cleopatra was black? Of course, some NeoNazis would be triggered into downvoting that post just for the sake of invoking blackness but some of them would actually, racism notwithstanding, would downvote me anyway just by virtue of being factually wrong.

    The point is that Reddit may have all of these problems you mentioned (hive mind, echo chamber, etc.) but that on the flip side of that, I’ve noticed people using those problems as a defense mechanism to explain to themselves why their views may have been downvoted. Just a thought.

    Like

    1. “Narrative” is just a word, it is neither good nor bad. In the article I mention that the censorship of viewpoints that counter the popular narrative of Reddit is toxic. Replace “narrative” with “hivemind” or whatever word you want.

      “Another reason why I don’t take your complaints seriously is that it’s always been a garbage platform”

      What year did you first start using Reddit? As I mentioned in the article, I was on Reddit back in 2008, and comment/post quality was significantly higher back then. Another forum named Hacker News also used to have significantly higher quality 10-5 years ago, and comment quality has declined similar to Reddit – with shorter, less substantive posts.

      “but maybe–just maybe–you are being downvoted because you are wrong.”

      There’s nothing factually wrong about the information I presented in the comment I referenced in the article.

      During peak COVID hysteria, any comment questioning lockdowns and COVID restrictions would get downvote burried and even banned. Discussion of travel would get censored and banned in travel subreddits.

      In high quality discussion forums like the Reddit and HN of the past, upvoting is used to reward high quality contribution (eg. longer form comments cited with sources) and downvote comments lacking substance (short, sarcastic, no substance).

      Here’s a thread I posted today: https://www.reddit.com/r/investing/comments/v9x6x3/how_to_see_what_fed_rate_hikes_are_priced_in/

      The second-highest upvoted response (it was originally the highest voted response) is “Everything is priced in. Nothing is priced in. Outside of insider trading, no one knows what they’re talking about”, which is literally a non-answer.

      This is what I’m talking about when I talk about low comment quality.

      Instead of trying to make some ad hominem focused on an individual to attempt to discredit an argument, maybe actually read the article and address some of the points, ideally backed with real evidence, instead of just debating hypotheticals.

      Like

      1. HN is worse because its moderators decide for you what’s good and what’s bad. They are heavy-handed. They “make users disappear” and they shadowban IPs. It’s far better to let free speech run, and this is why Reddit is inherently superior.

        Like

      2. I’ve personally never witnessed any banning on HN, and don’t recall ever getting a comment removed.

        On Reddit I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had threads closed or locked and comments removed, and have been been banned from subreddits. And the nature of how people use the downvote button on Reddit means that anytime you say anything non-consensus to the hivemind, there’s a good chance you get downvote burried, which is practically equivalent to censorship.

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      3. > I’ve personally never witnessed any banning on HN, and don’t recall ever getting a comment removed.

        A lot of users including myself strongly disagree and have experienced otherwise. In contrast, on Reddit, if an account is ever suspended, assuming it weren’t for spam or persistent hate speech, it’s trivially easy to just start anew. This is not possible on HN with IP shadowbans. I advise discovering the true nature of HN before continuing this conversation.

        Ideally, the way in which filtering is supposed to work is that comments can be tagged, and users can then choose to apply specific filter tags as per their individual choice. Neither platform meets this goal, but Slashdot comes closer.

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  3. 1. “Narrative” is not “just a word.” It’s what’s known as a “loaded” term, and it was lifted from the world of writing (particularly biography/autobiography). The implication, when using that term, is that a person isn’t saying anything real or factual. They are just posting a highly subjective, personal version of events. You don’t have to agree with me about what people mean when they use that word, but I’m telling you, it’s a loaded term.

    2. What year did I “start using Reddit”? Not only have I been on the site off and on for years, I actually remember, with startling clarity, how it rose to prominence. Digg was the face of the internet, then, practically overnight, Reddit took over because it was seen as the new bastion of “free speech.” And by bastion of free speech, I don’t mean political views. I mean, it was a place where trolls could post and do whatever they wanted without getting banned–gore porn, NeoNazi propaganda, cyber bullying, rape porn apologia, etc. It was basically the stomping ground for trolls, with the more “normal” subreddits acting as a cover.

    So, this stuff that I mentioned having been on the site (racism, creepshots, doxxing, etc.) was there from the start. The Ellen Pao era was when all of that nasty stuff finally boiled to the surface and Reddit HAD to start banning subreddits, due to public outcry and bad PR.

    Also there, right from the beginning, were the things you complained about. Reddit has been an echo chamber/circle jerk, and you will find posts all the way from the early years complaining about it: https://www.reddit.com/r/pics/comments/da0ll/a_digg_refugee_asked_me_how_to_game_reddit/c0yo37f/.

    3. “During peak COVID hysteria, any comment questioning lockdowns and COVID restrictions would get downvote buried and even banned. Discussion of travel would get censored and banned in travel subreddits.”

    This is what I was referring to earlier about how people use Reddit’s heavily flawed system as a kind of defense mechanism.

    There’s a famous phrase that goes, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.” Every online platform–not just Reddit, but other sites–was right to ban any questions about lockdowns, traveling and COVID restrictions, because COVID denial and skepticism was driven by disinformation trolls from both inside the country and overseas during a time when thousands of people were dying a week, including first responders and medical staff.

    The fact that Reddit is, in fact, broken, doesn’t mean that its decision to censor or ban any expressions of COVID denial or skepticism on yours or anybody else’s part is yet another example of how it’s a hive mind or circle jerk that rejects truth or dissenting points of view. Maybe in some instances, it is downvoting or censoring you and others because it’s a hive mind. But sometimes, true to the “broken clock right twice a day” maxim, it just happens to be correct.

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    1. Reddit is such that if you post the same exact comment on different subreddits, the comment can get heavily upvoted on one, and heavily downvoted on the other. This is the beauty of it. The point then is to find the subreddits that are suitable for you, or create one if there isn’t any. It works, and it preserves the freedom of speech a lot better than HN.

      Like

  4. I am guilty of making sarcastic one-liners and downgrading the comment section quality on Reddit because everyone else does the same for quick upvotes.

    It’s TikTok but for text and puns. Reddit needs the YT treatment of promoting longer content.

    I have the deleted the app on my phone so that I am not tempted any further. Thank you for confirming my suspicions.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Something that people forget is that around 2015 reddit changed their algorithm resulting in much less turnover of content. Back in the day, you could check reddit in the morning, afternoon, and evening, and always see a mostly new front page. Now if you’ve checked reddit in the morning, there’s hardly any point in checking it again until the tomorrow. And even then you may still see posts which hang around for 24 hours.

    Why they did this is not entirely clear, but I remember when that change happened and how boring and stagnant the site has seemed by comparison ever since. I assume they did this because they had some information that indicated a more stagnant front page would somehow be more marketable, viral, or result in more visitors.

    Another well-known problem with reddit is the intense politicization of it. This really accelerated during the Trump era. Reddit was always left leaning and everyone knew that, but sometime after Trump took office, they really poured the gas on the whole “right wingers are not just wrong, but evil” philosophy. Back in the day, you could argue with people on reddit from a conservative viewpoint. You might be horribly downvoted, but you could do it. Now, you will simply be *banned* for even cordially expressing counter-narrative views. Some subreddits will ban you automatically simply for having commented on certain other subreddits which they deem verboten.

    The result is that reddit is now more than ever a stagnant and vapid left-wing propaganda site.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What also sucks about reddit is how easily and quickly fucking mods will ban you not only from their subreddit but get you permabanned site-wide. There’s no way to fight a ban because a mod’s subjective word is considered gospel. There are a couple of subreddits that are run well that I enjoyed, but since I’ve been permanently banned, I can no longer take part is any discourse. If I could find a way around the ban I would just to take part in the 2 subreddits I’m referring to.

    Like

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