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On Reddit, good links rise to the top — but it can sometimes take a few attempts to get there

A study of the social news site’s voting behavior finds that about half of its most popular links died quiet deaths on first submission.

“Almost everything on the Internet is bad,” says Eric Gilbert, assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing, “so somebody’s got to sort through it all. That’s why we need Reddit.”

Gilbert teaches a course on online communities. (“Twenty-five or thirty 22-year-olds and me sit around and talk about the Internet. It’s pretty great.”) One day, during a class discussion on Reddit, some of his students expressed a shared frustration. When you post a link on Reddit, you want it to become as popular as possible. Gilbert’s students described sharing a link that fails to become popular, only to see it rise after being posted by another Reddit user later on.

Gilbert told his students he would run back to his office and try to figure out just how often this happens. His findings surprised him. Of the links that make it to Reddit’s front page, 52 percent had been shared at least once before — by a different user — before finally achieving their full glory.

reddit-logoUnderstanding — and not overestimating — the power of social voting could be important to how we understand the value of other websites, like Slashdot and Wikipedia, Gilbert says. “It speaks to this broader narrative that we tell ourselves on the Internet, which is, ‘We’ll just throw an upvote button on it and everything will work out just fine — we’ll find the best stuff, wisdom of the crowds.’ Certainly those things are powerful, they’re useful — but this is another data point that suggest these things don’t necessarily work all the time. They aren’t super-efficient all the time.”

Reddit general manager Erik Martin says he is familiar with this phenomenon. “Sometimes my stuff doesn’t get as popular as I think it should,” he said, laughing. But while he acknowledges that 52 percent is a little higher than he would have guessed, he says Reddit’s model doesn’t rely on keeping posters happy: “The primary thing is the user. Not the submitter, not the content owner — the user. So if something doesn’t catch until the third time, that’s not necessarily bad.”

Gilbert’s Reddit study advances a handful of ideas about why some “good” Reddit posts might get missed the first time around. It could depend on what time of day the links are shared, or on the poster’s mastery of the various Reddit sub-communities. It could also be tied to language, Gilbert says — maybe the second posted pitched it better in the link’s title. From the paper:

Titles are often witty, timely and sometimes reflect Reddit’s idiosyncratic values. Perhaps the second or third submitter of the same link comes up with a better title, piquing everyone’s interest in a way the original submitter did not. Do redditors vote on the underlying link or on how well someone sells the title? In our data, while most resubmitted links have different titles, we find that most contain a majority of words from the original submission. If re-titling significantly explains our findings, then the mechanism is probably subtle.

But Martin says he’s not on board with the idea that a post’s value is based on whether or not it makes it to the front page. That kind of success has a lot to do with context, in some of the ways that Gilbert predicted — titles, timing, and placement strategy in the subreddits — but also in other ways. If a link is shared by a bot, for example, it typically won’t make it very far unless it’s reposted by a human. Martin also said that some of the political subreddits (of which there are hundreds) filter out politically biased titles, which means a story won’t rise to the top unless someone reposts it with a neutral title. But in terms of the system missing out on the next big story — like a Texas family court judge who beats his child — Martin says the system works: “The truly remarkable stuff doesn’t have a problem.”

Gilbert advanced one other possibility for the phenomenon he describes: Reddit’s minute-by-minute aggregation of the news as it broke across various outlets and platforms, especially Twitter.

“I think it’s important to understand that — especially when you hear horrible buzzwords like gamification and things like that — to understand the root motivation of why people spend hours a day on Reddit or YouTube or Wikipedia,” he said, “I think that’s especially important for people in media and in journalism. People want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be part of the story.”

Image by ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓ (awesome) used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
What to read next
Leonhardt
Caroline O'Donovan    April 23, 2014
“Is there a way to take some of the knowledge that people at The New York Times already have that ends up on the cutting room floor, and put it in front of readers?”
  • KevinRaposo

    I agree with the study, Title is everything!

  • http://twitter.com/lanaganj James Lanagan

    Interesting and far more in-depth analysis of reddit by researchers from U.Illinois
    “An Exploration of Discussion Threads in Social News Sites: A Case Study of the Reddit Community” (http://dmserv3.cs.illinois.edu/reddit/paper.pdf)

  • Lisa Raffensperger

    There’s a coding problem in the second to last graf here, just so you know – whole bunch of text swallowed into your href tag…