Reddit GM Erik Martin talks about the site’s unlikely success and its new live-reporting feature

We’ve already written about Reddit’s new “live reporting” feature, which gives users the ability to live-blog a breaking news event or post updates about an ongoing story like the revolution in Ukraine — a feature that I’ve argued could make a significant contribution to crowdsourced journalism. But I wanted to find out more about the motivation behind it, so I asked Reddit general manager Erik Martin why the site decided to add the feature, and what he sees as the potential value for both citizen journalists as well as society in general.

As with so many other things that have emerged from the Reddit community over the years, such as its popular “Ask Me Anything” celebrity interviews or the “Explain It Like I’m Five” feature, Martin said the live-update platform was essentially invented by users, who hacked the site’s traditional post format in order to post multiple updates about a variety of breaking news events, including a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and a similar spree in Toronto.

“With what people were doing around sports-game threads or what was going on after the Aurora shooting, there was definitely a demand from users, with people posting multiple updates with news items and links to articles — so the new feature came out of all of that. We’ve learned by now that when we put a tool out there people will use it in ways that surprise even us.”

Reddit was originally intended as just a way of sharing links similar to Digg, Martin says — but as it became more of a community, users started getting around those rules by posting links to a text-sharing site like Pastebin as a way of including more discussion. So the site accommodated those desires by adding the ability to post text. “But we didn’t design it for people to be updating 50 or 60 times an hour or more, with commenters and viewers hitting refresh again and again,” Martin said. “So there were some technical limitations and bottlenecks we were hitting.”

The moderator system is flawed, but it works

In contrast to most of the other Reddit features, Martin said live update lives outside of the regular sub-Reddit system, so it doesn’t have to be attached to or created within a specific topic thread. The site did this in order to get around potential conflicts between the live blog and a specific sub-Reddit moderator, he said. Exactly that kind of conflict emerged last week when a news story from Glenn Greenwald of First Look Media was repeatedly deleted from the /r/news sub-Reddit — an incident that highlighted how much power Reddit moderators have.

Martin admitted the moderator system is flawed in some ways, or at least could be improved — by making it easier for users to switch from one sub-Reddit to another, for example — but he also argued that the democratic (some would anarchic) approach the site takes to virtually everything has positive impacts. Someone once asked who created a specific sub-Reddit, and Martin said he had to admit “I have no idea, someone just came along and did it… the fact that it even works at all, when you think about it, is just crazy. It shouldn’t work, but it does.”

While many observers choose to focus on the negative aspects of Reddit culture, such as the ease with which sub-Reddit’s like the “Find the Boston bombers” forum can go astray and impact people’s lives in an unfortunate way, Martin said what’s more impressive is how rare that kind of thing is, given Reddit’s size (more than 500 sub-Reddits are created on different topics every day, and the site also handles close to a million user comments every day).

“For me, Reddit is an example of how human beings in general are co-operative and reasonable and selfless, because if that wasn’t the case, it just wouldn’t work. If everyone urinated in post-office boxes on the corner, it would only take a couple of thousand people to do that — or to decide to park their car on the interstate — and the nation would be brought to its knees. But they don’t.”

When it comes to the live reporting feature, after I wrote about it initially a number of observers were extremely skeptical about the site’s ability to contribute anything meaningful to the process of journalism around a breaking news event, saying crowdsourcing — especially when it involves a large mob like Reddit — has little value. But Martin, not surprisingly, disagrees with this viewpoint.

A much richer, more informative media world

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“I believe we need professional journalists as much or maybe even more than we ever have,” Martin said. “But I also believe that having people participating in that news and in sharing information, I just don’t understand how that can be anything but positive.” There are always going to be problems, as there were in Boston, he said (Martin wrote a blog post apologizing and saying the site could have done better during that situation, when users identified the wrong individuals as the bombers). But ultimately the outcome is better:

“The idea that news should only come from professionals, that’s a mass media world view… I think that [community involvement in the news] is a much richer, much more dynamic, much more informative media world. You can still have original reporting and still have professional journalists, but I think it’s better to have it discussed and analyzed and interacted with in any number of different groups that have a different perspective.”

Among the new things Reddit is working on, Martin said, is an update to its recently launched “multi-Reddit” feature, which allows users to create collections of related sub-Reddits and then share those with other users easily. In the future, the site wants to make it easier for users to edit those collections into a kind of customized newspaper, with a front page made up of items from the sub-Reddits they’ve chosen, ranked in whatever way they choose.

Martin said he would also like to see more news sites experiment with the live-update feature, not just on Reddit itself but on their own sites — since the code behind the beta feature is open source. And he added that he would like to see more journalists try the live update feature as a way of engaging with the various communities of readers on Reddit. “When we built it, I remember thinking this could be a really great tool for professional journalists,” he said. “But you can probably guess how many have emailed us asking to be able to use it.”

Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Albert Chau and Pond5 / Cienpies