Reddit logoReddit, an open-source online community where users can vote on content, landed an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session with President Obama on August 2. This propelled the company into household-name territory and had the media buzzing about what the company is doing right and who should be taking notes. Every major publication from The Washington Post to Forbes to The Atlantic analyzed the President’s every word, but how did Reddit get there? And what does it have that the other online communities do not?

As David Carr says in The New York Times:

There are many ways to measure the traction of a social media platform: time spent, page views or unique users. But it might be useful to add one more metric: if the leader of the free world stops by to answer questions from your users, you’re probably doing O.K.

At a quick glance, Reddit was founded by two University of Virginia graduates, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, in 2005 and has only 19 employees (per the company “Team” page anyway), but its traffic stats are very impressive.

As of September 10, the company reports, just last month, the site had 43,318,026 unique visitors from more than 173 different countries viewing 3,510,783,665 pages. On September 9, according to Reddit, it “powered 3,633 active communities consisting of over 1,531,664 logged in redditors casting over 11,952,523 votes.”

However, the most unusual fact about the company, which Carr calls “a classic Web start-up in which opportunity seems mixed with barely controlled anarchy,” is that it’s owned by Advance Publications, which bought Reddit in 2006 for a reported $20 million, and which also owns Condé Nast, and, most recently, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

Carr notes that despite the company’s “basic graphics, endless links and discussions…” it now commands a larger presence that such popular aggregation sites as Digg.

Carr describes what makes Reddit stand out among all other Internet startups:

In the context of a company that owns Vogue and The New Yorker, Reddit is a deeply weird place. Links are voted up or down by a community that is full of pseudonyms, which has the odd effect of prompting users to be very intimate and remarkably candid, albeit as avatars. The community is chiefly young, male and extremely wired. It can be a casually misogynistic place, and the site has all the retro graphic appeal of Craigslist, which is to say, not much.

Reddit is not an exception to every rule in the digital world. Like many digital media companies, it has a big audience and minuscule revenue. Bob Sauerberg, president of Condé Nast and a member of the board of the independent company, says that is fine by him.

That’s precisely why Reddit must be doing so well, that and the fact that Advance Publications did with Reddit what it hadn’t done with The Times-Picayune and many other media outlets it had bought — left it alone.

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm explains:

… [T]here were no failed attempts at ‘synergies’ with the rest of the company, and no tinkering with the formula that made the service so appealing to so many — namely, a frontier-style freedom…

Ingram thinks there are a couple of lessons here for other media entities, namely, a lesson about “the benefits of a strong and engaged community.” (Provided the media entity has a choice to keep serving that community in the same manner after being acquired by Advance Publications or some other media giant. I suppose the lessons are meant to apply to the latter, not the smaller media outlets that are being absorbed.)

This is Ingram’s take:

Communities are fragile — don’t mess with them
… [T]he most obvious thing that a media company could learn from Reddit is the benefit of leaving well enough alone, especially where your users are concerned.

Newspapers need to figure out how community works
What is likely to be the single biggest determining factor in the success of [newspapers]? An engaged community of readers — much like those at Reddit. […] [T]he Reddit community can be an incredibly powerful engine for reporting and for the distribution of real-time information. Why has no major newspaper tried to invest in or build this kind of community?

Indeed, whether behind the paywall, crowdsourced, or clicks-driven, for a media company, building and/or maintaining an existing community means survival, and that, as Ingram points out, “means more than just trying to get a bunch of Twitter followers who will retweet a headline.”

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