Before Reddit became the revolutionary powerhouse of truth, justice, and random acts of pizza, it was just a couple of dudes trying to attract people to their idea of launching a link-sharing site that featured democratically curated news from the community.
But creating a community from scratch is a pretty tough thing to do, as Reddit co-found Steve Huffman explained in a recent video lesson for online university startup Udacity. When Huffman and co-founder Alexis Ohanian first launched Reddit in 2005, it was relatively quiet and devoid of users.
Obviously, something had to jump-start interest in the site, which now generates over 2 billion monthly page views and attracts more than 35,000,000 monthly unique visitors. I’d always assumed it was a “slow and steady wins the race” approach combined with the Reddit founders’ unyielding dedication and uncompromising vision for the site. But apparently there was another secret ingredient.
Huffman said one other strategy proved crucial to Reddit’s early success, which most people are unaware of: The team submitted a ridiculous amount of content under fake user accounts to give the appearance of popularity. Yes, you read that right. Reddit — a site that values a fair and open democratic process to determine worthy content and police itself — sleeps soundly on a bed of lies. [Cue sinister music…now.]
This revelation is likely to strike an angry chord with former Reddit power users who were banned for this exact behavior.
“When you would go to Reddit in the early days there would be tons of content,” Huffman said, explaining that the initial Reddit submission page contained only a “URL field” and “Title field” to plug in. Yet when logged in as an admin, a third field appeared that allowed the team to enter a custom user name that would automatically be registered for an account upon hitting submit. The fake user submissions, which were motivated by embarrassment over having an empty site, actually had a positive impact in a few different ways, he said.
“The first thing it did was it set the tone,” by the activity it displayed to visitors, Huffman said. “We were submitting content that we would have been interested in seeing. That meant the content on Reddit … was good. And when you show up , you know exactly what the site is about.”
Huffman then explained that the deception also created a feeling that Reddit was alive, giving users the sense that they were a part of something. That’s obviously the most important element of any social network community.
“I remember the first day, a few months in (to the site’s launch), when we didn’t have to submit any content. It was such a magical feeling, because it meant everything was finally working on it its own,” Huffman said.
He went on to outline the other important principles that made Reddit an eventual success, which included keeping resources focused on enhancing the bond between users and community and making participation effortless. And although Huffman has moved on from the community he founded, the site remains true to its initial concept.
Despite the initial deceit, things ended up working out pretty well for Reddit. What I’d really like to know is when Huffman removed the ‘custom user field” option, and if the founders artificially manipulated other area’s of Reddit to grow interest.
Check out Huffman’s video below and let us know your thoughts in the comments.
VB’s research team is studying mobile user acquisition: Chime in here, and we’ll share the results.