Why Reddit’s Garbage Communities Might Be The Least Of Its Problems

Reddit's mobile nightmare scenario.

As incoming CEO Steve Huffman begins his second tenure at the helm of Reddit, the spotlight will largely fall on the company’s renewed efforts to rein in its seediest communities without destroying the unique early internet message board culture that defines the site. But for Huffman and Reddit, a more insidious problem looms over the company's future: mobile. How does Reddit, a site that’s consistently lagged behind even the most delinquent mobile adopters, survive on an internet that’s increasingly accessed on mobile devices?

According to a source familiar with Reddit’s internal figures, the site’s traffic distribution is similar to that of other media destinations, with mobile accounting for somewhere in the range 50 or 60% of the site’s total traffic. In 2014, then-CEO Ellen Pao said that roughly 40% of traffic was coming from mobile devices. Yet Reddit's efforts to cater to its mobile audience have so far been late, weak, or both. Internally, Reddit has failed to produce its own successful comprehensive mobile app, a problem that forced the company to acquire Alien Blue, the site’s most popular third-party iOS app, last October. Since that time, Reddit has largely kept the app and its creator, Jason Morrissey, as an autonomous unit inside it.

Which is not to say that Reddit hasn’t dabbled in the mobile sphere: In 2011, it built a buggy mobile app but quickly discarded it after users complained. Last September, Reddit rolled out another app for its popular Ask Me Anything communities which, according to App Annie, has routinely fallen somewhere between 350 and 1,250 in the US. News App store rankings in 2015. But as of August 2015, Reddit — a site ranked by Alexa as the 10th largest in the United States and the 31st largest in the world — doesn’t yet have an official, mobile-optimized version of its website (the site has had compact and scaled-down phone versions), and reviews of the Android beta version of that site which it rolled out back in April are mixed (“it doesn’t suck”).

Mobile’s overall growth is astounding. In 2008, the black mirrors of our phones accounted for roughly 12% of total internet usage, according to Mary Meeker’s annual internet trends report. In 2015, that figure has climbed to 51%. A 2014 report from comScore suggests that in-app browsing and the mobile web account for 60% of total time spent online. That change is reflected in personal computer sales, which dropped 11.8%, according to the researcher IDC, which doesn’t include tablets in its PC sales figures.

The rise has been so steep and so fast that media companies have bent over backwards trying to figure out how to meet readers on their preferred platform; this summer, the New York Times blocked employee access inside the building to the paper’s website, forcing employees to experience and prioritize the mobile experience, where more than half of their readers access Times content. Here at BuzzFeed, we have mobile-first previews in draft versions of every quiz, list, post, article, and feature story. Reddit competitors Digg and Fark launched comprehensive mobile apps in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

Reddit’s leadership appears acutely aware of the company’s mobile failings. Last December, before rejoining the company as CEO, Huffman excoriated his former company for its myopic desktop-centric development strategy. “Their mobile sucks and the product hasn't changed since I left in any significant way. So it hasn't aged very well. I think the product ... the mobile strategy could be a lot better," he told The Age. Back in September 2014, Pao hinted at Reddit's laissez-faire mobile strategy, noting, “We’re excited and happy to grow but we’ve never been super proactive about it, it’s always been done organically.”

This July, after Pao’s resignation, Reddit board member Sam Altman explicitly remarked on Reddit’s lack of progress in the space, telling BuzzFeed News that “mobile is critical. The world has gone mobile and Reddit has not yet.” He also went on to hint that it would be a point of focus moving forward. “Mobile is where our users want to be,” said Altman. “It will be a big priority for Steve." Currently there are multiple mobile engineering positions available on Reddit's job boards.

To call mobile a priority may even be an understatement; Reddit’s accessibility problems on smartphones could kneecap the site’s growth among an entire generation of people who experience the internet largely through their phones — not to mention the larger swaths of the globe where mobile acts as the first and only screen.

For a rising generation accustomed to quick-loading, slickly presented, responsive content, Reddit's slow-loading, old-web-feeling mobile design is likely a hurdle, and one that threatens Reddit's self-proclaimed title as Front Page of the Internet. While Reddit might still be a site bookmarked by legions of folks who grew up on PCs, it is likely isn't that for folks coming of age on smartphones and tablets.

In fact, it’s not hard to imagine the following scenario: A younger person as of yet unacquainted with Reddit is flipping through Facebook on her phone when a Reddit link catches her eye. She clicks, views the post, which loads clumsily and slowly. After a moment, she decides to follow another link, a conversation thread, which is difficult to follow in its present form. Lightly confused but mostly just put off, she exits out to return to Facebook without being exposed to Reddit’s money feature: the front page. A blown opportunity to convert a new redditor.

It’s just a hypothetical, but writ large, this potential behavior could have a rather devastating effect on Reddit’s future demographic makeup as well as its content, forgoing new and younger users while catering to an older audience. And as the audience skews older, the cycle perpetuates itself. “The way most people create content for Reddit is very different on desktop than it is on mobile,” a product manager and engineer who has worked closely with Reddit told BuzzFeed News.

“The interesting things on Reddit tend to be longer, paragraph-based text answers, which are just harder to do on mobile," the engineer said. "And if most people creating the content are doing it on desktop, then younger folks on mobile will find this content inaccessible. Plus it’s created by a different generation so it doesn’t really appeal to them. It feels stale."

In other words, it’s not simply that the content is hard to read on mobile, it’s that two distinct groups are developing: the content creators on desktop and the readers on mobile. Without a viable mobile strategy, the gap between the two could widen over time, weakening Reddit's foundations.

And it leaves Reddit vulnerable to imitators. For example, an image-heavy app that culled the best, most mobile-friendly posts from Reddit’s front page could easily cannibalize a great deal of Reddit’s mobile traffic, stealing away younger browsers who come to Reddit when they’re bored, looking for a quick diversion. The prospect isn’t unheard of: Imgur, the photo hosting site created for Redditors because Reddit never built the feature itself, has since surpassed Reddit in monthly unique visitors — an infamous missed opportunity for the site.

To some degree, Reddit owes a lot of its success to that older, now stale-feeling version of the internet. The site is notorious for keeping its minimalist message board style, and its user base has been among the most resistant communities on the internet when it comes to evolving editorial guidelines and design. In many ways, Reddit remains a shrine to the values of the early internet with its utopian idealistic vision of online communities as both nonthreatening and separate from real-life. And so it stands to reason that its most devoted users largely prefer to access the site from desktop. It also means that Reddit’s organizational structure, save for its front page, is increasingly out of sync with the way internet dwellers — especially younger ones — are searching for content. Take Snapchat, for example, an app that exists solely within the mobile ecosystem.

With this in mind, Reddit’s failure to adapt to the mobile web isn't all that surprising. Reddit is one of the last major sites still centered around the early internet’s link culture — much of Reddit’s content involves linking to external sites — which, unlike Facebook’s increasingly insular "we want to be the internet" endless News Feed scroll, doesn’t translate very well to smartphones. But that nostalgia, driven by the same audience that espouses Reddit’s peculiar definitions of free speech — the same audience that believes communities like r/coontown should be allowed on the site, regardless of their proven propensity for harassment — could very well transform the site from a last vestige of the old web into an outdated relic. A Reddit that continually skews older, less innovative, and potentially more unruly isn’t just unattractive to advertisers, it’s an untenable growth strategy.

Reddit did not respond to a request for comment.