The idea of using digital, online technology to build a community is about as old as digital, online technology. The WELL was maybe the first online community - at least at a large scale - and that was launched in 1985, and is still operating (with 4,000 members). But somehow, even after all these years, we still see fresh innovation in online communities. The one that has been catching my eye over the last several months is Reddit. Not only has it been successful at establishing a brand and a loyal (and growing following) in a pretty crowded area, it's also done it in a compelling way.
A Brief Overview of Reddit
I should tell you up front that I am not actually a member of the Reddit community and definitely don't have any direct involvement with the company (or the community). I am simply a happy lurker in the community. The core mechanic of Reddit is that members of the community create a new post that either has a link to an external page or simply just some text. Other users then can vote the link up or down. Links that get more up votes appear on the home page of the site and therefore into the RSS feed. Members get a "Karma" score as well, showing how much good they have done for the site (i.e., doing things like submitting links).
The site is also divided up into many subcommunities where particular topics are discussed and links shared. There are dozens of communities, and it is here where you can see how the nature of Reddit is different from other, similar sites. That is, there are others places where you can submit, comment, and vote on the worthiness of stories (such as Digg or Yahoo). But the communities of Reddit have somehow transcended just collections of similar things to become their own destinations with their own values.
For example, one of the communities is called Today I Learned (abbreviated to TIL). In this community, people simply post things that they discovered that are brand new. Often these are facts about some element of daily life that has been overlooked. A recent entry was about the most decorated dog of World War I.
Perhaps most interestingly, though, one of the communities of Reddit has become a destination for unique and personal content, and that is really a jewel in the crown of this site, and has driven a significant amount of brand new traffic. This community is called IAMA, but really it should be "I am a." The driving idea behind the community is that anyone can start a thread and say what they are; the second part is generally AMA, which stands for "ask me anything." There is remarkable energy inside this community, as people from all walks of life, jobs, and experiences come forth and invite the world to ask them, well, anything.
In the past month or so, a few IAMA posts have succeeded in pushing unique page views to Reddit well past a billion page views. These are extremely simple posts. Someone who is interesting in some way just invites questions. But in that, we can see how communities can begin to evolve from that 1985 model into not only a place where visitors can discuss content, but where new forms of content can be made.
Turning Communities Into Creation Engines
If we ignore, for a moment, social networks (which are special, personal communities), we see that there are really only two kinds of online communities. The first are the wide-open, free-flowing versions that we've seen on the WELL, although often with moderators to keep things somewhat civil. The other is discussion or comments sections that are appended to articles, not unlike what you'll find at the bottom of this piece.
Both of those serve great purposes, but as a way to get people to stick around on a site longer or to have a deeper relationship with the authors. What Reddit has begun to explore, however, is a path that delves into crowdsourcing and content creation. The communities like IAMA are really spaces where new content gets created, both from the people who start the posts and the questions that are asked. If you wanted to quickly learn what it is like to be a police officer in Texas, this would be a great place to go. Assumedly, this content can be indexed by the search engines, resulting in a high ranking for a relevant search.
There's no way that the people at Reddit could have ever sat down at a planning meeting and decided they would create a bunch of content about being a police officer. Rather, by creating a space where community members can collaborate on any topic, Reddit is in a position to capture a huge amount of content that can be leveraged to bring in traffic and grow its site.
IAMA content could very easily be converted from the current open thread form into an article that would be more easily read and shared. Think of an IAMA thread as a magazine article, for example. Or a site filled with IAMA content, organized by topic. It is probably worth noting at this point that Reddit is owned by Condé Nast, the huge magazine publishing house.
Community, Not Content Factory
The amazing thing about Reddit and the IAMA community is how home-grown it is. There are no ads to get people to come share their stories and accept questions, and there doesn't seem to be any incentive program (besides the Karma mentioned above). Simply a community exists and grew up because it taps into a particular strain of human existence that is fascinating.
If you run a community or even if you are a participant in a community, you should begin to think of it not only as a gathering spot, but also as a place where new things can be created. Even if we are only, solely focused on the ability to leverage the work of search engines as a way of driving traffic, we need to realize the importance of authentically generated and interesting content. Content factories (services that are able to generate lots of articles about a particular topic for the primary purpose of generating search rankings) are under a lot of fire lately. Creating content quickly and cheaply may not be the best way to get search engine rankings for very long.
Instead, we need to be on the lookout for ways to get that content that is authentic and interesting, but still inexpensive and efficient. I don't think Reddit was looking to solve this question when it launched its site or allowed communities like IAMA to blossom. But solve it, it did.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
March 19, 2014