May 11, 2009 0
When most people think of the social link-sharing site Reddit (those people who have heard of Reddit, at least), they think of atheist left-leaning libertarian programmers who have a soft spot for long pun threads. However, Reddit can be a fascinating place to observe how good causes can rouse a large amount of collective action provided certain conditions are met.
Despite the fact that Reddit is primarily used to share funny, interesting and provocative links about technology and politics, many of Reddit’s most popular links are not even links to content outside of the site. Reddit was designed to allow users to submit links that point to a comment forum created on Reddit.com. This ability has created a culture in which users ask the Reddit community to support a cause by up-voting one of these self-referential links.
One of these rallies for support caught my eye last week. The title was “Today is my dad’s 60th birthday, and he’s a huge fan of reddit. Not sure how far this submission will get. But in case you see this dad: Happy Birthday!“ One might expect a handful of redditors to vote this up…but at the time I saw it, ten hours after it was submitted, more than 4372 people had voted it up. (I say more because 4372 represents its vote tally of up- and downvotes and it received a number of downvotes.) That means for ten hours straight, this link received roughly one vote every eight and a half seconds. Two days after I took this screenshot, the upvote count was well over 6000.
This is a fairly startling success for such a small scale, personal cause. We can look to a few different reasons for its high vote count.
- The low barrier to participation: all it took to help make the user’s dad happy was a simple click.
- The goal was clear and attainable: getting this link and happy birthday message to the front page of reddit where the user’s dad would see it was simple and do-able. Furthermore, each user’s participation was intimately linked to furthering the goal – the more upvotes a link gets, the more likely it is to achieve success.
- Tightness of the community: Reddit is a smaller community than similar sites like Digg. Furthermore, it has a number of smaller groups called subreddits where people share links about particular niches. These factors lead people to value their fellow redditors in a way that is a bit different than other larger community sites.
When I took the screenshot above, the story was in the number one spot on Reddit’s front page, but if you have ever used Reddit, you’ll notice that I still upvoted the birthday wish. I did so without thinking the very second I read the headline. Why would I do that when the goal had already been achieved? One reason might be that the three reasons above worked so fast and were so ingrained in my psyche that I didn’t stop to think about whether or not the goal was achieved. The very act of voting on things that I support on Reddit might be so second nature that a link’s success or lack thereof doesn’t affect me at all. Another explanation would be that I wanted to be associated, even in an invisible and meaningless way, with its success. In this respect, success can lead to further success. I suspect that my behavior arose out of a combination of all of these factors.
If the voting power of thousands of Reddit users can be leveraged to wish someone a happy birthday, imagine what a cause with real emotional resonance could inspire jaded internet users to do. To be clear, part of this birthday wish’s success came from its simplicity. Anyone can get behind a nice wish for a father. A cause like environmentalism or cancer research is often more complex because one may wonder about the methods, efficiencies and politics of the organization at hand. And that split second of hesitation will lead to a drastic drop off in the level of actions taken.
I posit that mass participation is a function of a number of somewhat intangible components:
Level of Mass Participation = Clarity of Goal X Likelihood of Success X Emotional Resonance X Ease of Participation
With that formula in mind, it becomes clear why more emotionally hefty causes receive less upvotes on Reddit. It is most often a small likelihood of success and/or a lack of a clear goal that brings down web campaigns. How else could you explain the fact that the below cause received fewer upvotes than the birthday wish?
It is up to marketers to maximize each component of the participation equation to increase the likelihood that their constituents will support and take action on behalf of their cause.