Reddit Flirts With Wall Street and Potential Disaster

The earliest mention I can find of Reddit Inc.’s ambitions for an initial public offering comes from a Variety report in 2017 — the online community’s co-founder and chief executive officer, Steve Huffman, told a conference audience that taking the site public was the only “responsible choice” but that the “time frame was pretty far out.”

More than six years later, with an IPO finally looking imminent, he was certainly right on that second point. That first one, however, is still in doubt. There’s a reason the social network has taken so long to go public: There’s a good chance it might all fall apart.

Lately, (mostly) millennials have started to discuss the internet with a hint of mourning. As the first generation that grew up with it in their lives, they hold a special attachment to those pioneering web days, when they would ask friends and crushes whether they would “be online” after school, and information and belonging came through communities of forums and blogs.

That may be rose-tinted nostalgia. But to me and others, this was a time when groups on the internet kept to themselves — and could, therefore, be themselves. Not every online space was for everyone — but that didn’t matter, because “everyone” wasn’t there. Over time, these silos, where communities were self-governed by their own moral codes and values, started to coalesce under just one or two gigantic roofs. Facebook was where your friends, family and colleagues were. Twitter was the “global town square.” At first, this seemed invigorating — the collective hive mind offered an intoxicating force for change.

But soon these roofs would gain an unscrupulous master in Wall Street. Requiring huge injections of money to pay off early backers and provide the capital needed to expand, the dominant social networks headed to the public markets. From then on, quarterly earnings became do-or-die. Each quarter meant getting bigger — more users doing more things more often and for longer. Users noticed the difference: ads shoved down your throat; an emphasis on divisive content; and a user experience that left you feeling miserable and manipulated.

Throughout this time, Reddit has been an outlier, the last big social network to resist this ugly transformation and a halfway house between the old and new internet. Yes, it is one big web property, which attracts more than 2 billion visits every month. But it is better thought of as a huge network of forums, almost like the old days, divided by subject matter like sports teams, local communities, celebrities or practically anything else. Across them all, an army of volunteer moderators keeps things in order with remarkable dedication — each taking into account the tastes and sensibilities of each so-called subreddit’s users. There is simply no other site like it on the modern internet.