Reddit and the problems of scale in large communities

Is there an optimum size for online communities? This analysis of Reddit suggests that there is.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Reddit has had an unusually long life on the web. It was founded in 2005, making it older than Twitter and considerably older than Instagram, but a little younger than Facebook. It's one of my favourite examples of how success is not always linear, as it was written off as a failed Digg competitor a decade ago. Who remembers Digg now?

Because of its age, and its fragmented subreddit structure, it's actually a good model for how communities develop over time. Tyler Sherer has examined the increasingly toxic behavior dynamics of the site, in a piece published on Medium last month.

After a rather ironic introduction, where he compares it to Tumblr — which was founded two years later — Sherer goes on to examine how the dynamics change as subreddits get larger. The bigger the community, the harder it becomes to attract attention:

The attention-seeking shows up in other ways, too. On some level, it’s necessary — a site as large as Reddit has certain requirements for a post to be seen by anyone at all. As Reddit grows, starting meaningful discussion becomes harder and harder — and there’s no better place to see that than the decline of /r/writing.

The Size Problem in Online Communities

As volume of contributors grows, the level of the successful content tends toward shallowness and attention-grabbing stunts:

What /r/writing looks like today is the very image of damaging attention-seeking that suffocates interesting discussion on Reddit. Deep discussion is difficult , because the content isn’t easily absorbable. It requires dedicated brainpower to consume. This is why basically every social network, regardless of its initial plans, devolves into memes and shitposts after enough time. The social media space is ill-equipped to deal with complex discussion — but Reddit was supposed to be different, and it can be.

He also suggests a fascinating approach for dealing with the problem:

The other, more radical solution is to give subreddit subscription a lifespan. Periodically, a subreddit would kick out a random selection of its members, down to approximately 10,000. This clears out the meme-seeking chaff, who likely won’t re-subscribe if it takes effort to do so, but those with a genuine interest in the content will take the two seconds and click back in.

So, rather than closing a subreddit at a certain size, you start randomly removing people? It might be an interesting way of removing low-quality community members. It'd be a very brave community manage who suggested such an approach, though.

However, there’s no doubt that size is a problem with any online community. From the very earliest days we’ve seen communities go toxic or split, once they grew to a particular volume. In community projects I've worked on, an increase in trolling or other attention seeking behavior has usually been a marker of success - the community has grow to the point that such behaviour becomes worthwhile.

But, on the other hand, if a community gets too small, there’s not the momentum to sustain it. There’s certainly an optimum size range, and one you stray out of it either way, you’ve got a management problem on your hands.

(It’s worth noting that one of the reasons much of what we call social media is problematic is because it essentially lumps all users into one big community. And that makes the shift towards more private — and therefore smaller — groups not just explicable, but actually inevitable.)

Random Joes on the internet are not news

One interesting aside in the piece that’s worth noting:

While it may seem like paying attention to what random Joes on the internet have to say about a national tragedy is a waste of time, one must remember that we live in an age where journalists cite tweets in their articles . Even if we, as regular folks, don’t care what those Joes think, people in media certainly do — which means we should probably be aware of what they’re saying, and how they’re saying it.

Equally, one should give thought about the impact we’re having on these spaces by, in effect, acting as an attention accelerator for those Tweets or other social media posts we choose to pick out and amplify.

What behaviours are we choosing to reward? After all, you always get more of what you reward…

community managementreddittoxic communitiescommunity theory

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.