BEST OF THE WEB: Inside the online web community that makes and breaks websites

Facebook may be king of the social networks when it comes to size, but Reddit might be the leader of the pack when it comes to power.

The site, which calls itself the “front page of the internet” is dedicated to user content; users post links to the site and then vote on their favourite links, with the most popular ending up on the front page.

A link that gets to the hallowed turf of that front page can attract tens of millions of clicks. For a website operator, that’s an awfully big carrot and it’s not surprising that many publishers have been accused of “baiting” Reddit with articles to try and increase traffic.

So far, Reddit has resisted such moves and in June the company actually banned links from several media company domains, including those of prominent US publication The Atlantic.

As Matthew Shaer writes in New York Magazine, the message is clear: “Reddit is a community. It will not play your low-minded, traffic-whoring games.”

Shaer profiles the site and its users by attending a meet-up of Reddit users in New York’s Central Park on something called Global Reddit Meetup Day.

The site has 35 million users every month and a staggering 140,000 sub-forums on an incredible range of topics.

“Most [users] are male, and most live in the US. Many work in programming or IT. They are drawn by not only the diversity of the content but also the site’s remarkably unified political ethos, which is left-leaning, with a libertarian tack. Marijuana, atheism, congressional corruption, and web rights are among their many interests.”

The recent growth of the site has been enormous, leaping from 30 million page views a day in January 2011 to 65 million by the end of the year – incredible for a site with just 15 full-time staff.

But as Shaer explains, it’s not your average social media site. It’s a complex world with a philosophy of what its users see as a clear mission.

“Reddit is not Facebook. Reddit is not Twitter. Twitter and Facebook are platforms. Reddit is a single organism, a gigantic internet brain, composed of millions of cells, each of which vibrates at its own frequency. Reddit has an id and a superego,” Shaer writes.

“Here is what the id does: collects porn. Makes porn. (A popular NSFW forum is Gone Wild, a collection of self-shots of naked Redditors, male and female.) Indulges in extreme paranoia. (The subreddit r/MensRights, which describes itself as ‘earning scorn from bigoted feminists and white knights since March 2008,’ was recently put on notice by the Southern Poverty Law Center.) Hurls nasty insults. Floods e-mail accounts of those perceived to have fallen afoul of the unofficial Reddit code of ethics…

“Here is what the superego does: Finds bone-marrow donors. Distributes petitions to abolish for-profit prisons. Rages against the Stop Online Piracy Act. (Reddit was instrumental in organizing opposition to the bill, which now appears all but dead.) Redditors have donated $50,000 to a kid afflicted with a blood disorder, $200,000 to Doctors Without Borders, and $180,000 to relief efforts in Haiti. They also helped funnel over $600,000 to Karen Klein, the bullied bus monitor from upstate New York.

“Redditors like to refer to their community in lofty, quasi-religious terms. It’s a force for good in a bad world, they say. It punishes the evil and rewards the meek.”

And it’s not a place for faint-hearted web marketers to try and strut their stuff – no matter how attractive the prospect of a traffic hit might be.

Silicon Valley: The Reality Series (that nobody seems to want)

First there was Jersey Shore, then came The Kardashians, and now Silicon Valley is getting its own reality series.

The series, being filmed now and scheduled to be broadcast this winter, will show hard-partying youngsters vying to start companies in a frenzy reminiscent of the dot-com peak of 2000.

Although Silicon Valley is yet to air, residents of America’s tech hub are nervous about their portrayal in the series.

The show was partly inspired by The Social Network, the 2010 film about the founding of Facebook.

David Streitfeld warns in The New York Times that the Silicon Valley show is based in a world where everyone seems to think that a good idea can lead to instant success and untold riches.

“It is a place where you feel like a failure if only one investor offers to finance you, instead of many begging to get in,” he says.

In a reality-meets-real-life twist, Mark Zuckerberg’s sister, Randi, former head of marketing at Facebook is an executive producer of the series.

Randi declined to be interviewed for The New York Times article but defended the show on Facebook: “Inspiring more people to pursue an entrepreneurial American dream can only be a good thing.”

The original social network

The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) was founded in the spring of 1985 – before Mark Zuckerberg’s first birthday.

Howard Rheingold was one of the original members of the WELL and over on The Atlantic he’s recalled WELL parties, chili cook-offs, trips to the circus, and other events – somewhat repellently called “fleshmeets” at the time – he attended.

“I danced at three weddings of WELLbeings, as we called ourselves, attended four funerals, brought food and companionship to the bedside of a dying WELLbeing on one occasion,” he writes.

“Don’t tell me that ‘real communities’ can’t happen online.”

The WELL’s population “topped out” in the mid-1990’s at around 5,000 as a result of a lack of marketing budget and the proliferation of so many other places to socialise online.

Streitfeld says user numbers have been declining ever since but he believes the WELL will live on.

“Once they achieve a critical mass, and once they survive for 25 odd years, virtual communities can be harder to kill than you’d think,” he says.

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