Storming Reddit's Moat

A Guide to Reddit, Its Key Competitive Advantages, and How to Unbundle It

With 1.2 million members, r/changemyview is one of Reddit’s most active and popular subreddits. It’s a community built on the opposite of trolling: users post their flawed or partial opinions in a sincere effort to provoke responses that might challenge and, as the name says, even change their thinking. As a window into what Reddit, and the internet, can look like at their best, CMV has been the subject of glowing press. And for a company that has seen its share of public flare ups over hate speech, and hopes to transform itself into a more mainstream social network, /r/changemyview has emerged as a point of pride.

Seeing an opportunity, the r/changemyview moderators decided in 2019 that they would “unbundle” the community from Reddit - migrate it, in other words, to a dedicated website. They had not just a large user base but an active and engaged one. Controlling their own platform, and being able to monetize their content, would let them build features tailored to CMV’s mission and fund work to further the growth of the community. But the effort didn’t last. Less than a year and a half later, the new CMV website is dead and the community continues to thrive on Reddit. What went wrong?

For four years, my job as a Product Manager at Reddit was to deeply understand subreddits like r/changemyview, and build features that helped them to grow. I’ve gotten a first-hand look at every part of the platform, inside and out. I’ve chatted with hundreds of users and met mods in person. I’ve launched products that got shut down, accidentally crashed the site, and pissed off moderators enough that they temporarily took their subreddits offline in protest. But I’ve also fixed languishing features, built successful new ones, and gotten mods and users excited about them along the way.

“Unbundling,” as it’s called, is almost a fundamental law of the internet. As platforms grow, they breed new niches, and eventually reach the point where they can’t serve those interests as well as a more focused competitor. And because of the growth of the overall platform, those niches aren’t so niche anymore.

Craigslist was one of the first major sites to fall victim to this process. Every section is now its own multi-billion dollar company: “services” became Thumbtack, “housing” became AirBnb, and “for sale” became Facebook Marketplace. As Reddit grows, attempts to peel communities off the platform will only become more common. Will Reddit be the next Craigslist as communities are spun out into their own standalone entities?

In a series of blog posts, I’ll explore how this might happen and what the right approach could be. Since Reddit is naturally organized into many subreddits, each with its own distinct topic, the assumption is that subreddits are the facet on which Reddit will be broken up. But Reddit’s unique dynamics suggest that this may not be entirely true. In this first post, I’ll examine Reddit’s key competitive advantages, we’ll learn why migrating communities of Reddit may not be the best way to unbundle it.

Reddit content ranks really well on Google

The biggest and most relevant Reddit communities grow via organic search: they show up at the top of Google results for commonly searched words and phrases (think “personal finance”, “Game of Thrones”, “League of Legends”, etc.). This kind of traffic brings a lot of people to Reddit every day who have no idea what Reddit is, or any opinion on how it works. They’re just looking to answer a question or get more info about their favorite game, TV show, or hobby, regardless what format it’s presented in.

Really good SEO is one of the truest moats that exist today. It takes years to build credibility, and Google is particularly vigilant about (and punitive towards) sites that try and game the system. Unlike a network effect, which can be overcome with a well implemented invite flow, Google’s ranking algorithm takes in lots of different signals that are much harder to come by: large volumes of high quality content, links from other high ranking sites, people using Google as a conduit to Reddit (i.e. appending “reddit” to the end of their searches), products built specifically to encourage Google’s crawler, and a close business development relationship with Google, just to name a few.

The amount of traffic that comes from search is the main reason why an effort to migrate a community off Reddit wholesale (as r/changemyview tried to do) is doomed to failure, especially for well-established communities. Users coming straight from Google will always encounter the Reddit version, with its higher accrued SEO value, before they find your new one.. And migrating the existing community members off Reddit will be hard (users hate change!). The power of search makes the presence of an existing Reddit community a liability instead of an asset.

Reddit benefits from inter-community network effects

Reddit offers its users a way to participate in multiple communities under one umbrella. Reddit ties those communities together through feeds (like “home” and “popular”), which is where Redditors spend most of their time. They have public user profiles (showing post and comment history) and reputation scores (‘karma,’ based on upvotes) that are consistent across subreddits. Users come back to the site on a daily or weekly basis, with low specific intent, expecting to discover content they’ll find interesting and engaging. There aren’t many occasions for them to evaluate Reddit against a competing product. 

Compare this with Craigslist, which promotes infrequent use with high intent. People come to Craigslist to solve a single problem, like finding a new apartment. Switching costs are low: if another site can solve their problem better, they’ll go there.

In effect, an unbundling project has to overcome two different network effects on Reddit - the subreddit community itself, and the community’s connection to Reddit as a whole.

Reddit is great for lurkers

As the name implies, Reddit is designed to be read. People who only read along, but never participate are so integral to the platform that users coined a new term for them: “lurkers.” (People have pointed out that “lurker” predates Reddit by a lot, but the point still stands about how integral they are to Reddit). Reddit is the best place to read the best discussion on a topic, once all the information has had time to be curated by mods and votes. Of all the social media platforms, Reddit is the most biased towards lurkers. Lots of systems are in place to make sure that readers only see the top voted posts and comments, and content is well organized, well categorized, and unduplicated.

It’s common for the main differentiator of a new service to be the way you create content: Snapchat had disappearing photos and stories, Instagram had filters, and TikTok had video editing tools. This makes sense, because you first need to create the differentiated content that lurkers will eventually browse. The rule of thumb though is that 90% of users just read, and only 10% create content, and Reddit is even more skewed than that. So at the beginning, your service will likely be useless to 90% of the users you attract. And remember that creators are lurkers too, especially because they don’t make any money from Reddit.

Contrary to popular belief, most users aren’t regularly commenting, upvoting, or interacting with other users. But most new products are designed for the posters and commenters since they are the quickest to try new things, and the ones you need to jumpstart a new product. So launching a product that makes it easier to do those things isn’t actually a good fit for the majority of the community, unless you give special consideration to what the lurking experience will be.

Reddit is great for large-scale communities

When there is too much conversation about a topic for any one person to reasonably sort through, Reddit is the best place to find the top content. The degree of difficulty in sustaining a new subreddit means that there is often just one canonical subreddit per niche, providing a singular place to go. And most successful subreddits militantly curate their posts, so there isn’t any low quality content to sort through. For the most popular communities, more than 40% of content posted to the subreddit might be removed by mods or by automated tooling. 

There are other less obvious things that help sustain large communities as well. Reddit doesn’t boost content based on prior info about a user, like their karma or followers, so every piece of content needs to stand on its own merits. Reddit’s posting structure (and a culture that dislikes duplication and reposting) means that conversations are well grouped and moderators do a good job of maintaining those norms. The tree-threading structure of Reddit’s comments sections means the best fragments of conversation can be elevated in a straightforward way.

If you design a new product, you’ll likely make a lot of different product decisions. You may want to make it easier for users to build a following, or limit how much content mods can remove, or make comments easier to read. But even if you don’t, it’s unlikely that users will adopt the same behaviors as they do on Reddit. A lot of these old-school norms need to be learned by new Reddit users over time, but they are baked into the culture of Reddit and reinforced by power users and mods. Culture is hard to duplicate.

Other platforms like Facebook Groups, Twitter, or Discord, might feel faster, more lively, more engaging, and may work really well for small- to mid-sized communities. But they often break down once the community gets too big and the pace of conversation gets too fast, or when too many different communities spring up all around the same topic. The things that make small online communities work are often at odds with what sustains big communities. Communities that survive and reach hundreds of thousands of members on Reddit are perfect for the platform, and you’ll be hard pressed to move them off.

Reddit has no viral pathways and a unique social graph

Because Reddit content is so heavily moderated, and the social features of Reddit are so under-engineered, you likely won’t be able to systematically acquire users from Reddit through techniques like invites or prominent public usage (e.g. Zynga on early Facebook, Spotify on Instagram Stories, etc.). You may be able to reach the top of the subreddit feed when you launch, but that’s more like getting a high-profile press piece than creating actual virality. And trying too hard to advertise your new app might just get you banned by the mods.

Because Reddit’s social graph is based on interest rather than friends, it can’t be recreated anywhere else in exactly the same way. For most new social apps, your address book approximates the set of contacts you have on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat. Part of what makes Reddit valuable to its users, though, is that it lets you discuss your niche interests online with anyone, and those connections only live on Reddit.

At the community level, then, Reddit presents an array of structural barriers to unbundling. Trying to compete with Reddit community-for-community will likely lead you down the wrong path. Instead, I see opportunity in two directions:

  • Validate a niche through Reddit (such as gaming, TV shows, sports, support, etc.), and build a new product that specifically serves them in a brand new way

  • Add a net new use case or post type to Reddit (imgur adding images and Discord adding chat are all great examples of this) and leverage the subreddit structure

While the unbundling of Craigslist has been almost explicitly to their detriment, my belief is that the unbundling of Reddit won’t actually look like much of an unbundling at all. It’ll look a lot more like the creation of a bunch of new social services dedicated to seemingly weird niche audiences, until they get so big they become mainstream (Goodreads, NextDoor, Twitch, OnlyFans). Reddit niches are opportunities waiting to happen: if you pay attention to them, you may recognize a social phenomenon emerging well before the mainstream media does.

In my next post, I’ll elaborate on the opportunities I see, talk through weaknesses of Reddit, and specific ways to view different verticals of Reddit. Follow me on Twitter at @mjmayank1 to be notified of future posts, and tweet at me if there are other parts of Reddit that you would be curious to hear about.

This post was edited by sendittoedit.com