Reddit, the site that calls itself the front page of the Internet, has relegated all political topics to the digital basement. More specifically, the website has taken its political domain—or, in Reddit-speak, subreddit—off the default front page so that when the casual user stops by, he no longer gets /r/politics topics in his feed.
You could file this in the annals of Internet trivia and move on, and that would be fine. Except for this: The /r/politics forum has had some offline political muscle, most notably in the 2008 election when it became something of a staging ground for Ron Paul’s campaign. Whatever your feelings on Paul, it was an historic example of third-party organizing on a national scale.
There is also the fact of Reddit’s standout status for the variety and quality of its content, which is generated by the people who use the site, with links and essays and the signature “Ask Me Anything” feature, in which someone famous or otherwise interesting opens the floor for questions. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, and not everything is for everyone, but the quality can be pretty high. Even when a porn star such as Trinity St. Clair does an AMA, you can read it without feeling like you need to take a shower. Taking the front-page megaphone away from its political debate is just more evidence of what most Americans already suspected: Almost anywhere you find it, our public political discourse is pretty off-putting. Or, as Alex Angel put it in a blog post announcing the change, it’s “just not up to snuff.”
A lot of the redditors, as the volunteer curators are known, suspected the change had something to do with advertising. It’s true that advertisers don’t like being adjacent to overtly political content because, as Michael Jordan famously said, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” That was the case in 2008 when Nick Denton spun off Wonkette from his Gawker Media company. Readers liked the site. Advertisers didn’t. Denton pointed out in a memo that political advertisers usually come through different kinds of ad agencies than the usual Gawker ad buyer. “Someone else will have better luck selling their advertising than we did,” Denton wrote.
But that wasn’t the case with Reddit, insisted Chief Executive Yoshin Wong. In a post on the site, after he detailed how Reddit makes its money, he explained that ad sales wasn’t part of this calculus:
“The truth is that (sorry, reddit), reddit is really not as provocative as it imagines itself to be. Probably the biggest contributor to the removal reason is that alone among the existing defaults, /r/politics and /r/atheism had significant rates of ‘sign up an account, then unsubscribe’ occuring. None of the other defaults had this going on. There’s long been this conspiracy theory that we were leaving /r/atheism as one of the defaults as an ‘irritant’ in order to drive people to sign up for accounts but that’s patently false. Actual redditors using reddit just didn’t like them, whereas advertisers don’t care.”
Not everyone appreciated the change or Reddit’s bluntness. “4chan, I’m sorry, old friend. I’m coming home,” wrote one irate user. Which, come to think of it, was probably Reddit’s point.