A few months into Jason Lee’s new job at Reddit, the office was buzzing with excitement. It was April 2017 and Reddit had just launched r/place, a collaborative project that invited more than 100,000 communities on Reddit to contribute to a great mosaic of the internet. Redditors would land on a random tile on the canvas, which they could then change to any color they wanted.
Lee, a product manager who hadn’t used Reddit much before joining its staff, watched in awe. The mosaic morphed from a scattering of weird blobs (and, OK, a distinctly phallic shape) to a patchwork of everything Redditors loved: a pixelated rendition of the Mona Lisa, the logo for Stranger Things, the Swedish flag, and hundreds of other symbols, smashed into one great digital quilt. “It all clicked for me,” says Lee, “what strangers can do when they band together.”
But Lee and other Reddit staffers also noticed something else. As communities fought to colonize the canvas, they started planning in their own subreddits, and then off Reddit altogether. It took coordination for communities to make their mark on the 1000 x 1000 canvas, but Reddit didn’t have any way to support those fast-paced conversations. You could leave a comment on a thread, but in order to see the replies in real time, you’d have to constantly refresh the page—an impractical and inelegant way to get anything done. So moderators redirected their communities to Google Docs or Google Sheets, using the color picker to replicate the r/place map; others huddled on Slack or, oddly, even Facebook Messenger to plan their conquests.
The experiment proved something to Lee and other members of the product team: When strangers come together on Reddit, beautiful things can emerge. But Redditors needed new ways to come together, a new medium to talk outside of the community-based posts and threads. Some communities already had well-established chats on third-party apps, like Slack and Discord and even Internet Relay Chat. Why couldn’t they have those same conversations on Reddit?
Since then, Lee has been the lead product manager on a new feature that will make that possible: old-school, real-time, type-and-go chatrooms on Reddit. The company has been testing the feature with a small group of communities and plans to roll out to the rest of Reddit at the end of this month. Think of it like a community center for a subreddit: It creates a space to talk without pretense, to bring discussions beyond the comment threads, or simply hang out with strangers online.
The company imagines community chat becoming an integral part of the Reddit experience. The question is whether it can stick—and whether a throwback to a simpler time on the web can withstand the internet in 2018.
A Room of One’s Own
When Lee and the product team began thinking about chat, they took stock of the other chat applications on the market. There was Slack (for work), Discord (for gaming), and Facebook Messenger (for friends). Redditors had used all of those—both as places for moderators to hold discussions and as relaxed social spaces for communities. But Reddit wasn’t really like any of those platforms. No one knows who you are on Reddit; you come there to mingle with strangers who share something in common—whether that’s an interest in conspiracy theories or a fascination with bread stapled to trees. (Yes, really.) That felt more like the chat platforms of the early 90s, like Internet Relay Chat or AOL chat rooms.
In those early days of the internet, chatrooms served a specific purpose: They turned surfing the web into a social act. In chatrooms, people forged web communities with their own slang and netiquette. “People felt like they were pioneers creating community homesteads on the electronic frontier, as Howard Rheingold described it,” says John Suler, the author of Psychology of the Digital Age and the founder of the field of cyberpsychology. Joe Schober, AOL’s chief architect, likened those early chatrooms to “frontier towns.”
Reddit’s chat feature hopes to reintroduce some of that early web spirit. Chatrooms will be organized by subreddit; only moderators will be able to create them. In beta testing, some have organized around super specific topics (like a room in r/BabyBumps for expectant mothers in their first trimester) while others let the conversation meander (like r/mildlyinteresting’s General Chat: “Ya know it’s general.”)
Open the chat icon and you’ll see all the rooms you’ve joined above a list of recommended rooms. Each room includes a sentence or two to explain what it’s about, but there aren’t full-on community rules here like there are in subreddits. You can see how many people are in the room and scroll up to read the last 14 days of chat history. (Reddit started beta-testing subreddit-based chat with zero chat history, but expanded it when people complained it was impossible to start conversations. “Going into a chat room, saying ‘hello world’ and then sitting there thinking no one is there or cares sucks,” says one moderator.) The chat icon lights up in orange when there are new messages in a chat you’ve joined, and Reddit is working to build in notifications for @ mentions.
Alex Le, Reddit’s VP of product, says community chat serves a different function than Reddit’s comment threads. He points to sports subreddits, many of which already hack together semi real-time threads for game days. “They default sort that conversation by ‘new’ instead of by ‘best.’ What emerges then is people shouting into the comment box the thing that they just saw on the screen, and it’s appearing next to what someone else saw on the screen. So that’s almost real time,” he says. A conversation like that might be better suited for a chatroom, while Reddit’s archived content—long stories, discussions, AMAs—might be better served by the comment format.
Chat also changes the nature of conversations on Reddit. “There are different levels of formality involved in posting versus chatting,” says Le. “You can think of the subreddit listing as a pretty curated space. The moderators think a lot about it, and they have rules for how you’re supposed to post, etiquette.” Chat, on the other hand, is off the cuff. “We think there’s room for both.”
Talk the Talk
Reddit’s chatrooms come at a time when the platform is struggling to tame some of the content on its platform. Earlier this month, Reddit’s co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman told a user that hate speech itself isn’t explicitly against Reddit’s rules—it’s simply too hard to determine what qualifies and what doesn’t. Last week, when a moderator tried to shut down r/KotakuInAction—a controversial subreddit associated with GamerGate—Reddit administrators swooped in to save it. Some moderators say they’re already struggling to keep their subreddits civil. The idea of managing a room of thousands of people all talking over one another on charged topics has made some want to steer clear of community chat altogether.
“We’re just the internet version of a janitor,” says u/Handicapreader, who moderates several large communities including r/worldnews. “No janitor in his right mind is going to tell you how to make it harder to clean the poop off the floor.”
Reddit’s product team says they haven’t actually seen more trolling or bad behavior in their early tests with community chat. When Reddit first launched its first test chat, r/community_chat, Lee and others volunteered to moderate. “Initially, just like with r/place, we saw people just coming in to see how much damage they could do,” says Le. There was spamming and a spattering of inappropriate remarks. But within a couple of hours, it went away. The offending comments disappeared in the chat history and people started having normal, civilized conversations.
“For a troll or someone trying to ruin that experience, there’s just not that much incentive,” says Lee. “Their message goes away so quickly.
Reddit has several teams devoted to brigading and trolling, including an Anti-Evil team that builds tools to make the platform safer. When Reddit introduced one-to-one chat last year, that team created mechanisms for preventing spam and harassment in messaging. Those kinds of tools will carry over to the new chatrooms; moderators can also set a custom rate limit (to limit how frequently someone can post) and custom keyword filter (to block specific words and slurs), in addition to other basic functions (like banning users or locking the room). Reddit also plans to release an API to let moderators build their own tools, based on subreddit-specific needs. But for now, the feature set remains pretty basic. “It’s more of a community-based moderation model compared to a subreddit, where they take everything more seriously,” says Lee.
Le thinks that “almost any community could benefit from having real-time conversation on Reddit,” though some moderators have shied away from the idea. u/iwinalot7, a moderator for r/casualconversations, says that community’s beta chat has gone pretty well so far. The real-time nature of chat works well for a subreddit built for relaxed conversations. But she also moderates r/cringe, a place to share cringeworthy articles, videos, photos, and stories. “I do not want, and will actively try to stop the implementation of that chat for that subreddit,” she says, citing a community culture that can easily become “toxic.”
Only moderators can start new chatrooms for their communities, and it’s unlikely that all of them will. But Reddit’s product team maintains that the feature could benefit anyone on the platform—and it could bring Redditors together unlike ever before.
“People are mostly good,” says Lee. “You see that on Reddit over and over again.”