At a recent Senate hearing on election interference, Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.) declared that “the era of the Wild West in social media” was coming to an end. Internet executives, he said, had been “flatfooted” in their response to bad actors on their platforms—from Russian trolls to domestic conspiracy theorists—and it was time for companies to atone. Top executives from Facebook and Twitter met these rebukes head-on. Google, for its part, endured the committee’s ire for offering to send its lowly Chief Legal Officer. Missing from the hearing were representatives from Reddit, the community-driven news and discussion platform that recently overtook Facebook to become the third most popular web destination in America—and that, for years, has been publicly grappling with some of the same problems of policing user behavior that the other social-media giants now confront.
Some observers may sneer at the communities—or “subreddits”—that make up the site’s user base, but Reddit has become, for good or ill, the internet’s most honest bellwether of American sentiment. Its users include nerds (gathering on subreddits like r/askhistorians), trolls (r/4chan), anonymous champions of internet freedom (r/netneutrality) and enthusiasts dedicated to birthing the memes that make internet culture churn (r/HoldMyBeer). “We Are the Nerds,” the product of six years of reporting by Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, a senior writer for Inc. magazine, is both an account of the site’s history and an efficient recap of the major controversies surrounding online behavior—from the limits of free speech (r/nsfw) to the effects of technology on democracy (r/The_Donald, a group that boasted about “memeing a man into the White House”).
The founders of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, seem to have bumbled their way through building a company. Rejected by a then little-known startup incubator called Y Combinator, they got a call a bit later from YC co-founder Paul Graham. Their first idea was terrible, he said, but the two of them were a pretty great pair: Why not work with Y Combinator and build something else?
In 2005 they began their foray into that “something else,” which turned out to be a network of communities bound by common interests, moderated by each community’s own “power users.” Fueled by “the real-time flow of information and opinion” and an innovative commenting system that let the wisdom of crowds determine the merits of comments, Reddit began to earn its reputation as “the front page of the internet.”
The site also became a political gathering place, especially for internet-born movements. In 2011 many users feared that the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act would restrict their free speech. Reddit rallied, and the bills were shelved. By 2012, when President Barack Obama signed on to Reddit to participate in the ritual Q&A known as “Ask Me Anything,” it was clear that the site had gone mainstream.
The opening sections of Ms. Lagorio-Chafkin’s story present a classic “we were coders once, and young” tale: engineers sleeping in cupboards; founders wearing T-shirts to acquisition talks. At times readers may wish for more detail about the early days. Fateful design decisions are treated only briefly, as if in imitation of the site’s first engineers, who moved hastily (but efficiently) to build something that would please its user base.
Ms. Lagorio-Chafkin fearlessly explores Reddit’s dark edges, documenting the mob mentality that is so often evident on the platform and describing each scandal neatly as the book progresses. She reminds us of Reddit’s brush with internet vigilantism after the Boston bombings in 2013: Users of the site tried to identify the bombers through online research but ended up misidentifying them and making false accusations. She also recounts the 2014 hacking of nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities, whose images remained on the platform for days.
One inspiring example of Reddit’s ability to foster ad-hoc communities is RedditGifts. Started by a power user, Dan McComas, this “Secret Santa”-style gift exchange among randomly matched Reddit users went on to attract hundreds of thousands of participants in more than 150 countries. The flip side, of course, is the nasty subreddit r/jailbait, eventually closed for promoting underage sexual content. Such crackdowns by management usually prompt an outraged response from impassioned users worried about “free speech,” some of whom have bullied and harassed the company’s top brass—including Ellen Pao, the interim chief executive who resigned in 2015 after such an episode.
By that time the company had gone through a series of CEOs. Messrs. Huffman and Ohanian sold Reddit in 2006 to Advance Publications (for just $10 million) and left the company three years later. Soon Advance Publications realized that taming the chaotic website wasn’t something it really wanted to do, and again spun Reddit out as its own company.
Yet as “We Are the Nerds” goes on, we see Reddit mature and evolve. Messrs. Huffman and Ohanian have returned at different times to help shepherd the platform beyond difficult controversies, and management has been willing to make hard decisions that in retrospect seem obvious: Reddit, for instance, was quick to ban “revenge porn”—the posting of sexual content from a former partner without his or her consent—beating Facebook and Twitter to the punch. With Mr. Huffman at the helm today, it’s a more mindful Reddit.
Contrary to Reddit’s motto, the site’s power has not come from being the internet’s front page but from often being overlooked and left to develop in a fascinating if disorderly way. The question now is how the company will fare in an age of greater political oversight. But judging from 13 years of practice, Reddit is used to being underestimated.