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Reddit’s CTO on shedding its "dystopian Craigslist" vibe

A screenshot of the new Reddit layout. Reddit

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Reddit is rolling out its biggest redesign in a decade. The site has a reputation for being very text heavy and sometimes hosting conversations that can get kind of rough. The redesign comes at the heels of a long effort to clean up those conversations and attract a broader audience. The site’s traffic has more than doubled in the past couple of years, but some loyal users aren’t fans of the redesign. Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood spoke with Chris Slowe, Reddit’s chief technical officer and founding engineer, about the redesign. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Chris Slowe: It’s definitely complicated. The trick with Reddit, of course, is that the [user interface] has been pretty static for the last eight years, and so everyone is kind of used to it, even though the aesthetic is usually described as “dystopian Craigslist.” So we had a lot of possible upside for the redesign. And the nice thing is since a lot of the OGs are back, there’s an opportunity to redesign it and at the same time also be our own beta testers, because we are also really hard-core Reddit users.

Molly Wood: When you say the OGs are back, you mean the original executives?

Slowe: Yeah, I think of the original six of us, there’s four of us that are back. So we get to do our own beta testing, which is great.

Wood: Is the goal more users? I mean, are you trying to expand the base?

Slowe: Yeah, I mean, we’ve kind of refined our mission down to try to provide belonging and community for everyone. Which really means we have to basically expand the number of users who come to Reddit and don’t immediately get rejected by our very kind of brutalist design. [In] the last 10 years, there’s been a whole evolution in what people expect from websites. And one of things we added in the redesign was actually Card View, like, giant images we can actually come through and scroll and look. And I think a lot of even core users come to Reddit every once in a while just for the cats.

Wood: So there’s the brutalist design. There has also, of course, historically been the brutalist user base. Is this redesign aimed at also facilitating good conversation?

Slowe: Oh, for sure, yeah. I mean, I think one of the core bits of Reddit, that actually I think is a main differentiator, is the fact that we actually talk to our own community actively. I mean, Steve [Huffman] will put up a post every couple of months and hear what’s going on, basically tell people what’s going on, explain the decisions we’re making and then have a really honest conversation with the community. And if we didn’t do that, Reddit is otherwise a great platform for criticizing Reddit. And so we get a chance to really go in and discuss with the community what they’re doing.

Wood: Everybody’s talking about discourse, like, the American discourse right now. And on our Make Me Smart podcast, we talked to Steve Huffman a year and a half ago about cleaning up Reddit and improving conversation. I have got to say, it feels to me like real discourse is happening there in a way that maybe has failed to happen on Facebook or Twitter. Do you think that’s fair? Of course you’re going to agree, but do you feel like it’s working?

Slowe: I mean, it feels overall good. I think that the thing about Reddit is we’ve always emphasized long-form discourse, which is really not found many places on the web right now. I think some of the best comments on Reddit end up being [those where] you’ll see an article posted and the first comment is going to be a dismantling with references that somebody sat down and actually wrote. I can’t think of another platform where that actually happens. Well, it’s either that or it’s a silly joke that’s a one-liner. But you know, it is the internet, after all. And I think that our job from the very beginning has always been [that] if it feels like we have to get involved, something has gone drastically wrong. And so we try very hard to have a light hand and to make sure that we have structures and policies for self-policing, and overall it’s been working really well.

Wood: And does it feel like, as opposed to a very heavy-handed, walled-garden situation like Facebook, where it’s just going to manipulate kind of what you end up seeing and reward you for engaging even if that engaging is yelling at someone, that really society could work better if people are generally free and able to self-police?

Slowe: Well, I think that what saves us, to a large extent, is the fact that everything is in the open. We have an open [application programming interface] where we’ve allowed third-party clients to basically build whatever they want. Everything you post is on your profile page. All of our communities that are high trafficked are open, and so you have this capacity to not just see what people are talking about, but what they’re talking about elsewhere. And I think that the astonishing thing for me, for the most part, has been that anonymity can actually lead to a lot of authenticity. There’s not this fear of [having] your own personal brand to keep up. It’s like, you’re just being you. And your username is almost like the label of all of your history. And so, it means that you can have things like discussions about depression that are actually honest. We have depression support groups that I can’t think of anywhere else that would actually work. We have all sorts of substance abuse subreddits where people can go in and just talk about the fact that they are thinking about relapsing, and they can actually have an honest discussion with the community about that. It’s just amazing to watch. 

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