Of the three main drivers of internet culture-blogs, social networking sites and forums-most people in the media and in the general Internet-using public only understand two. Blogs work in a very obvious way: they're like magazines or newspapers, but light. Information spreads from blog to blog up and down the food chain, but it's pretty traceable. Social networks work in a different but equally obvious way: they're like real-world word of mouth, but easier to track, though still much tougher to control or predict than blogs.
But forums can be inscrutable to outsiders. And they get far less attention than the other two culture-drivers. "Everyone" uses Facebook and Twitter, and everyone "gets" Gawker and the Huffington Post, but fewer understand what's going on at Fark, Digg, 4chan, Something Awful and Reddit.
So far, Digg and 4chan have gotten most of the attention. It's vaguely understood that Digg is that massive site you try to get your blog posts submitted to, and every commercial blog I've ever worked for dedicated some time to trading votes in an effort to gently game the system. (I also have friends who arrange voting rings for money, against the site's rules.)
And 4chan is that deep dark site that Makes Things Happen. They invaded an old man's birthday party! They hunted down that lady who dropped a cat into a bin! Of course, no one "real" spends any time in the "asshole of the internet" (an accidentally apt meta-reference to Heart of Darkness), and the site doesn't keep regular archives and no one has usernames. So it's hard to tell just how many of 4chan's exploits are truly 4chan's.
And I say plenty of them aren't. Likewise, plenty of Digg's traffic-sending power is overblown-especially now that traffic was down at Digg after their redesign disaster.
Both of these sites are being replaced by Reddit, a four-year-old news forum with far more educated, better-behaved users than either, but with a culture that somehow rides the middle between Digg's slavery to the mainstream tastes of America's teen males and 4chan's obsession with inscrutable in-jokes and anti-humor.
Reddit got almost 300 million pageviews in July, compared to the 200 million Digg views in July that Digg founder Kevin Rose reported on his blog. So says an infographic posted on Reddit by Chris Slowe, the site's lead developer, who also asks why the media continually call Reddit "tiny" and "dwarfed" by Digg. What's more, traffic at Reddit, according to their Google Analytics, is up 24% in the last two months.
Reddit's staff of four (Digg has more than 60) are radically transparent in the actually refreshing sense. In July, they asked why web analytics sites like Quantcast, Alexa, Compete and Nielsen all underreport Reddit's traffic (probably causing the media's low estimates). They also explained that Condé Nast doesn't give them much of a budget because they haven't sold enough ads on their massive inventory. (They've since launched a premium tier with added features.) They even publicly argue against CN's managerial decisions and ask their users to petition the parent company.
Reddit is still smaller than 4chan, which passed 300 million pageviews back in February, 2009. But because it's not an intentionally churning forum of anonymous posters, it's much more valuable, view for view. While 4chan is a great place to get a meme started, and the fog of war makes for a beautifully mysterious beginning to a viral epidemic, Reddit is the place to actually get shit done.
The raid of WWII veteran William Lashua's birthday party started on 4chan, but the project only evolved when Lashua's grandson appealed to his internet fans on Reddit, asking them to avoid forming too much of a mob. Such a plea would have been ignored on 4chan, where no one can trust anyone's identity, and the thread would have been deleted in under an hour, as all threads are on that site. Thus Reddit serves as the gatekeeper between 4chan and the internet at large.
But they can also start their own real-world memes. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are holding a rally on the National Mall on October 30, entirely because Reddit asked them to.
At 5 A.M. on August 31, Reddit user mrsammercer posted his "vision": Stephen Colbert should hold a rally to satirize Glenn Beck's August 28 "Restoring Honor" rally. (He admitted a couple of other users had the same idea.) The post caught on, earning over 11,200 upvotes (and 6500 downvotes). Colbert had praised Reddit on the air in July, and many Redditors suspect he's a regular.
While New York says that Colbert and Stewart had discussed a satirical rally while Beck's was still being planned, they didn't announce until the 16th, after Reddit spent two weeks petitioning them online-and raising more than $240,000 for Colbert's favorite charity, DonorsChoose.
We'll see if the rally is successful, or if it fizzles into this year's Snakes on a Plane. But just by getting it rolling, Reddit has already dwarfed the real-world cultural accomplishments of Digg and 4chan and proven that it can push more culture through the internet than its competitors. This is the web's real center, whether anyone recognizes it or not.