Two weeks ago, at about half past noon, a man I’ll call Dmitri stood in the Arthur Ross Pinetum, a mulchy basin in Central Park, watching a gaggle of grown men shoot each other with plastic guns. The day was sweltering, and Dmitri, who has bushy black hair and spindly arms that hang approximately two inches too far past his hips, was dressed for the weather—white golf shirt, pressed khaki pants, highish white socks, and a pair of spotless New Balance trail runners. He looked as if he were prepared for a date, and in a way, I suppose, he was.
Dmitri is a member of Reddit, the largest Internet message board in the world. According to metareddit.com, Reddit currently comprises approximately 144,000 active sub-forums, each of which is devoted to a different topic—New Jersey, for instance, or John Malkovich. Some 35 million users sign on to the site every month. Most are male, and most live in the U.S. Many work in programming or IT. They are drawn by not only the diversity of the content but also the site’s remarkably unified political ethos, which is left-leaning, with a libertarian tack. Marijuana, atheism, congressional corruption, and web rights are among their many interests.
In recent months, Reddit has emerged as a web power broker nonpareil. An article posted to the front page of Reddit can draw tens of millions of clicks, enough to crash some websites. As is the case with the Drudge Report, news organizations have taken to “baiting” Reddit—posting links to their articles in the hope that something will attract the interest of the “Reddit Army.” Thus far, Reddit has resisted these efforts. The message: Reddit is a community. It will not play your low-minded, traffic-whoring games.
Every summer, for five brief hours, thousands of Redditors descend on cities across the world to celebrate Global Reddit Meetup Day, a chance for members to catch up on site gossip, discuss politics “IRL” (in real life), or just toss around a Frisbee and drink Hawaiian Punch. This year, there were Meetups in Koprivnica and Auckland and London, but perhaps the biggest was in Central Park, which drew over 200 Redditors, many of whom had traveled sizable distances to be in attendance. With such a large crowd had come a host of ancillary concerns: Would there be enough snacks? Would there be a lot of awkward silences? Would there be girls?
On the Meetup message board, a cascade of anxious messages had accumulated:
Bring toys, but be aware that they might disappear. We lost a kite last year, I think it’s in South America right now. (Really.)
Do we have a spreadsheet of food? People brought a lot of chips last time. Most wasn’t eaten. I intend on cooking something, what “something” is, I don’t know.
Are people coming alone or with friends? I’ve no friends :( (not really, but really)
That last message was posted by Dmitri himself. Dmitri is 23 years old and single. He lives with his parents in Westchester County and commutes to a tech job in Manhattan. (He asked that I not use his real name for fear that his employers would see this article.) He had been looking forward to the Central Park event. “I hope that everyone will be new to each other,” he told me. “And I won’t have to worry about people already being paired off or something. Because we will all be nobodies.”
Just in case, he had e-mailed a little bit with a woman, Tara, from the Meetup message board. She seemed nice. But at around 12:30, Dmitri received a text message. “I am really hung-over,” he read aloud. “Upside-down smiley face. She used one of those. I guess she’s going to be late.” He adjusted the orange satchel on his back. “Well, that’s okay,” he said.
The Arthur Ross Pinetum filled with bodies. Men, for the most part. There was cake and doughnuts and a large platter of bacon. (Bacon is part of a nonsensical joke used to distinguish hard-core Redditors from virgins.) Someone hummed the theme song to Star Trek. Giggles. A game of laser tag ended. Recruitment for the next began.
“I would like you all to be sportsmen,” announced Jody Smith, the owner of the laser guns. “Also, in terms of teams, I should maybe be a lone wolf, because I’m really good—I’m going to be able to kill everyone by myself.”
Dmitri agreed to watch the battle, although he decided in the end against taking a gun. He was still waiting for a text message from Tara.
Reddit is not Facebook. Reddit is not Twitter. Twitter and Facebook are platforms. Reddit is a single organism, a gigantic Internet brain, composed of millions of cells, each of which vibrates at its own frequency. Reddit has an id and a superego.