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Reddit in the Flesh


Here is what the id does: collects porn. Makes porn. (A popular NSFW forum is Gone Wild, a collection of self-shots of naked Redditors, male and female.) Indulges in extreme paranoia. (The subreddit r/MensRights, which describes itself as “earning scorn from bigoted feminists and white knights since March 2008,” was recently put on notice by the Southern Poverty Law Center.) Hurls nasty insults. Floods e-mail accounts of those perceived to have fallen afoul of the unofficial Reddit code of ethics. (After Gawker’s Adrian Chen joked about Reddit on Twitter, he received messages urging him to “DIAF,” Reddit slang for “die in a fire.”)

Here is what the superego does: Finds bone-marrow donors. Distributes petitions to abolish for-profit prisons. Rages against the Stop Online Piracy Act. (Reddit was instrumental in organizing opposition to the bill, which now appears all but dead.) Redditors have donated $50,000 to a kid afflicted with a blood disorder, $200,000 to Doctors Without Borders, and $180,000 to relief efforts in Haiti. They also helped funnel over $600,000 to Karen Klein, the bullied bus monitor from upstate New York.

Redditors like to refer to their community in lofty, quasi-religious terms. It’s a force for good in a bad world, they say. It punishes the evil and rewards the meek. “Redditors have bigger hearts than the average person,” one of the Meetup organizers, 25-year-old Ryan Ong, told me.

All of which appears extremely noble, of course, seated in an airless basement, warmed by the glow of a laptop screen. But in the harsh light of the Pinetum, few ­Redditors seemed to actually want to talk about Reddit. They wanted to play. In a grassy corner, a group of programmers huddled around a board game, exchanging nervous glances.

Nearby lurked the members of r/tall—a subreddit devoted to extremely large human beings. The ringleader was an affable e-commerce guy with the first name of Erik, who looks like an elongated Eric Bana, all limbs and floppy dark hair and brooding brow. Erik had brought two pounds of bacon and duct-taped the phrase R-TALL across the front of his shirt.

“Most people don’t realize that door frames are six feet, eight inches,” Erik was saying. “And how about the subway?” his friend Ben Nell chipped in. Ben is taller than Erik. “It’s fine near the door, but if you get pushed toward the middle, the ceiling actually drops down, and you have to stand like this.” He cricked his neck and stuck out his tongue, like he was being hanged.

On the other side of the picnic area, Ron George was eating doughnuts. George is a software-design architect for a major media company. He was wearing a black bowling shirt and sunglasses. Within five seconds, he was towering over me, breathing hotly on my forehead, and gleefully detailing the vicissitudes of the Life of Ronnie George: “I make a lot of money; I weigh 330 pounds; I like to eat; I don’t have any problems.” He was 42, older than most of the other Redditors. He planned to represent Reddit in a Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest. In the mode of a medieval knight, he’d don the Reddit colors.

“Listen,” he said, leaning closer, “I’m a fucking ­piranha in this pool. All these other socially awkward people, I eat them up. That’s right, fucker,” he added. “That’s just how I roll.” He grabbed a woman seated to his right. A tattoo of a tree covered her back. George pointed. I looked. A small R.G. was nestled on one of the branches. 
“I told her I’d buy her the tattoo if she put my initials there,” he said.

“It seemed like a fun idea,” the girl shrugged.

Turning away, I ran headlong into a short woman with blonde hair. She was dressed all in white. She seemed out of place. I said hello. She slapped both hands to her crotch, like a football player post-touchdown, and emitted a sound that resembled the death moans of a mortally wounded sea lion. Her nostrils flared. “Blllllllooooooooogh,” she said.

The woman was a real-life troll—a Redditor who had traveled here with the sole purpose of flaming the rest of us.

In January 2011, Reddit was seeing 30 million page views a day. By December, it was seeing 65 million—a vertiginous leap for any tech property, let alone one so bare bones. (Reddit has about fifteen full-time employees.) Unsurprisingly, the growth has begun to push the site, once the sole dominion of computer nerds, closer to the center. There are more women now on Reddit, more non-techies, more people interested in sports.

As the day wore on, I met many representatives of the new breed: Cliff Brannan, a neatly coiffed employee of J.Crew; Vivian Allum, a petite NYU student, who had arrived with a foster dog named Ronnie; Taris Besse, an ultramarathoner wearing a chunky Rolex.


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