Reddit in the Flesh

Attendees at the Reddit Meetup in Central Park on June 23. The lettered signs reference a popular subreddit group of the same name that has a collection of user-generated comic strips.Photo: Jeff Mermelstein

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, 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.

Photo: Jeff Mermelstein

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.

Photo: Jeff Mermelstein

Besse is aware that he does not fit the stereotypical Reddit mold—his favorite subreddit is devoted to the NFL. “But you can use Reddit for whatever you want,” he assured me. “There are some jokes I don’t get, and the acronyms can be tricky, but that’s a small fraction of the experience to me. My mom could use Reddit and laugh.”

Close to the footpath, in clear view of all Redditors exiting and entering the Pinetum, stood 28-year-old Joey Castillo holding aloft a sign that read R/AINBOW—the subreddit for LGBT Redditors. He was flanked by three friends, including someone who was attempting to distribute r/ainbow stickers. He was having a rough go of it: Most Redditors saw the design on the sticker, smiled awkwardly, and backstepped rapidly across the mulch.

Reddit—and, by extension, any Reddit Meetup—is a tricky place to be gay, and Castillo said he had often felt uncomfortable. Still, he was trying to put a positive spin on it. “You create the communities you want to create,” he said. “We’re here as equals. And we’re on Reddit because we believe that there are a lot of people out there that are lonely and confused—and that we can help them to feel better.”

Among the attendees at the Central Park event was Yishan Wong, the CEO of Reddit. It was his first Meetup, and Wong, who was a Redditor long before he was a chief executive, had taken up residence under a stately old pine tree, on the periphery of the picnic area.

Wong is short, soft-spoken, owlish. “I don’t have the polish and the poise and the schmoozing, and I don’t play golf. Instead, I’m an engineer and a leader of engineers and I play Starcraft (poorly),” Wong wrote in a blog post in March, when he was named CEO. In a photo, he had posed with a shoe on his head.

At irregular intervals, other Redditors floated by and quizzed Wong on various aspects of the site. He answered happily and at length.

Wong told me that an essential part of Reddit has long been the “genuine ­earnestness” of its user base. “With Facebook, you’re not really allowed to be unhappy. Think about it: There’s only a like button. Yes, you can be angry, but it’s only lighthearted rage. On Reddit, perhaps because you can be anonymous, people are willing to be openly sad or angry. They are more honest.” The way Wong sees it, there is virtue in that honesty—maybe even a healing grace.

But not everyone on Reddit is so optimistic. A few weeks before the Meetup, I had beers with Melody Peppers, a chronically shy 29-year-old from Corona, Queens. Peppers had recently been laid off from a job as a pastry chef, and she spends up to six hours a day on Reddit. She frequents boards meant for young African-American women, but she almost never leaves comments, and if she does, she later deletes them—she worries that if people know her race and gender, she might be persecuted. Redditors can be unaccountably savage with one another. In fact, three subreddits, r/WorstOf, r/SubredditDrama, and r/assholes, chronicle the exploits of the site’s worst bullies.

“I don’t have a lot of friends,” Peppers said. “I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with me. I Google it a lot: Why don’t I have a lot of friends?”

At the Meetup, I found her throwing around a large rubber ball. She was standing next to a man in his twenties. They were smiling.

“You’re doing great,” I whispered to her.

She shrugged, but when she stepped away, her face was drawn and serious. “I still feel like it’s not the real thing, you know?”

By four in the afternoon, almost every inch of the Pinetum picnic area was occupied, and the mood, compared with the dour anxiety earlier, was bright and jocular. Sweaty twentysomethings ducked between the trees, gripping the butts of Jody Smith’s laser-tag guns. Warm light leaked through the canopy of leaves. A Frisbee careened overhead.

For most of the outing, Dmitri had hovered near the picnic table, a sheen of sweat coating his brow. Sometimes he struck up short conversations with fellow Redditors, usually male, but the other members inevitably wandered away. I remembered Ryan Ong telling me that Reddit was “a collection of the most awkward people you’ve ever met. They’re not socially normalized.”

But Ong was wrong. At a quarter past five, as a few Redditors began to pack up the bacon and Doritos, Dmitri, he of the white golf shirt and high socks, was visited upon by a genuine miracle. Her name was Lucy. She came from Kansas by way of Bulgaria. She was a young model. And not a model in the sense of someone whose big toe was once used in a Hammacher ­Schlemmer catalogue, but a real model working studio shoots and living with five other models in a hotel room on Houston Street.

Photo: Jeff Mermelstein

She approached Dmitri. She put her hand on his shoulder. His face darkened, as if a grave mistake had been perpetrated, and it was his duty to set it right. Then Lucy began to talk. She was on Reddit several hours a day, she said. Would she tell him her screen name? Not right away, no. Maybe later. Her phone number, in the meantime, yes? Yes. She was interested in politics and animals. What was Dmitri interested in?

“Politics,” he said. “I’m a little more conservative on some things and a little more liberal on others. Than the usual, I mean.”

“That’s nice,” Lucy said. “I like the kitten pictures sometimes.”

“That’s a stereotype!”

“But it’s true!”

They both laughed.

“What do you do IRL?” she asked.

Dmitri told her.

“Sometimes I think we have a common language, being on Reddit. We read the same stuff, see the same pictures. I think we’re pretty—”

Smart!” they said in unison.

“Maybe we’re even smarter than the average person,” Dmitri suggested boldly.

“Sure,” she said, adding, “I don’t like listening to guys complain about not having girlfriends.”

“No one does,” he said.

And then Dmitri and Lucy wandered off to be alone.

Reddit’s Most Read
A week of headlines for the site’s top stories, from June 25 to July 2.

1. Supreme Court upholds Affordable Health Care Act.
2. My Mom helping me through a hard level in Super Mario Land on the day Nintendo Gameboy was released.
3. Great photo of the Colorado Fire smoke, taken by accident by my stepfather showing not only the hell he is driving towards, but the untouched sky he is leaving.
4. A Tampa rape victim can sue Hillsborough County Sheriff for allowing a jail guard to refuse to give her a prescribed emergency contraception pill because it was against the guard’s religious beliefs, a federal judge ruled.
5. Bill would make it a crime to knowingly mislead voters about elections: a bill that would make it a federal crime to knowingly mislead voters as to the time and place of a public election.
6. Brazilian prisoners are now able to shorten their sentences by reading books and writing essays about them.
7. The Chicago City Council just voted 43-2 to decriminalize possession of marijuana.
8. My brother waited out 4 hours in a swampy rainforest to capture a shot of this rare kingfisher. Told him it was worth it.
9. Why Reddit’s voting system is anti-content.
10. [Update] My friends call me a scumbag because I automate my work when I was hired to do it manually. Am I?

Reddit in the Flesh