The threat of advertising skulks outside the periphery of every free site or service, but the more terrifying thought is that, to paraphrase “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” the ads are coming from inside the house.
That’s what Reddit may be facing with a new form of advertising announced by the social news site earlier this week. Reddit doesn’t do well with change, so it’s no surprise that the immediate reaction from some quarters was hostile.
On close inspection, though, the changes proposed aren’t either as heinous as some think, or as innocuous as others think. In both cases however, there seems to be apprehension at the possibility of being the proverbial frog in the pot.
So what is this earth-shaking development? A new ad type called a “promoted user post.”
Early reports made it sound worse than it is. This little exchange gives a nice flavor of the immediate reaction:
A bit of damage control by starfishjenga and a helpful diagram spelled things out pretty well, though.
At the top of many subreddits (those are the small, contained communities on the site, if you’ve never been or avoid the place) you’ll find a spot for simple, largely text-based ads. Maybe for a run-tracking app in r/fitness, or an upcoming title on r/games. It’s pretty straightforward and unobtrusive. Other small banner ads can be found in the sidebar on the right.
Essentially, the change is that the sponsored slot at the top of any subreddit can have its content be a post from an ordinary user that an advertiser decides they like rather than an ad. The user is rewarded with Reddit Gold (a premium status that affords an ad-less experience, among other perks), and the advertiser gets to put a link on the far side of the post.
Now, as the top comment on the announcement points out, this really ain’t much of a change at first glance. It’s an ad people already see, and instead of content created by the advertiser, it’s stuff from the subreddit that, in all likelihood, many people already upvoted.
But it isn’t the ad itself that’s making people nervous. It’s something much deeper than that. It’s the nature of advertising on the platform as a whole — and, to some extent, across the entire internet.
The social (news) contract
The promise of social news services, the very essence of them, is one of control. In every other place, someone else is in control: the mainstream media, the politicians, the elite. But the trusty mob, armed with mice and keyboards rather than pitchforks (so 19th century), can exercise their will and create a counterbalance, a check to the establishment. That’s the story, anyway.
It’s what draws us to these sites, that the story you’re seeing is there because lots of people like you (shout-out to the knights of the /new) thought you should see it, too. You probably know the feeling, and you understand why it’s valuable.
Monetizing sincerity is like pouring salt on a slug.
Some pixel art of Mario and Yoshi created with beads by a user of r/pics is fun — and if, in a sponsored user post, House of Beads sends it to the top of the pile, well, that’s better than some copy from their ad team lamely trying to trick you into joining their bead of the month club. Or is it?
The problem is not that the ad is itself good or bad, but that it blurs the boundary between advertising and content on a site, and a class of site, that has always prided itself on having a thick orangered line between the two.
In short, what’s valued is sincerity, and monetizing sincerity is like pouring salt on a slug.
Into the valley
People are weird.
Add sponsored posts every 10 items in their Instagram feed and they take it in stride, but change the way the other nine are ordered and it’s war. Put a pre-roll ad on a YouTube series and they sit through it, but put them in video annotations and they unsubscribe. Show the world’s worst ads in the Facebook sidebar and they laugh it off, but put a relevant one with their friend’s face and watch the knives come out.
What’s the logic? The latter examples all fall into a sort of advertising version of the uncanny valley — we’ll call it the unhappy valley for clarity.
Make a plot of how effective stuff is versus its subtlety — which for simplicity we’ll define as 1/visibility (my algebra is rusty). On one side of the valley is straight-up ads clearly visible as such. We’ve lived with them for centuries and we understand they’re part of the media landscape.
On the other side are the invisible ads — successful viral campaigns, for instance, or good product placement. We don’t even know we are experiencing them, but we absorb them anyway.
In the middle, there? That’s your problem. It’s where astroturfing, shady lifestyle blogs, and Microsoft ads generally fall.
The thing is, people also have their pride. They want to know they’re being advertised to, so they can make an informed decision — the constrained dishonesty of banners and TV spots is now well understood by its target audience. Or, failing that, they take a sort of masochistic pleasure in being hoodwinked by a savvy marketer; it’s the same feeling as being shown a card trick, even if you lose a buck in the bargain. “Damn, you got me.” Got to respect the hustle, right?
If you’re not sure whether you’re being advertised to, however, it’s the worst of both worlds. You start being as skeptical of every piece of content as you would be of an ordinary ad. Because you know for sure coercion is masquerading somewhere in front of you in the form of ordinary content, you treat everything like a potential viral ad.
Not only that, but you stop treating members of the community as such. You’re suspicious of the other people in your subreddit. Are they a plant from Big Bead? Did they make that post just to attract the attentions of Procter & Gamble? It was never a question before. Either it was a good post or a bad one — it couldn’t be an ad, because ads were at the top (though that might be changing, too). Now users will question the goodwill and impartiality of others they accepted implicitly before — others they may never have even given a second look.
That kind of cynicism poisons the well. If users are potentially motivated by a material reward — of course, we’re talking Reddit Gold here, so this only goes so far — instead of by simply wanting others to see their post, that’s a blow to one of the fundamental attractions of social news.
Frog in the pot
So where are the users left with this? It’s hard to say that this simple substitution is bad on its face, because it’s such an apparently harmless change. But the more important thing is the willingness on Reddit’s part to cross the streams of user-generated content and sponsored content. That’s a one-way street, philosophically at least, and it should be alarming to Redditors even if the new ad type isn’t.
Compromising a founding ideal is a great way to get a little lift, and it’s hard to find a company too proud to do it.
There isn’t much anyone can do, of course: there’s no credible alternative to Reddit right now, just some niche players, so there’s nowhere to go but nowhere. And although I doubt the powers that be at the company are really trying to ruin everything by monetizing you and spoiling the communities they’ve helped build, they must know that they’re crossing an important threshold here with what amounts to a captive audience.
Reddit, like its predecessors, was always going to be living on borrowed time. That doesn’t make it a bad site (other things might, of course) any more than Twitter being unable to earn a dime makes it a bad service. In both cases, and a hundred or a thousand more, reality has caught up with ambition and the end of the runway is approaching. Will they fly or die? Compromising a founding ideal is a great way to get a little lift, and it’s hard to find a company too proud to do it.
Is this the end of Reddit as we know it? Well, Reddit as we knew it is a long time gone. It’s been a work in progress for quite a while. And it will be for some time to come. But the last year or two have offered a bit more insight on what its final shape will be. Personally, I don’t like the way it looks.