Reddit 101: home of the duck-sized horses

A guest post by Appalachian Trail thru-hiker and adventure author Gary Sizer

Lighting in a Bottle

A relatively new and modern trail tradition, one only practical in recent years, is the “selfie” beard video. For as long as digital cameras have been around, hikers have been compiling picture-a-day beard animations, compressing six months of facial hair cultivation down to five captivating minutes of film.  

I had no plans to start on mine the night I got home from hiking the AT, but one shot still on my camera caught my attention. I was glowering at the screen from arm’s length, sweaty, disheveled, and clearly having a bad day. 

For fun, I cropped the image and pasted it beside a shot I took from the plaque at Springer Mountain, five months prior. My bare cheeks were round, I still wore glasses, and I didn’t have burn marks or duct tape on any of my clothing. I added two more stills: before and after double-biceps in the hallway at home.

I grouped the shots into a single image and as a lark, posted it to Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet.” I told my wife I was going to bed early and brushed my teeth. I rinsed, spat, and checked my messages one more time. There were three, each regarding the picture.

One was a congratulatory note, and the next two were strangers asking questions about hiking the trail. It wasn’t too late, so I responded, happy to help, and by the time I was finished, there were five more. Then twelve. Then a hundred. 

Within an hour, over a thousand people had been exposed to a double-whammy of me in my underpants: pudgy on the left, near death on the right. Dizzy and exhausted from four days in a car (not to mention five months in the woods,) I collapsed into my bed, temporarily forgetting the brief burst of attention.

When I awoke, nearly three million people had seen the picture. 

Gary Sizer before and after.jpg

How Did We Get Here?

Reddit is one of the most popular and misunderstood social media platforms around. No one has a profile picture and you don't have a "wall" or a timeline. Anyone can create an account any time they want, with or without an email. There's no friends list. Everyone can see everyone, but you'll never get spam. There's almost nothing to it. It's a simple tool really, but so is a chisel.

And that’s what’s at the heart of Reddit really – the power to shape robust and complex things (in this case online communities) using the simplest of tools. Anyone can post content, and any reader can “Upvote” or “Downvote” that post. That’s it. Stories with the most upvotes bubble their way to the top, while nonsense and trolls get “downvoted into oblivion”.  

Content aggregation with built in quality control? Who wouldn’t flip out over that?

The site got its start in the mid-2000’s as a place for programmers and scientists to share code snippets and discuss the finer points of this week’s batch of peer reviewed technical papers. Oh, and porn. 

Just like all great technological breakthroughs such as print, TV, VCRs and the internet, within days of its creation people were using Reddit to look at naked pictures. This probably accounts for the early (and sticky) misguided assumption that the place is kinda gross. The fact is that while legal adult content is allowed on Reddit, one has to actively search for it. 

As a first time visitor to the site, you are greeted with a generic front page full of the top posts from a mishmash of the most popular “subreddits”, or categories such as news, funny, TodayILearned, and a whole host of others. Presumably what you’re seeing is the stuff with the most upvotes and therefore the most interesting, funniest, most useful, and so on. That in itself should be exciting: content aggregation with built in quality control? Who wouldn’t flip out over that? It gets better. 

When you create an account the whole world opens up. First, it’s fast and easy. You don’t need an email address, there’s no profile picture to upload, and you don’t even need to supply a real name. You can, but no one’s asking. Once you’re logged in, you can pick and choose which subreddits you want to comprise your front page (some suggestions below). There are literally thousands upon thousands to choose from, covering every possible interest from politics to your favorite sports team. There’s one for quilting, coin collecting, looking at abandoned houses, and even (presumably fake) pictures of BirdsWithArms. Don’t see what you want, create your own.

They walk among us. Not everyone on Reddit is anonymous, or unknown!

They walk among us. Not everyone on Reddit is anonymous, or unknown!

What Can Reddit Do?

A reader scoured my Reddit history and asked me to sign his book with this comment.

A reader scoured my Reddit history and asked me to sign his book with this comment.

After I hit the front page of Reddit every inbox I owned was flooded with questions and congratulations. Numerous “click-bait” websites had latched onto the image, and while I slept the social media breakfast crowd scrutinized my shorts. This persisted for weeks, and to be honest, I didn’t mind. It gave me the chance to talk about the trail, and to share some stories. In a way it was the ultimate group therapy.

It also had the fortuitous side effect of significantly bumping my audience. Reddit calls itself “the front page of the internet” because it is. Enticed solely by the reward of imaginary points (every upvote comes with one “karma point” that does nothing) hordes of the world’s most dedicated online sleuths will scour the web continuously so they can be the first to break a story on the front page. Aggregators love this. Chances are if you see something on Buzzfeed, it was on Reddit last night.

In my case, that focus was brief, but significant. The traffic bump to my blog was surprising and to this day when you google “Hiker Before and After” my face comes up. People at AT events (or even way out in the woods once) will come up to me and say “Hey, you’re that guy!” But more importantly was that Reddit ultimately thought I was okay. 

It’s been two years since my face went viral, and in that time I’ve climbed the Reddit ranks. I’ve given and hosted several “AMA’s” (Ask Me Anything, an online real-time Q&A), conducted a successful book launch, and even help moderate one of my favorite subreddits, which has over 20,000 subscribers. The only possible reason any that worked however is because I also made a few booger jokes along the way.

Help! I’m Surrounded by Nerds!

Fake it till you make it does not apply here. Redditors can be incredibly generous when it comes to supporting other Redditors, but Reddit was founded by people who love to scrutinize and analyze evidence (and look at kittens wearing scarves). They will shine their collective spotlight on obvious shills and cry “Rampart!” A reference to Woody Harrelson’s notoriously disastrous AMA, this label is basically the mark of exile. 

So how do you avoid the torches and pitchforks? Easy. Never say or post anything. Lurk. Make your account, subscribe to a few subreddits and enjoy. There are millions of you, and you all seem quite happy. Thanks for the upvotes by the way.  

But what if you want more? To get in the mix, so to speak. Maybe you have a story to tell or a question to ask. Perhaps you made a thing and want feedback. Or (gasp!) to sell that thing you made? 

What I got in exchange for that time was a front page interview that netted over 700K impressions.

The two most important rules to remember are “Be helpful” and “Roll with it”. Upvotes come from things that people like, and people like engaging and interesting content. Reddit hates one-word answers. Tell a story if you can. Answer honestly, always. And always answer, if you can. That’s where the second rule comes in. Reddit is weird sometimes, so be ready for questions like “Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses, or 1 horse-sized duck?” This was a real question during President Obama’s AMA, and it made him (and the question) Reddit-famous when he rolled with it and answered. (He chose the large duck, by the way.) 

That specific question and numerous other in-jokes are bound to come up which can be off-putting to new visitors. Reddit’s culture and collective memory are highly referential. There are ridiculous catchphrases that come and go, mysteries get solved, people get engaged, and every year the site admins conduct genuinely brilliant social experiments on April Fool’s day.  Random celebrities (usually ones who have rolled with it) will show up deep in comment threads, offering words of advice or encouragement, and Reddit notices. Reddit remembers.

A comment to Gary from an anonymous Reddit user:

I reckon you do Reddit absolutely perfectly... folk love you! 
Imho it's a perfect storm of aspirational info and content:

  • Folk love the Appalachian trail: everyone wants to quit and disappear for a year of hiking!
  • Folk love that you quit your job and became a full-time adventure writer: everyone wants that!

Add to that:

  • your absolutely killer viral before/after pics,
  • your Reddit posts are organic and win/win,
  • and yeah, the book is actually good!

I see a lot of "adventurers" here doing it wrong, all contrived world-firsts and lack of understanding Reddit culture... and worse, drive-by posts for short-term sales.

My most recent AMA was a delight. I blocked off my Saturday and answered hundreds of questions, telling stories about my favorite things and typing until my hands cramped. What I got in exchange for that time was a front page interview that netted over 700K impressions. And fun. I love this stuff.

You always have to know your audience of course, but here it’s tricky. The user base is now comprised of every demographic and in general the one thing you can assume they all have in common is that they are on a site where your real name, gender, age, location presumably don’t matter. Unless you want them to. It’s mostly ideas and words and discussion. And herds of duck-sized horses. 


Famous Moments in Reddit History

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