Some months in Jason Lee’s new work at Reddit, the office was buzzing with excitement. It was in April 2017 and Reddit had just launched r / place, a collaborative project that has invited more than 100,000 communities on Reddit to contribute to a great mosaic of the Internet. Redditors would land on a random tile on the canvas, which they could then change to any color they wanted.

Lee, a product manager who hadn’t used Reddit much before joining his team, watched in awe. The mosaic went from a scattering of odd spots (and, okay, a distinctly phallic shape) to a patchwork of everything Redditors loved: a pixelated interpretation of the Mona Lisa, the logo of Strange things, the Swedish flag, and hundreds of other symbols, smashed into one large digital quilt. “Everything clicked for me,” says Lee, “what strangers can do when they band together. “

But Lee and other Reddit staff noticed something else as well. As communities fought to colonize the web, they started planning in their own subreddits, then out of Reddit. It took some coordination for communities to make their mark on the 1000 x 1000 canvas, but Reddit had no way to support these quick conversations. You can leave a comment on a thread, but to see responses in real time you have to constantly refresh the page, an inconvenient and unattractive way to do anything. The moderators therefore redirected their communities to Google Docs or Google Sheets, using the color picker to reproduce the r / place map; others huddled in Slack or, oddly enough, even Facebook Messenger to plan their conquests.

The experience proved something to Lee and the rest of the product team: When strangers meet on Reddit, great things can emerge. But Redditors needed new ways to come together, a new way to talk outside of community messages and chats. Some communities already had established chats on third-party apps, like Slack and Discord and even Internet Relay Chat. Why couldn’t they have these same conversations on Reddit?

Since then, Lee has been the Senior Product Manager for a new feature that will make this possible: old-fashioned, real-time chat rooms to grab on Reddit. The company has tested the feature with a small group of communities and plans to roll it out to the rest of Reddit at the end of this month. Think of it as a community hub for a subreddit: it creates a space for unassuming talk, for taking discussions beyond comment threads, or just hang out with strangers online.

The company envisions community chat becoming an integral part of the Reddit experience. The question is whether this can stay, and if a throwback to simpler times on the web can withstand the internet in 2018.

A room of your own

When Lee and the product team first started thinking about chat, they took stock of other chat apps on the market. There was Slack (for work), Discord (for games), and Facebook Messenger (for friends). The redditors had used all of this, both as places of discussion for moderators and as relaxed social spaces for communities. But Reddit wasn’t really As one of these platforms. No one knows who you are on Reddit; here you come to mingle with strangers who share something in common, be it an interest in conspiracy theories or a fascination with tree-stapled bread. (Yes really.) It was more like the early 90s chat platforms like Internet Relay Chat or AOL chat rooms.

Back in the days of the Internet’s advent, chat rooms served one purpose: they turned web surfing into a social act. In discussion forums, people have created web communities with their own slang and netiquette. “People felt like they were pioneers in creating communal family properties on the electronic frontier, as Howard Rheingold described it,” says John Suler, author of Psychology of the digital age and the founder of the field of cyberpsychology. Joe Schober, AOL’s chief architect, compared these early discussion forums to “Border towns”.

Reddit

Reddit’s chat feature hopes to reintroduce some of that early web spirit. Chat rooms will be organized by subreddit; only moderators will be able to create them. In beta testing, some have organized themselves around super specific topics (like a room in r / BabyBumps for pregnant women in their first trimester) while others let the conversation wind (like r / mildlyinteresting’s general chat: “You know it’s general.”)

Open the chat icon and you’ll see all of the rooms you’ve joined above a list of recommended rooms. Each piece includes a sentence or two to explain what it is, but there aren’t full community rules here like there are in subreddits. You can see how many people are in the room and scroll up to read the last 14 days of chat history. (Reddit started testing subreddit-based chat with zero chat history, but expanded it when people complained that it was impossible to start conversations. Sucks, ”says a moderator.) The icon Chat box lights up amber when there are new posts in a thread you’ve joined, and Reddit makes an effort to incorporate notifications for @ mentions.

Reddit

Alex Le, vice president of products at Reddit, says community chat serves a different function than Reddit comment threads. It flags sports captions, many of which already hack semi-real-time chat threads for match days. “They default to sorting this conversation as’ new ‘instead of’ best.” What then appears is people shouting in the comments area what they just saw on the screen, and it shows up. next to what someone else saw on the screen. So it’s almost real time, “he says. A conversation like this might be better suited to a chat room, while Reddit’s archived content (long stories, threads, AMAs) might be better served by the comment format.

Chat is also changing the nature of conversations on Reddit. “There are different levels of formality involved with posting versus chatting,” says Le. “You can think of the subreddit list as a pretty organized space. The moderators think about it a lot, and they have rules about how you’re supposed to post, the label.” The cat, on the other hand, is improvised. “We think there is room for both.”

Speak the Speak

Reddit’s chat rooms come at a time when the platform is struggling to tame some of the content on its platform. Earlier this month, Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman tell a user this hate speech itself isn’t explicitly against Reddit’s rules – it’s just too difficult to determine what is permissible and what isn’t. Last week, when a moderator attempted to shut down r / KotakuInAction, a controversial sub-reddit associated with GamerGate, Reddit admins stepped in to back it up. Some moderators say they are already struggling to keep their civilian subreddits. The idea of ​​managing a room of thousands of people all chatting to each other on busy topics has made some people want to avoid community chat altogether.

“We’re just the internet version of a janitor,” says u / Handicapreader, who runs several great communities, including r / worldnews. “No sane janitor will tell you how to make it harder to clean the droppings off the floor.”

Reddit

The Reddit product team says they didn’t actually see more trolling or bad behavior during their first tests with community chat. When Reddit launched its first test chat, r / community_chat, Lee and others volunteered to moderate. “Initially, just like with r / place, we saw people come in to see how much damage they could do,” Le explains. There was spam and a splash of inappropriate remarks. But in a few hours, it’s gone. Offensive comments disappeared from the chat history, and people began to have normal, civilized conversations.

“For a troll or someone trying to ruin this experience, there just aren’t a lot of incentives,” says Lee. “Their message is going out so quickly.