SXSW 2017: Reddit thinks it can break your echo chamber

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Media captionReddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian: Users are "really invested"

After the referendums and elections of 2016, concern over online echo chambers grew - the idea that we were getting shielded from a wide range of views because of who we chose to be friends with online.

Could Reddit offer a solution?

At 280 million active monthly users, the link-sharing site is already a phenomenally influential force on the internet.

The site allows you to post links that are then either up or down voted by other users. Upvoted content is given more visibility - and potentially millions of hits - and the downvoted stuff falls away and barely gets seen by anyone.

As well as the "front page" that shows the most popular content, adjusted slightly according to your own tastes, the site also has "subreddits", smaller sections devoted to a particular topic. This system makes it the ideal place to discover views different to your own, said co-founder Alexis Ohanian in an interview with the BBC.

"It's a community that's not defined by social connection," he said following a talk at the South by SouthWest (SXSW) Interactive festival in Austin, Texas.

"What we hope we can do, because these communities are all there, is expose people to those different Zeitgeists.

"This is the first time you can actually go and see how these disparate groups are feeling and thinking about anything, any time of day."

Trump fans

There's perhaps no better example of this than r/The_Donald. The subreddit has become the leading online hub for President Trump's supporters - the man himself held a Q+A session there last year. It's a noisy collection of insider-jargon, conspiracy theories and cries of "fake news" - but it's also the best place to assess what makes Trump's fans tick.

"I think it illustrates well that there are communities on Reddit that maybe I personally don't really agree with," said Mr Ohanian.

"But they're perspectives that, as long as they're within the lines of our content policy, are worth having."

Many Reddit users - not just Trump fans - were outraged last year when it emerged Steve Huffman, the other Reddit co-founder and its current chief executive, had personally edited comments made on the site by Trump supporters.

While apologising, Mr Huffman also announced new measures to curb some of the tactics used by members of r/The_Donald to "game" Reddit - that is, artificially make posts appear more prominently to other users.

Mr Ohanian said such actions were frustrating, but were ultimately helping the site develop.

"A lot of this ends up pressure-testing a lot of the things we're going to need to have built anyway in the years to come as we keep growing. We have a user base that's really keen on pressure testing a lot of this."

He added that he felt the influence of r/The_Donald had been overblown.

"It is not nearly as big as people perceive it to be. Statistically it's actually pretty small, relative to other communities on Reddit."

Into the 'real world'

Looking to the future, Mr Ohanian told the BBC it plans to move into more "traditional" platforms in order to attract the new audiences it needs to grow.

"People are consuming content on one big screen in their home," he said.

"If we can work with partners who reach those big audiences on those big screens, and bringing people back to Reddit, and we on Reddit are pushing people to that content, we want to create this virtuous cycle that brings awareness of Reddit and the rich conversations that happen there to the audience that's just watching the big screens, not paying attention."

He wouldn't say it directly, but the company will soon be announcing partnerships with TV companies - "high-quality" and "traditional" "content partners" - to integrate Reddit chatter into top shows.

This will undoubtedly bring new users to the platform, but for a site that has managed to maintain its distinct tone and sense of humour, some users will be concerned that a flood people could spoil things.

"I hear where you're coming from," he said.

"Reddit has this amazing ability to still feel small. And that's great. But it's really, really big. Sure there maybe concerns - but Reddit has been absorbing tens of millions of new users all the time, and these communities still proliferate, and still feel small."

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