By Erik Jones
Most people have heard that Reddit is the “front page” of the internet, but a description I like better is that it’s one of the best hubs for learning on the internet. The amount of value from the comments, ideas, books, podcasts and other websites I’ve encountered while on Reddit is greater than any other site I’ve ever used.
It’s easy to dismiss Reddit as a collection of cat memes (no better place to find them though), but it’s really just a mini version of the internet, where you can get out of it whatever you’d like. If you want a mindless place to pass the time, no problem. If you want a place to find amazing discussions and amazing things you didn’t know, also no problem. The key is knowing that you can set up Reddit in a very tailored way to feed you an endless supply of the specific topics you most want to learn about. Just like with podcasts, it takes a little context first to fully appreciate how to turn Reddit into a learning portal.
To gain this full idea of what Reddit is, I broke this post into three parts for easy navigation. Part 1 is an overview on how to actually use and navigate Reddit, part 2 focuses on the Reddit podcast, and part 3 is the guide on how to turn the Reddit feed into a continuous stream of interesting things you can learn from. This slight detour before the learning part is important. Reddit is such a large and diverse website that it’s difficult to fully appreciate without understanding the bigger picture.
PART 1- Become a pro with Reddit
Reddit by numbers
In spite of looking like an internet message board from the late 90’s, if Reddit were to be transformed into its own country, it’s 202 million unique monthly visitors would make it the sixth most populous in the world. This would make it about the size of the combined populations of Germany, Italy, and the UK. But if you look at how many people actually log into their account within a month, it would be more like the size of Puerto Rico at about 3.5 million. This is an important distinction, because to actually use Reddit in a way that is tailored to your tastes or to comment, you must be logged in. Basically, if you just visit the site and don’t log in, you’ll get the default feed which only includes posts from 50 popular subreddits, which leaves out the other 9000+ active communities. More on what this all means below.
So, What Exactly is Reddit?
The content of Reddit is completely driven by that Puerto Rico sized community of users, not by any kind of professional staff. There is no main “Reddit”, only a collection of what is going on in the communities of Reddit, aka subreddits. What you see in your feed (the front page) is the most popular content from the subreddits you are subscribed to.
Anyone can create a subreddit on any subject, which is why some are focused on funny cat memes and some are focused on much more serious topics, like debating religion or politics. You can even create a subreddit if you’d like, but it’s certainly difficult to get enough people subscribed to make it feel like a mini community instead of a ghost town.
If any of this is still confusing, I’ll enlist the help of one of my favorite podcasts, Reply All. They did an episode on some drama that happened on Reddit, and in the process of explaining the whole thing to their Reddit naive boss, hosts Alex and PJ do an amazing job laying out what Reddit is all about. Here’s a quote from the episode:
Alex Blumberg (boss): “I know it’s a message board, or something, right?”
Alex Goldman (host): “You’re not wrong, but the deal with Reddit is, imagine it as like, a giant marketplace with booths that cover different topics. And they’re called subreddits. So there’s Reddit as a website, but there’s a subreddit about video games, there’s a subreddit about music, there’s a subreddit about everything.”
If you listen to the whole episode, you’ll have a pretty solid understanding of what Reddit is all about. It’s only 15 minutes long, so just listen to it and become in the know. Plus Reply All is pretty fantastic overall and made the cut for my Supersized Podcast Playlist.
Check the episode out here: Reply All- The Reddit Implosion Explainer
If subreddits are the structure, karma is the currency. Karma is a completely useless but completely powerful psychological tool to promote good discussions and content on Reddit. If you post a link or thought as a post to a subreddit, people can upvote it or downvote it. Similarly, if you post a comment, people can also vote it up or down. The upvotes you get compared to your downvotes is known as your “karma”, which gives you bragging rights and more visibility to your post or comment. The lucky super popular posts from each subreddit have a chance to make it to the front page of the feed of anyone who is subscribed to that subreddit. This all breeds a surprising combination of informative, thoughtful and witty content/discussions as people compete for fake points under fake usernames. It can be seen as psychological jujitsu on Reddit’s part, or just cool people trying to add value to other people on the internet and get some kind of minor acknowledgment for it.
The karma obsessed nature of redditors combined with users seeing the most upvoted content/comments, leads to one of the best discussion environments on the internet. If you thought the world was going to hell after spending just two minutes in YouTube comments, spend some time on Reddit and have your faith slightly restored.
If you really like a comment and want to “super” upvote it, you can buy that person gold. It costs real money, and it helps that person feel special and have access to gold-only parts of the site. The money goes to Reddit, which is a neat way to support the site as well as promote thoughtful comments.
I was certainly confused for a while as to what I was even looking at when I first started checking out Reddit. You’ll grow to love it’s simplicity, but your first reaction might be, “wow this is ugly, I’m out of here.” I mean, you can’t deny the below picture is a little confusing looking if you’re new to the site. I’ll break down the three key, not so obvious things to look for.
Red: 2703- the amount of upvotes minus downvotes (link karma). That’s a lot and people go their whole Reddit lives trying to get on the front page like this post did.
Orange: lateriser- username of person who posted-almost all usernames are anonymous, unlike Facebook. Some people can be more themselves as a fake name than as their real name which leads to some amazing stories being shared.
Blue: /r/explainlikeimfive- all subreddits start with /r/ and this one is perfect for getting lay person explanations on potentially confusing topics. This is right up my alley and here is the link to that post.
How to Reddit
By far the best way to experience Reddit is on a computer, using a plug in called the Reddit Enhancement Suite, or RES. It’s free, has a version for every browser, and will make the experience of using Reddit much more enjoyable.
Even though it’s much better being in front of a computer, most people, myself included, will use Reddit through smartphones almost exclusively. Just type Reddit into your app store to find the official app, as well as a slew of third party apps that many people prefer. The overall experience is diminished on mobile, but the basics of catching up on trending posts and reading top comments is fast and easy.
Like I’ve mentioned, it’s the community that makes Reddit a special place on the internet. You’ll find plenty of bad behavior, but the overall level of trolls or assholery is pretty much non existent because the most downvoted comments don’t even show up in the discussion. In a post that makes it to the front page, the top comments are all but guaranteed to be witty, a useful summation of what the article says, or why the link needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
A quick scan of the comment section on a post helps you get the overall feel of what the linked article is about, kind of like how rotten tomatoes gives an overall feel for how good or terrible a movie is likely to be.
Part 3 will lay out the overall best learning subreddits, but discussions across all subreddits can provide unexpected stories or information that send a little internet wisdom your way.
A few more links to really understand Reddit
I truly believe in Reddit’s ability to help anyone learn amazing things, but it helps to get addicted to the more general appeal of Reddit to fully understand the site. Included below are some fun links to explore to get a better feel of the humor and culture of some of the more mainstream parts of Reddit.
-GIF’s are short, looping videos that are popular on Reddit. Some are funny, others are lame. Here is a popular post where people submit their favorite ones, so you might as well embrace them by starting with the best. Look for the guitar player one. Also, Imgur (pronounced “imager”) hosts all of the pictures and GIF’s on Reddit, so get used to seeing that site linked to continuously.
-Take a look at the most popular posts and comments in the first ten years of Reddit’s history.
-One of my favorite uses of GIF’s is when someone wants to truly show how they feel about an amazing or terrible comment by responding with an animation involving downvote arrows (blue) or upvote arrows (gold). They can include anything from fantastic downvote GIFs , satisfying upvote GIFs, Matrix GIFs involving both, Breaking Bad GIFs telling the OP (original poster) they are a liar, or even GIFs perfectly showing what trying to get on the front page is like.
-You’ll see a lot of novelty account user names where the name is either funny in and of itself or it goes along with the type of comments they post. My favorite examples are the artists u/awildsketchappears who draws random things being discussed on Reddit and u/shitty_watercolour who does the same, but with, well you get the point. Check out this rare showdown between the two.
-Subscribe to upvoted weekly, a newsletter put out by Reddit every Sunday to highlight awesome content you most likely missed.
-One of my favorite non learning subreddits is /r/photoshotbattles. It’s exactly what you would think and this battle utilizing a waxy Bruce Willis head was in my saved folder so it must be good. And for Game of Thrones fans, it’s required that you subscribe to /r/thingsjonsnowknows. Click on it, then think about it for a moment.
PART 2- The Reddit Podcast
One of the co-founders of Reddit, Alexis Ohanian, started a podcast called “Upvoted”, to dive deeper into the stories and culture of Reddit. I didn’t know what to expect, but I caught up and listened to every single episode and I all around highly recommend it. There are endless great stories that come out of Reddit and Upvoted will add to your knowledge of how diverse and interesting the community can be, as well as provide some damn good podcast listening.
Reddit can feel like a insiders club for a while as a new user, with the site overall and each large subreddit having it’s own subculture and inside jokes. This podcast is probably the best way to leapfrog the several month process it might take to get the in group references. To discuss each episode, go to /r/Upvoted, which is one of the few subreddits controlled by Reddit. I’ll list below the best episodes to check out and why.
Ep 1- Could a Unit of Marines defeat the Entire Roman Empire?: The story of how a random Reddit comment turned into a book deal and a potential movie. One of the best examples on the power of upvotes to push worthy content to the top. This comes from one of my favorite subreddits, /r/askreddit.
Ep 12- The Surprisingly Complex Life of a Vacuum Repairman: This episode deals with the popular concept on Reddit of interesting people or celebrities allowing the community to ask them anything. This “Ask me anything” or AMA was one of the most popular one’s they’ve ever had for a non celebrity and is a fascinating story.
Ep 22- The Button: A simple April Fools joke from Reddit that blew up beyond their wildest expectations. The subculture that formed around this joke is a harmless but fascinating example of how naturally in and out groups are formed. I’m a proud non presser.
Ep 25- A Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes: In this episode, Alexis talks to two different Redditors who wrote massively popular posts. At their best, stories on Reddit can turn into empathy creating force multipliers, and these highlighted examples are Reddit at its best for being a force for good that opens people’s minds to what is happening around them.
Ep 27- Unidan: You can’t consider yourself a Redditor until you understand the rise and fall of Unidan. He went from one of the most popular personalities on Reddit as a beloved science communicator to banned and shammed, overnight.
Ep 31- The Heroine of Heroin: Tracey Helton was featured in the HBO documentary, “Black Tar Heroin”, as a drug addict. Now she is clean and is an advocate for harm reduction in the addiction community. Alexis asks her about her story and how Reddit has become a place for her to help hundreds of people in need of support and life saving resources.
Ep 32- The Great North American TIFU: A popular subreddit is TIFU, or today i fucked up. It’s a place for people to admit a major fuck up they’ve had in order to get it off their chest. This is a story that once again shows how amazing the Reddit community can be, as they rallied to turn a huge fuck up for an independent game developer into a giant success. It’s also a lesson on how the pull of Reddit can be tempting for just about every company to take advantage of for marketing, but that you can’t manufacture viral, grass rooted action like this.
PART 3- Turn Reddit into a tailored learning tool
Subreddits to make you smarter
Ok, so by now we know the key to using Reddit is subscribing to the right subreddits. To have a maximally learning focused Reddit experience, you need to create an account, unsubscribe from at least half the default subreddits, and subscribe to some active smaller ones where the community is specifically set up for learning or intelligent discussions.
Each subreddit has it’s own rules for what kind of content can be posted, so be sure to check out the sidebar within each one before trying to submit a post. This sidebar contains all sorts of useful resources, like various wiki’s and other similar subreddits to check out.
My idea of what can make you smarter aren’t subreddits that will simply throw facts at you. The below list is weighted more towards communities that promote interesting questions or topics and tend to have interesting discussions. Don’t forget that you can sort each subreddit by different categories like what’s popular now, what’s most popular of all time, and what’s quickly rising in popularity.
Here are some great default subreddits to keep:
/r/books– A solid community for book lovers of all types. I’ve added countless books to my Amazon wishlist from passionate recommendations within the comments of this community.
/r/askreddit– By far my favorite mass appeal subreddit. This is where you can really get to know how insightful and funny the Reddit community can be. Personal stories on Reddit can be just as informative about the world as an expert’s opinion, and this is where the best ones can be found. Here is a serious and informative example, and here is a funny, creative example.
/r/askscience– The moderators of this community are strict in what kind of answers or questions they allow which keeps it serious and informative.
/r/dataisbeautiful– Informative infographics. The comments are just as useful as the graphics, because if the data is misleading or sloppy, there will certainly be a few popular responses from experts shitting all over it.
/r/DIY– A DIY’ers heaven for learning.
/r/documentaries– Discussion and links to documentaries that are usually freely available on YouTube.
/r/explainlikeimfive– The gist of this subreddit (shortened as ELI5) is someone asks a fairly complicated questions and someone else who really knows their shit breaks it down in a perfect metaphor that anyone can understand. Explaining to someone how a new theory on black holes works sounds difficult, but check out the top comment on this post for a perfect example on how useful this subreddit can be.
/r/history– A wide ranging discussion on history.
/r/IamA– This subreddit hosts the famous Ask Me Anything (AMA) discussions. Other subreddits will have these for their specific topic, but this is the main forum to hear from interesting people where you can ask them anything about their work or projects.
/r/news– Get a filtered look at what news stories are popular with Redditors.
/r/science– Get your science related news broken down by type of science.
/r/upliftingnews– Is news ever good? Here, it all is.
/r/worldnews– Everything happening outside the U.S..
The best non-default learning focused subreddits to subscribe to:
/r/askhistorians- People ask questions about history, and experts give much greater in depth answers than you would ever expect strangers on the internet to do. They even have their own podcast, an in depth history FAQ, and an fantastic list of resources/books to check out. These historians don’t mess around.
/r/changemyview– Someone will submit a view they have as a challenge for other people to convince them otherwise. Regardless of how stupid the original view is, there is always a great discussion on popular questions and you can learn a lot about all sides of controversial issues.
/r/historyofideas– Links and discussions around the history of scientific, historical, cultural, and political thought.
/r/politicaldiscussion– This is a good place to see what a politically diverse set of semi-in-the-know Redditors think about a political question asked of them. Check out the side bar for a bunch of other political themed communities to find one that fits what you’re looking for.
/r/learnprogramming– Not everyone is interested in programming, but it’s a skill set that is becoming more and more important to at least be acquainted with. This is a great community where new people can find support from experienced programmers. Their FAQ is very thorough, with lots of links to resources and other helpful subreddits. This is simply the most popular specific skill subreddit, but there are large communities around all sorts of languages (spoken or computer) and hobbies, so be sure to search around.
/r/bestof– See buried but amazing comments from other subreddits highlighted here for a chance to get a proper audience. This is where some great stories can surface and an easy way to see what other subreddits are out there.
/r/IwantToLearn– See what people want to learn (IWTL) and what helpful Redditors dish out as advice on where to start.
/r/lectures– A relatively small community, but you’ll be introduced to all sorts of interesting links to free lectures that you will probably optimistically bookmark and never watch, but hey, you never know.
/r/youshouldknow– If there is something you are dying to let people know about, share it in this subreddit. A good deal of what becomes popular are links to cool resources and overall useful information.
The University of Reddit
A fairly unknown part of Reddit is a place where experts can host a class for free where anyone can follow along to learn. It’s called The University of Reddit, and if you are a self motivated learner, definitely check out the courses available. The best part is that everything is usually left on the site for future learners to sift through at their leisure.
One underutilized use of Reddit is to simply search the site itself for questions you have instead of asking Google. Reddit, for whatever reason, is not indexed very effectively by search engines, so Google usually gives you Wikipedia or the frustratingly unhelpful Yahoo Answers. Search Reddit directly and you’re likely to find a discussion that’s happened within the past few years that fits with exactly what you were looking for.
Say goodbye to your goal of less screen time
Once you get into a routine of how to use Reddit and once you get some upvotes on a comment, you’ll be hooked. Avoid all the negativity Reddit sometimes gets because it’s probably from people who don’t really understand what it has to offer. If you use it correctly, it can transform into an unlimited engine of interesting-ness. Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips for using Reddit or additional subreddits that consistently put interesting things in front of you.