Reddit Wants to Combat Its Homepage Problems

'You can't code an algorithm and expect it to work forever'

Users of Reddit have bee complaining about the site's algorithm, which is slow to update. (Photo: Reddit)
Users of Reddit have bee complaining about the site’s algorithm, which is slow to update. (Photo: Reddit)

In an ironic twist, some of the most popular recent threads on Reddit have been about the site itself—specifically, the problems with its front page.

It all started on September 22, when Reddit’s chief technology officer Marty Weiner took part in an AMA with users. The most common complaint was that the homepage content was “static”—for example, one user pointed out that on September 3, the day Kentucky clerk Kim Davis went to jail and Tom Brady won his “Deflategate” case, none of the posts on the front page addressed these topics.

Mr. Weiner and his staff went on the defensive, saying both that the problem may be imaginary and that it may have existed for years:

(Photo: Screenshot)

This answer contented users until last week, when the shooting at Umpqua Community College took over news feeds on every social network—except Reddit. As Motherboard first pointed out, stories about the shooting didn’t reach Reddit’s front page until 12 hours after the event.

Multiple threads popped up, both complaining about the site’s issues and trying to guess why they exist in the first place:

(Photo: Screenshot)
(Photo: Screenshot)
(Photo: Screenshot)
(Photo: Screenshot)

The problem seemingly lies with Reddit’s algorithm. To begin with, the site is structured so that stories that get a lot of downvotes (i.e. those with negative or controversial topics) are ranked lower on the site. No matter how important it is, a story about a school shooting would not do well under this criteria.

Also, Reddit’s popularity has skyrocketed in recent years—there are now 36 million user accounts. Casual users now treat the site like any other social network, skimming the homepage and upvoting stories they like. More upvotes gives a story higher placement on the site—and a funny animal video will always be more popular than news about murdered college students.

Web developer Chris Fohlin told the Observer that Reddit, like any website, has to adapt in order to succeed.

“You can’t code an algorithm and expect it to work forever,” Mr. Fohlin said in an email. “The flow of content and behavior of users changes over time.”

To its credit, Reddit is working on ways to fix this. Mr. Huffman said that his team is revising the in-house simulator which approximates an average day on Reddit. These new figures will hopefully show how to keep the site interesting, and thus keep users coming.

One long term fix that Reddit is considering is personalized homepages—once a user has clicked on a post, it would simply disappear from the homepage.

The fact that it took a while for Reddit to discover these new metrics for user engagement is a function of its size, according to Mr. Fohlin.

“The larger a company grows, the slower it moves,” Mr. Fohlin said. “Ultimately, users have to decide if they’re willing to stick around.”

Reddit did not reply to an Observer request for comment.

Reddit Wants to Combat Its Homepage Problems