Source: Redditblog.com

Users and administrators alike constantly refer to Reddit as a community. Whether talking about specific subreddits or the site as a whole, the discourse of community is powerful. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, it isn’t just a branding concept. Many Reddit users also consider Reddit a community in a way other sites are not. Redditors appreciate that the site isn’t a social media network. They like that the model for Reddit is about content aggregation and forum discussion, they like the relative anonymity they have, and they like being able to curate their experience by subscribing to subreddits tailored to their interests.

I have previously argued that Facebook is not a community. I feel less confident making that argument for Reddit, primarily because so many users consider it a community. Regardless of my own definition of community—a social unit based on voluntary association, shared beliefs and values, and contribution without the expectation of direct compensation—and the extent to which it does or does not fit this definition, the fact is that there is an important affective component to community, and many users certainly feel that connection.

There are a variety of reasons that Redditors may think of Reddit as a community in a way that social media websites do not. It isn’t atomized or individual centered. It isn’t based on curated user profiles. It’s… well, community based. You can only post content to a group, and individual users rarely get a “following” so to speak. But that is about to change in a big way.

Admins recently announced that they’re rolling out a new profile feature that allows redditors to follow individual users. Their posts will show up on their followers’ front pages, and they have an individual profile page that is much more user-friendly than digging around someone’s post history. By and large, the Reddit community was pretty unhappy with the announcement. Why? You can probably guess: it threatens the community element that makes Reddit special.

The announcement at the time of this writing has a 50% upvote rate, making it a “controversial post” as far as upvote to downvote ratios go. Nearly all of the top comments in the thread are in opposition to the change, and nearly all of them argue that it will harm the community-based structure of Reddit. They argue that community is the whole appeal of Reddit, it’s what makes it different from social media sites, and that introducing profiles will favor self-promotion and corporate branding at the expense of subreddits. Profiles may discourage participation in subreddits and turn the site into a place where you follow individuals rather than communities.

Users are also accusing admins of changing the site for commercial interests. Profiles give users complete moderation control of anything posted there, allowing individuals and corporate entities to control their brand and draw attention to their own products, rather than acting as one account among many in a subreddit. Accountability would be reduced for those interested in self-promotion and branding, as profile posts would allow the user to delete anything they wanted. Several redditors argued that this would fundamentally change AMA (ask me anything) posts if they move from r/IAMA to profiles, where questions that are inconvenient or uncomfortable would be easy to delete, rather than remaining unanswered—a damning indicator that the person doing the AMA doesn’t want to deal with that question.

It’s not the first time that changes to Reddit have been chalked up to profitability. When admins banned and quarantined several objectionable subreddits, many users cited increasing ad sales and promotional posts as the cause. Coca-Cola likely doesn’t want their ads showing up next to racist or pornographic content.

The general backlash can be summed up in two points: profiles move the Reddit dynamic away from the community model and toward the individualist social network model, and the commercial interests of admins continue to make the site less attractive to users. The life and death of Digg was mentioned quite a lot, and talk of mass exodus and the demand for a new content aggregator popped up in thread after thread.

So, is Reddit a community? In my opinion, no. But many users do consider it a community, which I think is much more important than any sociological definition I choose to apply to it. I do, however, think many subreddits function as communities, and the death of subreddits is what users fear the most. There is a direct conflict between communal vs. individualist models of human interaction. For my part, I think the profile addition will have significant effects for the site, but I do not think they will destroy subreddits so long as that sense of community is felt deeply enough that users continue to participate in them.

Of course, a huge majority of visitors and users don’t submit any content at all. Lurking is a well-known phenomenon, and while the numbers are very difficult to accurately assess, we know that for content creation in general there is a large participation gap. So, if active users who generate a lot of content move from subreddits to posting on their own profiles, that could be a significant change to the role of subreddits on the site as.

More than anything, community is a feeling. Given the outcry and the large numbers of upvotes on comments opposed to the profile feature, users fear the loss of community at an emotional level. In my definition above, contribution without the expectation of direct compensation is a key element to community, and it is the fuel that keeps Reddit moving. If Reddit moves from a community-based content aggregating site to a social network for brand-building and individualist self-promotion, contribution without compensation falls apart. This is what the fear boils down to.

But if these community ties are felt strongly enough, it will be up to users who aren’t interested in self-promotion to contribute more than ever, to replace what could potentially be a large exodus of power users from the subreddit model. Lurkers must come out of the closet. Voting will not be sufficient participation in a community, and it will require many more users to actively “invest” in the subreddit community by submitting content and filling the gap left behind by those who move to profile submissions. This change, if it plays out the way many redditors believe it will, will test the extent to which subreddits are a useful model for community, and just how invested in them users are.

Britney is on Twitter.