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Reddit Risks Upvoting Itself Into Political Obsolescence

When Reddit users learned that Rep. Zoe Lofgren would ask for their help in crafting legislation, their responses ran the usual gamut. “We must be responsible, we must be the lobbyist,” went the top-rated comment, from the self-serious (or sarcastic?) user acusticthoughts. “We, The People, must take this opportunity and use it to the best, and highest of our abilities.” ZeroCool2u responded with self-aware earnestness: “This is important, if we fuck this up, it's unlikely we'll ever get another chance like this.” And then tastethelink chimed in: “FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD IN THIS WORLD, MAKE SURE WE WARN HER OF THE BUTTHOLE PIC GUY.”

Welcome to Reddit. The message board–like social website, where users' clicks determine which posts become more (or less) popular, has had a big year in politics: orchestrating successful campaigns to stymie anti-piracy legislation, and hosting AMAs—short for "Ask Me Anything," their version of a Q&A—with President Obama and dozens of Congressional hopefuls. But Reddit is still, primarily if reductively, a weird moshpit of cat GIFs, liberal and Libertarian rants, video game tips, Arrested Development references, crude jokes and, sometimes, borderline child porn. It is through all that noise that Lofgren wants to reach every geek and freedom-of-the-internet enthusiast who traffics the site to crowd-source legislation that would establish due process for domain-name seizures. Wish her luck.

Still, her experiment gives shape to the question other outside-the-box pols must be asking themselves: Will the future see Reddit mature into a reliable, effective political community? 

The recent, scattered examples of Reddit’s political oomph make it a tempting prospect. President Obama’s AMA produced “a Mt. Everest sized traffic spike” for the site, and his session concluded with 30,000 new voters registering via a single link he offered to his campaign’s registration page. Reddit publicity helped Rob Zerban, the erstwhile long-shot challenger to Rep. Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin seat, raise more money than he’d thought possible for his campaign (upwards of $15,000). And, of course, there was Reddit’s dazzling campaign to scuttle SOPA and PIPA, a pair of bills that would allow copyright holders to shut down sites infringing on their copyright. The laws were written so broadly that, opponents cried, as to threaten the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Wikipedia. Reddit's relentless campaign against the bills culminated in a day-long site blackout, helping stall the legislation and make it so poisonous that it even indirectly influenced Rep. Paul Ryan to renounce his support of SOPA.

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It was the successful fight to block SOPA/PIPA, above all, that gave Reddit the seductive sheen of influence Lofgren is now trying to harness—with others sure to follow. The disparate community had for one powerful instant closed the gap that is the bane of successful online agitation, between freewheeling umbrage and targeted anger. Combining an unrelenting stream of outrage and one big publicity stunt—the blackout, which Wikipedia joined—Reddit helped force lawmakers to back down from legislation whose supporters outspent Reddit allies 13 to 1. It was everything every political rabble-rouser with Internet stars in his eyes had ever imagined: a bitching-and-clicking campaign organized and sustained enough to actually work, rather than just make noise.

Lofgren, a staunch Reddit ally in the SOPA/PIPA fight, is now making an open attempt to spark that little-D democratic magic for an actionable priority. But it’s not going so hot. Where the mere mention of SOPA/PIPA was enough to inspire complaints in the thousands, in one day a sitting congresswoman’s call for legislative brainstorming has elicited almost no momentum and a tepid ninety or so comments—about a third of what a decent cat GIF can garner in the same period of time. Part of problem is that her cause doesn’t have the same sex appeal as fighting SOPA. Yes, Lofgren’s bill would make it harder for the government to shut down websites suspected of copyright infringement, but it’s not as easily reducible. She doesn’t have the benefit of being able to point to a popular website that will cease to exist tomorrow if no one rallies to her cause. SOPA allies did. It’s easier, moreover, to freak out than to be proactive, thinking through the arcane legal rights websites should have when they run afoul of the law. Still, Lofgren’s legislation ought to be highly attractive to the anti-SOPA set. It would place time-consuming legal burdens on law enforcement officials looking to seize websites where users might share copyrighted images or pirated Game of Thrones episodes, actions which in Reddit-speak constitute “freedom of the Internet.”

But Redditors responded more to the news of Lofgren's effort than to the effort itself. While her actual post garnered only a few useful comments and some 400 upvotes—a show of approval akin to a "like" on Facebook or a retweet on Twitter—an article from tech site CNET about the impending post was upvoted more than 2,000 times. This is the ultimate sign of what holds Reddit back—not the creeps or bathroom humor, but the fact that a preponderance of its users are more enamored of the attention their bouts of seriousness attract than are willing to act on that seriousness. There was no shortage of users basking in the news of their high-profile supplicant, but asked by Lofgren for ideas, and Reddit blew it. Where users have pushed their peers to take action beyond upvoting, rarely more than a few do so. Take the Reddit-created Test PAC: after its highly publicized launch, the super PAC was mostly inactive during the election. What’s more, it chose as its mission a pipe dream: unseating SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican in a safe-as-can-be seat.

Even at the height of the SOPA/PIPA campaign, the limits of Reddit’s activism were obvious. “Are you guys REALLY contacting your Senators?” asked IWorkForASenator. “Not from what I’m seeing.” Tellingly, most of the responses to the post were either entreaties for Redditors to do the actual work of making phone calls. For the organization of in-person anti-SOPA protests, Reddit largely relied on tech meetup groups and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

So politicos scoping out the usefulness of Reddit, take note. The past decade impressed upon us that the democratization of opinion afforded by the Internet can amount to very little when it’s not backed up by something tangible. Obama For America’s behemoth online network, for example, got its power from the thousands of canvassers and millions of small donors who utilized it to act offline. Such motivation is largely absent among Redditors. And without it, the date at which the Reddit click brigade will fail to attract notice, and their ire online will fail to make an impression on Capitol Hill, is fast approaching. Reddit has the potential to be a geek-friendly ALEC, or at least a petri dish for progressive legislation, but the response to Lofgren's appeal suggests a duller future for the site—as just another social platform where politicians half-heartedly engage with the public.