There are many ways to measure the traction of a social media platform: time spent, page views or unique users. But it might be useful to add one more metric: if the leader of the free world stops by to answer questions from your users, you’re probably doing OK.
On Thursday, President Obama signed up for an “Ask Me Anything” (A.M.A. in geekspeak) session at Reddit, a vast social site that is a staple of digital life for the young and connected, but less well known among grown-ups.
The president answered a few benign questions — Michael Jordan is his favorite basketball player! — along with a few tough ones, including a request to explain his administration’s approach to Internet regulation. He even posted a picture to prove he was the one at the keyboard when he typed, “Hi, I’m Barack Obama, President of the United States. Ask me anything.”
While the Republicans were celebrating the potential and might of American business at their convention in Tampa, Mr. Obama was validating one example of business success on an entirely different platform. Reddit, which was founded by two fresh graduates of the University of Virginia in 2005, has just 20 employees, but serves up more than three billion page views a month.
With its basic graphics, endless links and discussions, Reddit can seem like peering into a bowl of spaghetti, but it has surpassed better-known aggregating sites like Digg to become a force on the Web. Occasionally, as in the instance of the Colorado shootings, it takes control of a news story early. Built on open-source software and guided by the ethos of its community, estimated by Quantcast to be 20 million users a month, it is a classic Web start-up in which opportunity seems mixed with barely controlled anarchy.
So who are the silky venture capitalists or young lions of Valley technology who own this vast unruly kingdom? That would be Advance Publications, the home of Condé Nast, the magazine company that bought Reddit back in 2006 for a reported $20 million. That kind of deal is usually a signal that a ritual sacrifice was about to begin in which a clueless old media company snaps up a hot Web property and proceeds to squeeze the life out of what it just bought.
But that is not what happened. Steve Newhouse, the chairman of Advance.net, decided very early on that his company would not be the blob that ate Reddit, and for the most part, left well enough alone. “We had some ideas about what would be good, but it might not have worked,” Mr. Newhouse said. “We paid attention to the community instead.”
Its two founders, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, stayed on after the sale for three years — a feat unto itself. And when it became clear that Reddit was hamstrung in competition for leadership and engineers as part of Condé Nast, the company was spun out as an operationally independent subsidiary in 2011.
During that time, it threatened to become an also-ran in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of social media. Then Digg, which had been the leader among communities formed around the aggregation of links, made some poorly received changes and users fled to Reddit.
“Strategically, what they have done should be a model of how to create and support a virtual start-up within a larger corporation,” said Anil Dash, a writer and entrepreneur in digital realms. “Condé gave it enough rope and left the people there to their own devices. I don’t know whether it was a brilliant strategy or accidental neglect, but the founders did not leave, the community stayed intact, and the site grew beyond anybody’s expectations.”
In the context of a company that owns Vogue and The New Yorker, Reddit is a deeply weird place. Links are voted up or down by a community that is full of pseudonyms, which has the odd effect of prompting users to be very intimate and remarkably candid, albeit as avatars. The community is chiefly young, male and extremely wired. It can be a casually misogynistic place, and the site has all the retro graphic appeal of Craigslist, which is to say, not much.
Reddit is not an exception to every rule in the digital world. Like many digital media companies, it has a big audience and minuscule revenue. Bob Sauerberg, president of Condé Nast and a member of the board of the independent company, says that is fine by him.
“We think it has huge potential and we want to make sure that we scale that,” he said. “There will be ample opportunity to monetize what they have built as it grows, and it will be a very big business.”
In the spring, Advance hired Yishan Wong, a former software engineer at Facebook and engineering manager at PayPal, as the chief executive — an unconventional choice because he had little executive management experience. And Mr. Ohanian came back as a board member, yet another odd circumstance.
“When we sold the site, I ended up with a life-changing — at least for me — amount of money, and I thought the least I could do was make good on my end of it, so I knew I would stay for the life of the contract,” he said. “We’d have quarterly meetings with Steve, but for the most part, Steve just seemed to think that if we were able to start the company on $12,000, that we probably wouldn’t screw it up.”
It can make for some jarring juxtapositions. Advance is a privately held company that keeps a tight rein on information of all sorts, yet Reddit is built on open-source software free for the taking or tweaking. The site has harnessed user energy and creativity to self-police the forums and grow in all sorts of unpredictable directions. It is, in media terms, about as far away from the glossy editorial values of Condé Nast as you can get.
“We ran into some annoying human resources bureaucracy when we tried to hire people, but we run lean and don’t make a lot of hires, so that didn’t come up a lot,” Mr. Ohanian said. “For the most part, we were given a ludicrous level of autonomy. You have to give them credit where credit is due.”