Mar 29, 2013 · 4 minutes

In the history of "content," from "Antigone" to the Harlem Shake, there's never been a more efficient machine for unearthing stuff people want to consume than Reddit. What shows up on Reddit's front page isn't always good or smart, but it's always interesting to a huge number of people. The front page of Reddit is the ultimate in democratized content, the polar opposite of the grave, godlike food critic, the radio DJ on the record company's payroll, or even the robot that games a search engine's algorithm (for the most part).

But if Reddit is so efficient at separating the wheat from the chaff, why is it that 52 percent of links that make it to the front page have been shared at least once before? Some of the site's most popular content only surfaces after it's been posted a second, third, or even fourth time. That's the big takeaway of a study conducted last December by Eric Gilbert, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of Interactive Computing. Gilbert calls this phenomenon "widespread underprovision," the suggestion being that if only about half the front page-worthy content gets picked up on first posting, then there are unknowable amounts of "good" content that the community never surfaces. The silent Reddit. If a piece of content is good enough to make it to the front page, why didn't Reddit's hallowed community recognize it the first time?

Gilbert spoke to Nieman Journalism Lab on Wednesday about the importance of Reddit and why he conducted the study. But it's also worth taking a look at the reasons why over half the front page content on Reddit doesn't take a very smooth road getting there, and what that means for writers, artists, publishers, and any one else chasing the viral dragon.

The most obvious reasons will be familiar to anyone who's ever had to write a headline: Some posts just have a catchier tagline than others. Some of the starkest examples of this phenomenon happen in the journalism world, like last year when Forbes aggregated a New York Times story called "How Companies Learn Your Secrets" and renamed it irresistibly, “How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did.“ Guess which story got more shares?

Timing is also an issue. The study notes that afternoon and evening posts tend to make it to the frontpage more frequently than morning posts, when Reddit is actually quieter. There's a tendency among social media editors and homepage editors to worry that content will get lost in the noise if shared during hours of peak activity. But Gilbert's data shows the opposite is true. Like a drug addict, the more content a user consumes the hungrier that person gets for even more content. The Internet user in 2013 is insatiable.

Of course these issues are all correctable by the submitter, not the platform. Reddit general manager Erik Martin admitted as much when he told Nieman, "The primary thing is the user. Not the submitter, not the content owner — the user. So if something doesn’t catch until the third time, that’s not necessarily bad.”

But is there anything Reddit can do? Is there anything Reddit should do? The site already advises users to search for duplicates when posting, yet the site guidelines (or "Reddiquette") reads, "Feel free to post something again if you feel that the earlier posting didn't get the attention it deserved and you think you can do better."

There is one thing Reddit could try, though there's no guarantee that it would fix the problem, and it might make it even worse: Gilbert suggests that Reddit could make the voting mechanism social. When a redditor upvotes a piece of content, it doesn't appear on that person's profile. So there's little incentive to be among the first to upvote something, unlike Twitter where being the first to Retweet a killer Tweet can be a source of social capital in itself.

Then again, maybe Reddit should count itself lucky at 52 percent (Reddit's GM expected it to be worse, he tells Nieman). Nathaniel Mott wrote last week that, "The problem with sharing is that we only want to borrow," and it holds true for Reddit too. People don't want to sort through the list of new Reddit posts, looking for a needle in a haystack of boring content. They want to go to the front page. They want convenience. In that context, the fact that over half the front page content was caught the first time it's posted speaks to the diligence and care of Reddit's super users.

So no, Reddit isn't broken. But if you run a content community site, or even just a site with a community element (is there any other kind of site any more?) it's worth heeding the lessons of this study. Because unless you reward users for sharing content, they'll be nothing more than passive content consumers. And without engaging in your community, don't be surprised when they switch loyalties at the drop of a hat.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]