Where civic engagement is concerned, Austin, Texas, is perhaps the only government to avail itself of a free platform for civic engagement that reaches about 200 million highly engaged, unique monthly visitors. Reddit began as a social news website used mostly by software developers in 2005 and has since grown into the 10th most popular website in the U.S. and the 31st most popular website in the world.
Reddit’s simple design, broad feature set, and rabid community make it unlike any other place on the Internet. While it has a reputation for knee-jerk mob outrage (“get out the pitchforks” redditors are wont to say), the frequent and warm-hearted episodes of collective activism show the community’s immense potential for digitally connecting government with its citizens.
Since forming its official Reddit presence two years ago, Austin has received a warm welcome into the community. Reddit users have promoted Austin’s account with Reddit Gold, a funding mechanism that allows access to advanced features, and several popular submissions by the city have led to millions of hits on the city Web pages, YouTube videos and other social media accounts. The city has also hosted two question and answer sessions – called AMA’s (Ask Me Anything) on Reddit – with users posting dozens of comments on /r/Austin.
James Williams, a producer at ATXN, Austin government’s TV station, started the city on Reddit by posting a photo of a dinosaur exhibit on his personal account three years ago. The next day, he was called into his boss’s office, Williams said.
“At first I was afraid I was going to be in a bit of trouble!” Williams said.
It turned out that Williams' boss, who didn’t even realize that Williams had posted the image, had been shown the post by his neighbor, whose son was featured in the photograph. The photo received 3,500 hits in one day as a result of the post, which was a lot for the city, Williams explained.
“Our videos on YouTube at the time only received a few hundred hits a day, so we saw a great means to broadcast what we do,” Williams said.
ATXN serves the city’s public information office, so it’s the station's job to make Austin citizens aware of new things, from photos of kids enjoying a dinosaur exhibit to warnings about lead paint. The Austin subreddit, a sub-community within Reddit focused on the city of Austin, has nearly 50,000 subscribers, so introducing itself to the community provided the city an instant boost to the kind of exposure it was seeking.
One of the city’s Reddit posts even made Reddit’s “best of” subreddit, a community with 4.7 million subscribers.
“I love living in a city where the municipal government has and uses a Reddit account,” /u/Flelk wrote in response to a public service announcement about heavy rains and flood risk expected last Memorial Day.
Perhaps most importantly to government, Reddit is a hive of nerd activity. Subreddits centered around gaming, software development, and technology are among the most visited on the site. Though Reddit has gradually become more mainstream, the website’s user base is still largely composed of software developers, engineers and more tech-oriented Internet users, making the site a potential goldmine for governments that want to engage with their more tech-minded citizens.
But government isn’t on Reddit for a couple of reasons and one of them is that they don’t know about it, Williams said.
“None of my co-workers knew about it before I told them,” he said. “No. 2, it’s a scary place. Reddit can be kind of scary, especially if you don’t post right.”
When it comes to posting, Austin doesn't have a formal Reddit policy. Williams is trusted to run the city’s Reddit account after having taken progressively bigger steps into the community. At first, it only posted content, like links to announcements, but the city didn’t comment on anything because it wasn’t sure of the legal ramifications, Williams said. That issue was never really resolved.
“I thought, screw it, they’re not going to see these posts, so I just started commenting without asking them and it went really darn well,” Williams said. “Every once in a while I would be like, ‘Hey, I posted this yesterday and it did pretty good’ and they were like, ‘OK, great job!’”
One of Reddit’s biggest strengths is its immediacy and directness. Top news stories from CNN can be found alongside photos, videos, and written accounts posted by regular people who saw or did important and interesting things. Traditional news media serves an important function when performed with integrity, but the value of unfiltered images and ideas submitted and chosen by the crowd often prove to be more accessible and honest than anything that came before them.
Even small gestures are enough to garner the populace’s respect. Williams recalled an incident in which he saw a question in the Austin subreddit about the legality of drinking alcohol in a particular park. No one knew the answer, but Williams knew the public information officer for the parks department, so he walked down the hall, got the answer (which was "yes, it's legal to drink there") and posted the answer. People were thrilled to have an answer to their simple question and also to have had their government answer it directly, he said.
Now users regularly tag the city’s Reddit account for questions. One user asked for a recommendation on an arborist, and since the city contracts arborists, it was easy to refer them, Williams said.
Austin Resource Recovery’s AMA about recycling was featured by an NPR affiliate for the city’s response to a question about whether aerosol cans can be safely disposed. The city wrote, “So far so good, no explosions here! So, yes, it is an item we accept!”
In June, Gov. Greg Abbott spoke out against the Supreme Court’s pro-same-sex marriage ruling, citing the First Amendment’s promise of religious freedom. In a display of support to both the Reddit and Austin communities, both of which lean left politically, Williams linked to a photo of Austin City Hall adorned by a small rainbow flag, with the text, “We got your back.”
A time-lapse video showing the dangers of flash flooding that was eventually picked up by Good Morning America and the Weather Channel, started as one of Austin's posts on Reddit.
“We see such great potential in using Reddit to communicate,” Williams said. “Our other social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter all rely on people liking or subscribing to us, therefore [they] only see what we post if [they’re] subscribed. Whereas Reddit throws your post out in front of 8.3 million users. How well it does relies on how in touch you are with your community. I find being open and honest are the best means of communicating, and [it] helps a government account – ‘the man’ – feel less [like] propaganda and more in touch with our residents. Basically, [it’s] tearing down the stereotypical ‘uncool’ government worker. We live in the same city, and want to see this city succeed.”
The Reddit community has a reputation for hostility towards all forms of deception, according to Williams. To avoid problems, be honest and open and keep expectations low, he said.