Meet Voat, the website that wants to be the anti-Reddit

Meet Voat, the website that wants to be the anti-Reddit

As social-news site Reddit tries to clean up its act by limiting some speech, an alternative springs up, promising to be more freewheeling.

by Ian Sherr, Max Taves, and Brett Murphy
July 17, 2015 5:00 AM PDT

With all the drama surrounding Reddit, from debates over free speech to its messy game of musical chairs among executives, it's understandable some users might want to leave.

Now they've found a place to go. It's called Voat (rhymes with goat), and it says it's fixed all those things people don't like about Reddit.

The site launched in April 2014 and was originally called WhoaVerse. It started as a part-time project of a third-year Swedish college student and now the site claims to be run by two students who are "currently studying computer science and economics at University of Zurich in Switzerland." One of them is called Atif, according to the "About" page on the site.

Voat users posted in relative obscurity until a month ago, when Reddit's management banned five noxious forums from its service, including one devoted to making fun of overweight people.

Fear over increasing control from Reddit's administrators, who are attempting to turn the site into a large, successful and profitable company, appears to have pushed swaths of passionate Reddit users, known as Redditors, to "Due to the recent interest generated by the online community," the site tells visitors, "this has evolved from hobby into full-fledged desire to create the website that will become the place where you can "have your say."

It's unclear how many people visit Voat. The site doesn't publish statistics about its usage, and industry tracker ComScore said its traffic is currently too small to track. What is known: The number of people who visited Reddit from a desktop or laptop computer dropped by 600,000 in the week of July 5 to 4.6 million.

So could this all lead to a MySpace-style path to Reddit's ultimate obsolescence? Could Reddit's users migrate in massive waves to Voat, as MySpace users did to Facebook a half decade ago?

Well, many of Reddit's angriest users aren't just hoping for it, they're actively encouraging an exodus. "The more people move to Voat, the better," wrote one Reddit user named TorchicBlaziken. "Voat is the evolution of reddit, so I hope that the diversity of its communities rivals that of reddit."

Experts say migrations can and do happen on the Web, particularly among the volatile user bases like those at Reddit.

"A new brand can come out of the blue in just months," said Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Loyalty is there but not guaranteed. Supremacy on the Web is not guaranteed to anyone anymore."

Or as one Voat user wrote: "It's the cycle of the internet. A website grows up and sells out then we move on to something better."

A spokesperson for Voat declined to comment for this story. "We have received too many requests from almost all major media outlets and we can no longer respond to media inquiries individually primarily because we don't have the manpower," the person wrote in an email. "We are currently fully focused on improving the technology behind Voat and that is our main priority."

Free speech: mostly or absolutely?

Voat says it promises completely unfettered free speech, "submitted, organized, moderated and voted on (ranked) by the users." "No legal subject in this universe should be out of bounds," the site says. "There's no doubt we can build a better home for those of us that enjoy aggregated content, if we simply listen to those that use it, and hold that as an ongoing priority."

That manifesto of sorts has become a rallying cry of Voat's users, frustrated with Reddit's tightening control over posts to its site.

"Voat's community already feels fresh and more respectful than Reddit's," wrote one Voat convert called boiglenoight.

Voat users' concerns over Reddit's increasing control likely won't be swayed by Steve Huffman -- a Reddit co-founder who returned as CEO on July 10 following the ouster of former chief Ellen Pao -- who plans to purge distasteful elements from the online community. On Thursday, he laid out new rules further restricting what users can post on the site.

Among the items no longer allowed: illegal activity; publication of people's private information; anything that incites violence, harassment, bullying, abuse; and anything sexually suggestive of minors.

"As Reddit has grown, we've seen additional examples of how unfettered free speech can make Reddit a less enjoyable place to visit and can even cause people harm outside of Reddit," Huffman wrote in a town hall-style meeting Thursday known as an Ask Me Anything (AMA). "Freedom of expression is important to us, but it's more important to us that we at Reddit be true to our mission."

Type into your Web browser and you'll be transported to a website that, on its face, looks a lot like Reddit, down to the placement of buttons and the way users vote for (up) or against (down) on posts. Different forums, called subreddits on Reddit, are called "subverses" on Voat.

Some of the ways to organize Reddit posts are "Hot," "New" and "Rising." On Voat it's "Hot," "New" and "Incoming."

Voat's very existence traces back to users' frustration with Reddit, which was started in 2005 and has been a forum for a wide range of discussions in the past decade. But a shift in attitude by management toward the site -- and a $50 million investment last year by some of Silicon Valley's most prominent investors -- suggests Reddit will need to place tighter controls over its Redditors to ensure potential new users aren't rebuffed by some of the more distasteful speech and commentary on the site.

The tensions boil down to the basic question: What is Reddit?

For Redditors, the site is seen as a haven of free speech, the home of an idealistic everything-goes message board where members police one another and themselves through the site's voting system. Each article and comment is voted on, and those who receive the most votes bubble to the top.

But Reddit, the company, sees things differently. Groups that have banded together on the site who share racist and misogynistic tendencies have put pressure on the for-profit company, which is part-owned by Advance Publications, the parent of Vogue and The New Yorker publisher Conde Nast.

"We've spent the last few days here discussing and agree that an approach like this allows us as a company to repudiate content we don't want to associate with the business, but gives individuals freedom to consume it if they choose," Huffman said. "This is what we will try, and if the hateful users continue to spill out into mainstream reddit, we will try more aggressive approaches."

For Voat, that means more disenchanted or disenfranchised Redditors looking to its site as a new haven. "We are looking to expand," the site's owners wrote.


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