One day a few years ago, I was on my lunch break and I decided to go on Reddit. I found an interesting thread, and I started punching out a story. The story got away from me. Before I knew it, it was a few pages long and it was time to get back to work. I posted part of it on Reddit.
James Erwin is author of Acadia, available now for pre-order at Amazon.
I still don't understand what happened next.
At the time, not many people were posting huge stories on Reddit and not many more were reading them. To a lot of Reddit users, and to a lot of other people, it felt like something entirely new. It wasn't the greatest writing ever, not even my best writing. But something about it struck a chord, something caught fire. A quarter-million people read the story that afternoon; one of them named it "Rome Sweet Rome" and the title stuck. By the time I left work at 5, I had several publication offers. That weekend, I started working with a manager in Hollywood. A week after that, Warner Brothers came sniffing around. Two months later, on the basis of that half-baked first draft of a story's first act, Variety announced I had a screenplay deal.
This doesn't happen all that often.
So when people ask me about that day, about that project, this is generally what they focus on; the story of a pudgy white-collar schmoe in Des Moines getting dragged blinking into the limelight, getting a shot at the Big Time. It's a hell of a story. It's a ridiculous story. (So ridiculous there are at least two conspiracy theories circulating around it. If I were actually working for DARPA I'd be changing a lot fewer diapers and I'd get the bumper fixed on my car.)
What they don't often ask about is what it's like to create something like that on Reddit. Like a lot of other folks, I got caught up (and still am, far too much for my own good) in the pursuit of applause, or its wan cousin, the upvote. Redditors compete to be first off the mark; the sooner you comment, the better chance it'll get a good response. And content fades quickly; Reddit's algorithm requires older submissions to get ever-increasing attention to stay at the top of the front page. For this reason, Reddit's creatives often dash off paintings without backgrounds or stories with simple structures, sketched with lean detail. An aesthetic emerges: dreamy, spartan, urgent, well-suited to the the demands of the platform and its audience (which is disproportionately young and male).
There was a lot of excited talk when Rome Sweet Rome took off. Was this the first of a wave of Hollywood acquisitions? No: at least two Redditors have had works optioned, but none that I know of have gotten past the bar set back in 2011, when I got a screenplay deal. Part of the problem is legal; collaboration is great when creating something and nightmarish when dollars become involved. Part of the problem is that Reddit has never been the best platform for anything requiring more than a few minutes of work or attention: you create something for millions of people in a default sub. A few thousand care enough to stick with you when you create a new subreddit. Day by day, week by week, the comments and upvotes taper off. It takes a lot of passion to keep going when the audience leaves the building.
Creativity on Reddit is more than possible. It's demonstrated on a daily basis. Reddit is much more than celebrity pit stops and cute cat pictures (as vitally necessary as these are). Professionals and experts post passionate, engaging essays. Songs, poems, portraits and stories flood onto the site. Among the trolls and maladjusted debaters you find anywhere on the Internet, there are talented storytellers and comedians honing their skills and paying close attention to the response of their audience.
And that's a giant part of what makes Reddit exciting for writers or artists. To do anything creative requires a strange kind of doublethink. You must have insane confidence in your own work and the willingness to present it to the entire world for judgment. At the same time, you must believe that not one word you've written is good enough. You have to rethink and revise everything you create, and sometimes to angrily destroy the work of hours or days. You must believe in your heart that you can sway the minds and touch the hearts of your audience, but you must also leave yourself open and vulnerable to even the cruelest and most infuriating review. (I myself was once dubbed "the Mark McGrath of military pornography.") Reddit rewards that self-confidence and it certainly isn't shy about offering feedback.
Reddit's not the future of creativity. It's not the future of Hollywood. But for now, and probably for a long time to come, it's going to be an important tool (for some, an indispensable tool) for people who want to create, or to find an audience, or to find art to buy and resell. There are more artists than you think mining Reddit for ideas, using it to refine their craft, and building a name for themselves. But artists should strive not to fall under Reddit's spell. Its audience isn't the world. There are so many things that work on a canvas, or in a novel, that will fail in an imgur album or a comment thread, and Lord knows the reverse is true too. A lot of creatives have agonized over Reddit's terms of service, but they shouldn't. If someone wants to buy your work, they'll find a way. Your first concern should be the first concern of any artist: create something honest and find an audience for it. Don't let any platform get in the way of that.