Reddit Acts of Kindness 

How a social news website came to host the world's largest gift exchange.

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When Reddit launched six years ago as an online news aggregator, nobody had any inkling that it would one day host the world's largest white elephant gift exchange. And by "world's largest," we mean Guinness-certified. Daniel McComas, who decided to reach for the honor this season through his two-year-old spinoff website, RedditGifts (which was acquired by Reddit Inc. earlier this year), offered a little historical context: "The Guinness Book had an existing record from some company in England, and that was 1,200 people," he explained. "They said we could either beat that one, or they could create a new category for biggest online Secret Santa game."

He and his wife, Jessica Moreno, took the latter option. They currently have 37,000 participants lined up in 112 countries, which means they should definitely clinch a world record, barring the unforeseen; McComas said they'll submit official numbers in February. Theoretically, none of the gift-givers know each other, though they're free to dig up details on social-networking sites. It's all done on the honor system. The suggested price is $15 per gift, plus whatever the shipping cost is, but in past years some people have gone all-out, purchasing luxury products like iPads or Kindles or custom-built PCs. Once, someone sent a broke college student a couple thousand dollars in cash. Someone else bought a four-day cruise for a complete stranger. For reasons that are difficult for McComas to explain, anonymous gift-giving is, in fact, wildly popular, and despite the relative lack of policing on RedditGifts, it's enjoyed a roughly 90 percent success rate.

Reddit's general manager Erik Martin said the impulse speaks to some kind of natural generosity that must be intrinsic to humans. "It's really fun to do the detective work, and try to figure out the right gift for someone," he said. "And it's done in a way that's sort of more pure than if you're doing it for a relative or a loved one."

That was certainly part of the impetus, McComas assured. A programmer based in Alameda, he first signed up for Reddit a few years ago as a news consumer — meaning he perused the site for links to interesting articles, and then rated them for other users. It wasn't until August 2009 that McComas realized the site's potential as a social network, as well as an omnibus. That was when a couple Reddit users started a Kickstarter campaign to send some random unemployed Redditor around the US, using JetBlue Airways' $600 all-you-can-jet deal. The idea? Do something nice for a stranger. Allow that person to "see sights," "meet people," and "do stuff." Donors would choose the lucky traveler in what they thought was an egalitarian way — by asking each applicant to submit an essay that explained why he or she deserved it most. Reddit users judged the essays by voting up or down, the same way they approved or disliked an article on the site.

At that time McComas had a side company that donated a substantial sum to the JetBlue Travel Challenge campaign. He quickly became infatuated with the idea of Reddit as a philanthropy vehicle. "That kind of got me into the whole community side," MCComas said.

Martin explained that social networks and altruistic campaigns were just a natural extension of the website. The primordial version was just a news resource, he said, but once Reddit added a comments section, and the ability for users to vote, it became more of a network. When Reddit started allowing its users to "self-post," the site's whole bent changed entirely. "People would ask a question, share a recipe, rant about Obama," Martin said. Eventually, users launched their own "Subreddit" offshoots from the Reddit interface. Users could suddenly organize themselves by interest: Subreddits sprang up for gamers, artists, writers, singles, comic-book collectors, self-help enthusiasts, and World of Warcraft aficionados. Someone created a 24-hour Reddit radio station, programmed entirely by Reddit users. Someone else created "The University of Reddit" so that users could share scholarship. Other people organized meet-ups. "It's just kind of this benevolent community that's developed within Reddit, which might not be evident as you're looking at the homepage," McComas said.

And of course, the centerpiece of any such community is a forum for random gift-giving. McComas launched it as a Subreddit a couple years ago and the idea took off. The idea was simple: Sign up, get assigned a stranger, troll or stalk the stranger on Reddit (or on Facebook and Twitter, if the person opens up his privacy settings) to find out his likes and dislikes. McComas advises people to stalk discreetly, lest they risk crossing the line from "friendly benefactor" to pest. "Do not troll," he wrote in the RedditGifts rulebook. "For real. Being matched with a lurker or new member may be difficult but does not give you a pass to troll."

McComas started RedditGifts as a mere Secret Santa, but people liked it so much that he quickly added more "intraspace exchanges" — of gifts, of crafts, of snacks, of coffee mugs and teacups, of "tricks or treats" for Halloween. He even set up an "Arbitrary Day" gift exchange in June, so that Reddit users could show off their largesse. This year, Reddit Inc. bought the subsite RedditGifts and hired McComas and his wife to manage it full-time — thus far, it's the only Subreddit site the company has bought.

And now, the local programmer is on his way to international notoriety, of sorts. Not that he's in it for mercenary reasons. Rather, McComas points out that he's perpetually surprised by the thought that goes into each Secret Santa gift — even the ones that don't cost anything. Martin said that one year, his gift-giver was a student from Texas who ran a blues radio show. Since the student didn't have any money, he dedicated a show to Martin and recorded it on CD. "He dedicated some songs to me based on comments I'd made on the site," Martin said. "It aired at like two in the morning."

But it was certainly sweet. And McComas can top that, even: "One person made a painting with my Reddit icon and username on it," he said. Just goes to show how kind a stranger can be.

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