July 13


The Transformative Power of Reddit’s Alien Mascot


Cat Behavior

Reddit’s little mascot, Snoo, contains multitudes. The precious, ever-smiling alien hangs out at the top of hundreds of subreddits, mixing with the locals like a savvy politician. In r/ trees, a community for marijuanas enthusiasts, Snoo puffs a joint. In r/ gonewild, Snoo poses for a selfie in a wig and lingerie. In r/ Asceticism, Snoo dematerializes into the cyberether, its form the mere wisp of an outline.

Cheeky bugger. Indeed, Snoo’s existence has always been something of an inside joke. Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian doodled the animal in a notebook during a marketing class his senior year at the University of Virginia. Black and white with pops of red, it seemed conjured from pure whimsy: oval head, pom-pom ears, single antenna. Like a Teletubby, minus the space suit. When Reddit launched in 2005, the describe served as a convenient icon for the site, which was then a place for sharing news connections.( Advance Publications, which owns WIRED publisher Conde Nast, is now a Reddit shareholder .) At first, Ohanian wanted to call the site S’new, a marshmallow-mouthed contraction of “What’s new? ” The tastier name Reddit predominated; Snoo, more pleasingly spelled, lived on with the mascot.

As Reddit expanded and its user base splintered into tribes( subreddits ), Snoo proved a fitting role model. “Snoo came to symbolize Reddit and a Reddit user, ” Ohanian says, in that the icon happened to be particularly moldable. It’s a happy accident that Ohanian’s hastened sketch left Snoo colorless and genderless, a form onto which everyone could map themselves.

This creative canvas was, in some way, illustrative of the early web, where nobody knew you were a dog. The closest thing to verification on Reddit, even now, is a confirmation that the email attached to your account is real. Anonymity is accepted, even encouraged. You can have multiples accounts, fake accounts, throwaways for posting the kinds of deep, dark contemplations that perfectly must not, under any circumstances, get traced back to the real you.( I have three usernames: one for lurking, one for reportage, and one for purposes I would never share in print .) Identities are fragmented; each version of you, a new Snoo.

There are some limits, especially now that Reddit has matured. You can’t harass or threatened other users , nor deploy Snoo to those ends. In fact, Snoo has several design constraints. When Reddit unveiled a new version of the site in April–its first refresh in a decade–the team canonized certain anatomical features: Snoo’s head “should always appear blank or neutral”; its eyes should be orange-red, hex #FF4500; it can’t have fingers; it should have ears( the most wonderful, perhaps, to hear, and thereby discourage, hate speech ). The company also dedicated Snoo a more explicit purpose: to discover and explore humanity.( Following the redesign, r/ trees and r/ asceticism no longer feature a Snoo .)

This, it turns out, is a continuation of Snoo’s origin story. Ohanian says it was never only any foreigner. It’s from the future, a tiny time traveler here to observe our reality. As Ohanian explains, “It was a guarantee we weren’t going to fail. If we failed, Snoo wouldn’t be able to travel back to the present.”

Let’s parse that. There is a future, a remote one, in which Reddit still exists, in which sweet-faced beasts like Snoo blithely dwelt. Certainly this is a very lovely supposed. It is also a pompous and rather ingenious bit of teleology. All startup founders operate from a foundation of optimism–they’re going to change the world. But Ohanian does them one better. He constructed hope into his platform’s very mythology.

Nobody would mistake Reddit for a rainbowland of pure love. Trolls still yuck it up, and Snoo has seen some nasty things. But as the reputation of other social media plummets, with users turning against the algorithms that mine our every like and post, Reddit’s status as a messy myriad of supportive, largely self-policed communities has bided fairly constant. There is no pressure to curate a well-designed profile, to be the person Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat expects you to be. That’s what Snoo stands for. More space than substance, Snoo shows us another way to represent ourselves online: as shape-shifting cosmic weirdoes, trying to find our place among the stars.

Arielle Pardes (@ pardesoteric ), wrote about Reddit’s recent redesign for WIRED.com.

This article appears in the July issue. Subscribe now.

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