News-sharing website Reddit may be called "the front page of the Internet" for its popularity among the technorati, but a lot of mainstream folks may not have been familiar with the San Francisco-based site until this week.
That's when the Chatter-in-Chief, President Barack Obama, made a surprise appearance on the site's popular "Ask me Anything" feature.
Previous installations have included movie stars like Molly Ringwald, TV stars like Larry King and political types ranging from faux conservative Stephen Colbert to real conservative Ron Paul. But Obama was the biggest name by a factor of 10, as tech types like to say.
"Tons of people who were on Reddit have requested that the president do an IAmA," said general manager Erik Martin, using the site's shorthand for the feature.
Martin said Reddit's co-founder, political activist Alexis Ohanian, worked closely with Obama's people to arrange the forum. It began with the simple message: "Hi, I'm Barack Obama, President of the United States. Ask me anything."
Obama spent about a half-hour fielding questions that ranged from "What are you going to do to end the corrupting influence of money in politics?" to "What's the recipe for the White House's beer?"
"Redditors," as the site's users are called, urged him to help relieve student debt and boost funding for the space program. (The president called the latter "a big
Still, it's fair to say both those social networking sites had far more name recognition than Reddit does. Martin acknowledged that all the attention might bring new users to the site, which offers forums on such things as world news, sports and gluten-free cooking.
Ohanian and classmate Steve Huffman founded Reddit in 2005 after graduating from the University of Virginia. With funding from Mountain View tech incubator Y Combinator, they launched a sort of virtual bulletin board where people could post links to stories they'd read online ("read it" -- get it?).
Within a year, Reddit had been snapped up by media giant Advance Publications, which also owns magazines such as Wired, The New Yorker and Vogue. Today, the site draws nearly 40 million unique visitors a month.
Like short-lived competitor Digg, Reddit also lets users vote a given news story up or down. Stories with the most votes get the best positioning on the site.
Obama's chat garnered nearly a half-million votes. And true to these partisan times, they were narrowly divided between "up" and "down" votes.
Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia, said Obama was savvy to seize the media spotlight as the rival Republican Party held its nominating convention in Florida.
"Obama needs to pump up enthusiasm among 18- to 29-year-olds," Sabato said, noting that Reddit users skew disproportionately young. "In politics, as in hunting, you go where the ducks are."
There were so many ducks flocking during Wednesday's chat, in fact, that Reddit slowed to a virtual standstill. While the most popular "Ask me Anything" chats may garner 1 million page views over the course of a month, Martin said, Obama's got 3.5 million on the first day.
Martin said that while his engineers scrambled to clear the digital bottlenecks, most users saw a cached version of the site that showed the conversation but didn't allow them to log in or participate.
"We're not a static website," he said. "So in terms of load, it gets pretty complex."
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.