Did you know Reddit, a social site, has 20 million users a month? Or that U.S. President Barack Obama joins the ‘Ask me anything’ sessions on it?

When the Gibbs got married at Living History Farms, Iowa, last week, they were delighted to find that President Obama, who had used the venue earlier for campaigning, had left them a gift. A photographer took a snap of the presidential seal-carrying silver tray and cup, a friend posted it on Reddit, it moved to the front page and got hundreds of comments.

Around the same time, President Obama sat for an “Ask me anything” (AMA) session on Reddit. We know he was there. He posted a link on Reddit to his tweet about the session. The tweet came with a picture of himself at the keyboard as he typed, “Hi, I’m Barack Obama, President of the United States. AMA.” He signed off the interaction with, “...if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience - NOT BAD!”

Well, no one is sure if his trip to Reddit earned the President brownie points for tech-worthiness, but for the Q&A site it was an enormous boost. The site crashed and was reset as “read-only” on fall-out.

Not that Reddit is short of popularity. A social site built in 2005 on open-source software by two fresh University of Virginia graduates (Steve Huffman, Alexis Ohanian), it has 20 employees. It is vast, serves up 3 billion+ page views every month, and according to Quantcast estimates, has 20 million users a month. It is where the young and connected spend their digital life. Other politicos such as British Deputy PM Nick Clegg have joined the AMA sessions.

Surprising. Reddit's minimal retro graphics, endless links and multiple discussions aren't exactly loveable attributes. The site has been described as a “bowl of spaghetti”, “an unruly kingdom” and “barely-controlled anarchy”. Its commenting and “friend” systems, with a certain “Reddit ethos” give it shades of a social network, but in the world of Facebook, Google+, and other social-networking sites, Reddit is just a blimp. How did it become a Web sensation where the President agreed to stop by?

Check out reddit-India. (“Bachelors of /r/India, how do you manage your health?” is trending.) Reddit follows a bulletin-board system. You register, submit an entry, or post a comment and become a “redditor”. Reddit (guessed it?) is short for “read/edit” and “read (past tense) it”. Say, “I read (red) it on reddit.” User submissions, typically headings linked to external sources, are organised into areas of interest called “reddits” or “subreddits”. As a redditor, you can upvote or downvote a submission or a comment. Comments do grow into conversation trees. Highly-voted entries move to the front page. Your downvote simply means it isn't front-page stuff. You can subscribe to individual reddits and customise what appears on your front page. Front page rank is for the general front page and for individual reddits.

Bookmark collection

One of the most popular Reddits is IAmA (“I am a”) where users prompt others to AMA. All those links mean the site can be your bookmark collection, or depending on the size, activity and crowd-sourced ratings of links, your news aggregator. You are allowed unlinked posts (“self-posts” or “text submissions”), though it's clear Reddit prefers linked submissions. How do I know this? Redditors accumulate points for top-rated links and comments, not for self-posts.

Google DoubleClick Ad Planner puts the median Reddit user as male (72%), 25-34 years of age. Digital technology dominates the top ten audience interests. Wikipedia reports that Reddit migrated to Amazon web services (e.g. cloudsearch), uses Pylons as its web framework, PostgreSQL as primary datastore and jQuery. Its mobile interface features rewritten CSS.

How did it succeed? Reddit serves up unbridled opportunity to its young, wired community full of pseudonyms. Advance Publications (Vogue, New Yorker) bought Reddit in 2006, but instead of following the usual practice of frenzied re-vamping, just let it be. The founders stayed on for three years and kept it independent with a “ludicrous level of autonomy”. Its fans might have started losing interest (remember Facebook?), but Digg went for changes the geeks didn't approve of and a whole crowd migrated to Reddit. The tech-set thinks it's the ultimate geek Q&A forum. Users have creatively managed to self-police the forums.

I asked techie Rajesh of Defiance-tech what he thought of Reddit. “These days people are flocking to quora.com,” he said. “I post questions and sometimes respond to topics on Quora.” That's another story.

FACT FILE

Reddit's large community makes it an ideal platform for raising publicity for a cause.

Using its innovative socially-ranked rating and sorting system, viewers can find answers to questions, get people thinking in a certain way.

It's possible a current story is discussed very early here.

On Alexa.com, which measures Reddit's monthly unique-traffic rate, most Reddit user reviews have voted Reddit's “good content” as “likable”.