Reddit is about to make one of its biggest changes yet.
The site will soon launch a new instant messaging feature called Reddit Chat. Unlike Reddit's current private messaging system, Reddit Chat will allow individual users and groups to connect instantaneously much like the chat features on Facebook or other social networks.
With Reddit Chat, which will eventually replace the old PM system entirely, users will be able to swap messages, links to posts, and send stickers in real time. The feature will be limited to 1:1 conversations in the beginning, but Reddit plans to add group messaging features in the near future, and it could be a huge boon for Reddit communities who already organize on outside chat platforms like Slack and Discord.
None of that may sound particularly groundbreaking for a social site in 2017, but it could have profound implications for Reddit's millions of users — most of whom don't have any connection with each other outside of the site.
Reddit, which is also working on a larger site-wide redesign , is aware that its most dedicated users don't take even the smallest changes lightly, which is why the rollout is happening so slowly.
Reddit Chat is in beta for now — only a small fraction of Reddit's users have access to the feature as of today — but the company plans to bring chat to everyone during the first quarter of 2018. Chat will be limited to one-on-one messaging to start, but group messaging will be added later on. Eventually, the company will phase out the old PM system entirely.
That the two messaging formats will coexist side-by-side for months may seem confusing, but Reddit product manager Jason Lee says the slow rollout is necessary for the company to understand how to make chat work for all of Reddit's disparate groups of users.
"We don't want to replace the PM system and accidentally forget specific use cases," Lee says, noting that some communities use Reddit's existing messaging features in very specific ways, such as role-playing games.
Still, replacing the site's existing messaging system with Reddit Chat will likely raise concerns with some members of the community. Making any user instantly accessible via real-time chat could exacerbate issues the existing private messaging system already faces when it comes to things like harassment and spam.
Reddit's VP of product Alex Le says this is something the company is particularly sensitive to, which is why they designed chat so that messages from accounts you haven't previously messaged with go into a separate message "requests" folder that makes it easier to ignore incoming messages. There are also reporting and blocking features accessible directly from chat.
That might not be enough, though. As Twitter and other platforms have learned, funneling harassing messages into a separate area or making them easier to report, doesn't always curb the harassing behavior itself. Which is why Le says Reddit is also working on behind-the-scenes fixes, like machine learning features that can automatically detect problematic messages, like spam and abuse.
"Across the board for the company, we're moving the trust and safety teams to be going from a reactive engagement to a proactive engagement," Le says. "Rather than wait for it to happen, we want to be there in advance of that, right when the abuse has happened before the user's had a chance to report it."
Chat could also face pushback as some longtime users complain about what they see as Reddit becoming more and more like traditional social networks like Facebook. (Take a look at the r/beta subreddit, and you can already see comments to this effect.)
The new chat features also come as Reddit is planning a bigger redesign that's partly meant to make the self-described "front page of the Internet" more accessible to new users. The redesign website bears at least some resemblance to Facebook News Feed, according to Recode .
Combine that with features like Reddit Chat, which comes with a set of animated emoji-like stickers, and it's enough to make the most cynical Redditors wonder if any corner of the Internet is safe from Facebook's influence.
But Le says Reddit is simply trying to adapt to the behavior of its users, who have long used outside chat platforms.
"We've seen a lot of people trying to hack IRC [Internet Relay Chat] systems on top of Reddit. This has been happening for a long time," Le says. "The reason why we thought it was important to bring it into the fold is because our communities develop really robust rulesets around how they engage with each other. Your identity is tied to your Reddit account, and we want to carry that into real-time conversations."