It was during one of my all-too-frequent 2 a.m. doomscrolls when my thumb came to a screeching halt on a Reddit video of some kid working at McDonald’s. It was a choppy, lo-fi live stream, but as he answered questions in the comments and gossiped with coworkers, I found myself being drawn in.
The video appeared on the Reddit Public Access Network, or RPAN, Reddit’s live-streaming platform that’s been around for about a year, but to date, has achieved very little fanfare. That’s likely because, at a glance, the live streams are usually inconspicuous and unremarkable — more often than not, they’re grainy streams of someone playing an instrument, shot from a terrible angle in a dimly lit basement. Sometimes, the streamer will even direct their viewers away from Reddit, over to a YouTube or Twitch handle plastered in the corner of the stream.
For a website that earns its self-given moniker as “The Front Page of the Internet,” Reddit’s play into the live-streaming space feels lacking. Or better put, if Reddit, a company that’s valued at $3 billion (and possesses 1.5 billion monthly users), is serious about its play into the promising frontier of live-streaming, shouldn’t it try to poach streaming stars and audience away from Twitch or raise the barrier of entry before letting users broadcast on its front page?
According to Deborah Hsieh, lead product manager of RPAN, not at all. In fact, everything is more or less going according to plan. “Two years ago, we were thinking about how there are a ton of live-streaming services out there, but we felt like live-streaming on Reddit could be special to the degree that everything on Reddit is community-based,” Hsieh tells me. “Just like the rest of Reddit, someone who has something interesting to show or talk about doesn’t have to be an influencer or someone who spends tons of time or marketing all over the internet to grow a follower base.”
Rather, someone who wants to stream on Reddit can “basically just turn on their phone and say, ‘Hey, there’s a gorgeous sunset in my neighborhood, and I want to show this to the community,’” she continues.
Or in fancier tech-jargon terms, Reddit is attempting to “democratize the streaming process.” To that end, Reddit representatives declined to divulge viewership numbers, focusing instead on the number of unique broadcasters, or people who started their own stream. “In RPAN’s first year, more than 291,239 live streams have been started by more than 54,320 streamers — this comes out to around 8.6 million days of watch time,” says Nick Singer, a member of Reddit’s communications team.
And though RPAN’s individual streams certainly don’t garner the 450,000 viewers that AOC playing Among Us on Twitch does, Reddit seems content to let RPAN grow organically. Besides, not having a massive influx of viewers or an overabundance of streamers has allowed it to focus on curating a community that, like Reddit’s system of subreddits, relies on volunteer self-moderation, allowing RPAN to remain safe-for-work and keeping it from becoming the disaster that is/was Facebook Live.
“We have an extra content policy on top of RPAN that’s stricter than the rest of Reddit so there’s no NSFW, dangerous or illegal activity,” Hsieh tells me. Beyond that, because “some people ignore the policy,” Hsieh adds that there are other stopgaps in place as well, including “some machine intelligence” that can detect specific imagery and shut down the stream if necessary. Broadcasters are also required to follow the rules of the subreddit to which they’re streaming. So someone playing piano wouldn’t be able to broadcast in the RPAN channel dedicated to pets, for instance.
The end result is a live-streaming platform that has (so far) managed to avoid the usual violent, toxic pitfalls that have plagued its brethren. If anything, RPAN has been lauded for being “wholesome” and having “positive vibes.”
Of course, growth is still the ultimate goal, which will soon become the focus. “The next step for us is to have RPAN available to any subreddit — within a reasonable degree, no quarantined or banned subreddit will get it,” Hsieh explains. By early next year, the plan is that if a “subreddit sees broadcasting as a way for members to share content and information with each other and build community, they’ll be able to do that.”
Until then, you’ll find a few familiar faces on RPAN, scattered with dudes dressed up as geckos taking phone calls, people sitting at their kitchen table smoking weed, and again, a lot of musicians. Which is a fun change of pace, but the prospect of my favorite subreddits offering up lo-fi slices of life on RPAN is honestly pretty exciting.
Because while I’m not holding my breath for the return of r/NBAStreams — and Reddit isn’t exactly the most wholesome environment to expand into — if there’s one experience I need to completely tune out the dystopia raging around me, it’s watching some middle-aged dope dialing up an r/ChicagoBulls live stream from his garage to curse Zach Lavine between sips of Busch Light.
It’ll be just like home.