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 marijuana 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 creature 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 drawing served as a convenient icon for the site, which was then a place for sharing news links. (Advance Publications, which owns WIRED publisher Condé 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 prevailed; 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 hurried sketch left Snoo colorless and genderless, a form onto which everyone could map themselves.
This creative canvas was, in some ways, 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 multiple accounts, fake accounts, throwaways for posting the kinds of deep, dark musings that absolutely 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 threaten 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 better, perhaps, to hear, and thereby discourage, hate speech). The company also gave 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 just any alien. 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 distant one, in which Reddit still exists, in which sweet-faced creatures like Snoo merrily dwell. Certainly this is a very lovely thought. 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 built 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, mostly self-policed communities has stayed 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 weirdos, 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.