Reddit’s “Explain Like I’m Five” Series Is Just The Beginning

On Monday, Reddit launched its first web video series, a trio of episodes based on a subsection of the site called Explain Like I’m Five that explains complicated concepts by breaking them down to their basic components.

As with its namesake subreddit, the video series explains ideas like existentialism or the crisis in Syria or volatility in the stock market. Unlike the subreddit, the video series explains those things to actual 5-year-olds.

It is Reddit’s first video series, but not the site’s first foray into video production. As Reddit’s general manager, Erik Martin, explained in a phone interview, back in the day (er, 2009) the site’s trademark Q&As, Ask Me Anything, were filmed and posted online.

“We stopped doing video a couple of years ago because we didn’t have to anymore,” Martin explained. Reddit no longer has a problem convincing celebrities and politicians to respond to users in real time on the site — President Obama even did one last year. But it wasn’t always like that: Video was once the incentive. “We used to have to do video because that was the only way we could convince them to do it.”

An early AMA with Senator Ron Paul

This time around, they didn’t have to do anything, so Martin and series creator Jared Neumark took their time deciding how to make Reddit video that was original — not just regurgitating what was already on the site.

“Obviously, Explain Like I’m Five [the subreddit] is not literal,” Martin said, but he was curious if it could be. “Is it even remotely possible to explain existentialism or what’s going on in Syria to a 5-year-old? What would happen if you tried?”

Once they settled on on the concept, Neumark (who is also responsible for the ““Kids Reenact” videos) sifted through the subreddit’s most popular posts before settling on the first three topics: the crisis in Syria, the stock market, and existentialism.

“We shot them all in one day back in November. We had a bunch of cameras, so we wouldn’t have to shoot it a bunch of times; we could actually get them learning the concept the first time,” Neumark explained, also over the phone.

It turned out the lessons really did work — at least on the child actors. “We auditioned two of the kids a week before, and we used part of the scripts,” Neumark recalled, “and one of the kids remembered the lesson and he kept trying to jump in and say what he knew already. We’re were like, ‘No! You’re not supposed to know!’”

As to be expected, the series is adorable. The preciousness, though, is a little unexpected for Reddit, which has battled a persistent creepiness problem in the past.

Martin rejected the notion that Explain Like I’m Five was chosen precisely because it is not as controversial as other high-profile subreddits. “Ninety-nine percent of the subreddits have broad appeal and are not controversial,” Martin said. “There were other subreddits we looked at that were definitely not of as wide an appeal — but [Explain Like I’m Five] just seemed to fit.”

According to Martin and Neumark, the first three episodes of Explain Like I’m Five are just the start of Reddit’s video empire. Neither would elaborate, however, on what specific Reddit video projects might be underway, other than to confirm that other subreddit-inspired videos are in the works.

By Martin’s estimate, there are more than 100,000 subreddits. Not all of them would make for great video, he said, but there is a lot of material for him and Neumark — or other Reddit users — to work with.

“What we tend to do is, we’ll start something as an example, as a spark, and then the community will take it and make it much better,” Martin said, laughing. “At the end of the day it’s always the user and the community that does the most interesting stuff.”

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