Reddit and Weep

Online communities depend on sensitive moderation and on balancing the interests of members and owners. It's tough. Take Reddit, for example ...

July 22, 2015

I’ve been exploring online communities that discuss crime fiction to see how people talk about books when not in school, to explore the social nature of reading, and to think about how people negotiate that social experience when using online platforms. People have been forming communities around books since the early days of the internet via CompuServe forums, USENET newsgroups, Listservs, and Yahoo Groups. Today people share reading experiences on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and book-focused social sites such as LibraryThing and Goodreads. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit has been in the news lately in the form of Reddit drama: the tug-of-war between platform users and platform owners.

That relationship is fuzzy. A group, using a technical platform of some sort, coalesces and creates its social rules. This usually means having designated moderators who encourage discussion, articulate community values, and intervene when there’s friction. The nature of that moderation is all over the map. One USENET group I belonged to was self-moderating in a fascinating way. USENET, which launched at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1980, embraced the free-wheeling free speech ethos of the early days of the internet and was decentralized by design. Though the focus of rec.arts.mystery was crime fiction, politics and religion were not off-limits. Rules, schmules. A political message could lead to flaming hot arguments, but somehow the community of regulars used humor and a common interest in genre fiction to surround the combatants and keep the flames from burning the place down. In a sense, those members who were most active in sustaining the community and its anarchic values played a moderator role without having the technical levers most platforms provide. As USENET grew less easily available to the casual user, more devoted to sharing files than messages, members dropped off to seek another platform. Some carry on at Google Groups, a neglected corner of a very large company. Much of the diaspora settled on Facebook, where private or public groups can be created but the most powerful levers are trade secrets controlled by the ghost in the machine.

The recent unpleasantness at Reddit illustrates the tug between the platform's owners, the community moderators, and its membership in a particularly visceral way. I have never been a Reddit user. A few years ago, when a student told me he liked it, I took a cursory look. Nothing about it made me want to invest my time there, and you have to be willing to spend your time to get the hang of a social platform, just as you would joining a co-op, a service organization, or an in-real-life book club. It felt too bristly and competitive to me, so I moved on, though I did enjoy reading the AMA (“ask me anything”) featuring Scotty Bonner, the young director of the Ferguson Public Library who did everything right when his community was in the spotlight.

You’ll hear different takes on what went wrong at Reddit when a popular employee was fired. The community grabbed its sacred values in both hands and rose up against an act of injustice perpetrated by an incompetent CEO and won. Or no, a CEO who was a woman of color was hounded out of a job by an organized band of haters who use the internet to threaten their chosen victims with a swarm of rape and death threats. Or maybe the problem was that the conscientious moderators who have spent hours cultivating communities of interest that work grew tired of providing Reddit’s parent company with free labor when the management won’t give them the tools they need to keep the best of Reddit alive - often needing to defend their subreddits against groups that use it for different ends and defend their behavior as free speech. Or maybe it's something else. Choose your own adventure.

James Grimmelmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland, has written a wonderful analysis of moderation, exploring its components in light of legal issues but also illuminating how moderation works or fails. Moderation is necessary, but messy. It’s both top-down and bottom-up. Like all social interactions, it's a series of negotiations, compromises, and expressions of value. Did I mention it's messy?

In the case of many “free” social platforms, value has multiple meanings. The value members receive are undermined by abuse or manipulation. The value of the platform as a for-profit enterprise can suffer if membership declines or a portion of the membership overtaxes the infrastructure’s resources. But when the owners make changes, members often feel the community they built and contributed to is no longer theirs, is not valued properly. Reddit’s commercial value depends on a small paid staff, a large membership, and the labor of unpaid moderators. There is magical thinking in the business model of sites like Reddit that depend on attracting lots of members and encouraging them to spend hours on a site that has little value other than the activity of its membership. Who's site is it, anyway? 

The business model for this commercialization of the internet was described succinctly in 1996: step one - step two - ??? – profit! For Facebook and Google what's substituted for the ??? in the South Park equation is “collect large volumes of personal information, use it to sell highly-target advertising, and sell it in bulk to third parties.” But that only works if you’re very big – so big that there is no readily-available alternative - and very much in control, with the switches and levers so well hidden they can’t be easily gamed or challenged.  

Reddit is an odd beast that seems to straddle the old "open' internet and the new commercial internet that is built on venture capital, attention, and stardust. In its stumbles, it reveals just how messy this business is.

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