“Reddit is revolting,” read the headlines. “No kidding,” came the response. Indeed, Reddit experienced a seismic rebellion this past weekend, but the reasons behind the brief shutdown of large portions of the site are a lot more complicated—and uglier—than you would think. Contrary to most news reports, Reddit’s volunteer moderators did not shut off access to hundreds of the site’s top forums over the firing of the company’s much-beloved director of talent, Victoria “chooter” Taylor. “No subreddit shut down to protest Vic being fired,” wrote prominent Reddit moderator ImNotJesus. Taylor’s firing may have been the proximate cause, but the first forum to go dark, the “IAmA” subreddit responsible for Reddit “Ask Me Anything” interviews with figures stretching from Barack Obama to some guy with two penises, did so because in firing Taylor, Reddit had left the volunteer moderators without needed support for planned interviews, including an imminent one with Stephen Hawking. Mathematician Edward Frenkel was in the middle of an AMA and was taken by surprise when IAmA suddenly went private.
In the words of one mod, “The reason that /r/science, /r/books and /r/iama all shut down originally was that they were left in the lurch by Victoria leaving. She was in the process of managing a lot of ongoing things and there was (a) no clear plan in place or (b) communication to the moderators.” These top forums, all volunteer-run, draw up to 20 million unique views a month and contribute in large part to Reddit’s status as the “front page of the Internet.” Once they had gone dark, many other forums started to go dark both in solidarity and to protest Reddit’s overall treatment of its volunteer labor. “We all had the rug ripped out from under us and feel betrayed,” wrote top moderator karmanaut, to a resounding 6075 points of user approval. Whatever the reason for Taylor’s dismissal—the reasons remain unknown—the overall conflagration isn’t really about one well-liked employee but about problems that stem from Reddit’s dependency on free labor and its increasingly difficult relationship with those volunteers. Even if Reddit’s management had reopened the closed subreddits, it wouldn’t have had anyone to run them.
In other words, firing Taylor lit the fuse of a very large pile of dynamite. With their submissions and comments, Reddit’s rank-and-file users effectively provide free content and labor to Reddit and parent company Advance Publications, in exchange for which they get no money, just reputation points and occasional Reddit Gold (not to be confused with real gold). Yet their efforts pale next to those of the volunteer moderators (“mods”), who act as sheriffs of individual “subreddits” like /r/IAmA, /r/science, and until recently /r/fatpeoplehate, the banning of which spurred a user revolt last month. Normally, it’s the mods who clamp down on the uprisings of the hoi polloi and stamp out profane comments, inappropriate images, and mass cross-subreddit invasions (“brigades”), a mostly thankless task for which they also receive zilch. This time, however, the mods themselves revolted, and their powers let them do far more damage to Reddit than annoyed haters of fat people. The result makes evident the cracks in Reddit’s business model—and raises questions about how long the site can survive in its present structure.
Reddit is in essence a patronage system. The company only employs about 60 people, including all-powerful administrators (“admins”) who have the power to ban users sitewide and occasionally shut down subreddits. But the site’s popularity mostly stems from a handful of heavily promoted or “default” subreddits like /r/IAmA, /r/AskReddit, /r/funny, and /r/pics, which are run by a core set of the most influential volunteer mods. In exchange for power to police the community and a degree of influence over what the community does, these mods do the janitorial work of reining in trolls and sheer nonsense that Facebook and Twitter outsource to offshore employees. But patronage has a different incentive structure than corporate capitalism, and the unprofitable Reddit has few resources to spare to help mods do their job. For years the mods have asked for better moderation tools and a better mail system for communicating with each other and with Reddit, to little effect. Many mods say that they could stop much of the present abuse and harassment on the site if they could better track and discipline offenders and trolls, rather than having to rely on a handful of admins every time a case of harassment comes up. “We don’t have tools to stop brigading or quickly make admins aware of doxxing,” wrote one mod, and Reddit has made little progress toward this end.
Reddit’s management, particularly co-founder and executive chairman Alexis Ohanian (kn0thing) and interim chief executive Ellen Pao (ekjp), hasn’t done much to contest the view that the company does little to aid the hard work of its volunteers. After the subreddits went dark, Pao mostly stayed quiet, making only one substantive Reddit comment that “we haven't helped our moderators with better support after many years of promising to do so” (-4507 points). Ohanian, in the meantime, went on a disastrous PR binge on the site, demanding that subreddits be reopened because “redditors don’t deserve to be punished” and making the supercilious comment “Popcorn tastes good” in response to user complaints, which was quickly downvoted into oblivion (-5107 points and dropping) with an accompanying torrent of rage, causing Ohanian to later add, “Honestly, I didn't understand the depth of the frustration, and I really regret this comment.” Ohanian’s lack of understanding seems rather inexplicable given that in my few interactions with mods, they have all complained of Reddit’s indifference. Ohanian also engaged in a tone-deaf exchange with the moderators of /r/science, which was subsequently leaked. (Reddit didn’t respond to my queries, but two moderators publicly acknowledged that the mail thread is real.) In the thread, Ohanian replied with blithe assurances and nonresponses to the panicked mods. “You managed to burn through years of goodwill in an afternoon here,” one mod declared. “What I think you don’t grasp here is that reddit doesn’t have any credibility when it comes to responding to users or mods.”
So when Pao tells the New York Times that the dissatisfied Redditors are merely a vocal minority, she is technically right. Unfortunately, that vocal minority also provides the labor and content that allow Reddit to exist. Though most of the top subreddits were reopened within a day or two, Reddit management is still on a short leash. IAmA reopened, but its mods announced they no longer had faith in Reddit employees and would from now on coordinate on their own. In a shot across the bow, they then hosted an AMA with former Reddit community manager David Croach (Dacvak), who said that Pao had fired him while he suffered from leukemia (2939 points). Croach’s AMA was abruptly truncated and deleted. It has since been restored, but Croach has gone silent. Alongside the recent firings of Taylor and its senior vice president for product, Dan McComas (kickme444), Reddit has recently suffered a serious talent drain, losing 23 people—more than a third of its workforce—in the past nine months alone, in part due to a company mandate that remote employees relocate to San Francisco or lose their jobs. There may only be one or two remaining employees who have any long-standing and healthy relationship with Reddit’s mods and users. One of those is Kristine Fasnacht (KrispyKrackers), who told mods that she thought only Ohanian and Pao knew why Taylor had been fired, then said “This is HQ right now” while linking to Gunshow’s infamous comic in which a dog idly declares everything is fine while his house burns around him. On Sunday, Fasnacht was appointed liaison between Reddit and the mods.
In the patronage system of Reddit, Ohanian is the czar and the mods are the vassals who keep the peasants in line. Pao, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have brought much positive change to the dysfunctional relationship between Reddit employees and volunteers since she took on the chief executive role last fall, nor have her pro forma interviews amid the current showdown inspired much confidence. More generally, the conflict reflects how the increasing commercialization of the Internet chafes against the longtime Net denizens who still provide much of its content and labor gratis. As hacker Meredith Patterson put it, “Being a minority-niche user of a centrally managed platform means constant pressure toward more and more mainstream styles of interaction.”
Mods clearly are willing to put up with a lot of poor treatment in exchange for the status rewards of their position, and Ohanian appears to have been genuinely surprised that they finally reached a breaking point after the years of contempt directed at them. But while AMAgeddon may be over, tensions remain high. The mods of AskReddit have erected a timer saying that if the company does not follow through on its promise to give them two sets of better tools by Sept. 30 and then Dec. 31, they will shut down AskReddit, the single most popular subreddit on the site.
In spite of Reddit’s longtime transparency problems and frequent scandals, I’d be sad to see the site decline into Digg-like irrelevance. For all of the garbage and abuse that Reddit produces, it’s also home to content that couldn’t easily find a place anywhere else on the Web. With proper tools and proper management, Reddit could be more hospitable. Despite disasters like the Woody Harrelson AMA (in which he was asked if he’d taken the virginity of a young girl after crashing a high school prom) and the proliferation of hateful subreddits that are better ignored than spoken of, Reddit is also home to wonderful content like a Q&A with intellectual historian Quentin Skinner on /r/HistoryOfIdeas and this freewheeling discussion of passive frame theory on /r/philosophy. The Internet needs a commons for such esoterica, even if it frequently looks like a tragedy.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.