The #RedditRevolt, #TheDarkening, AMAgeddon, Blackout 2015. Whatever you call it, there has been a storm raging over at Reddit over the last day.
Victoria Taylor was a popular Reddit employee whose main job was coordinating AMAs (Ask Me Anything) for the site. Victoria would verify celebrities were who they said they were, help the non-computer savvy navigate the site, relay questions, and manage and schedule different AMA sessions.
Yesterday, Victoria was released from her position at Reddit. Because of her central role in the AMA process, the moderators of IAMA were unprepared for the vacuum of responsibility. Especially considering the administrators didn’t give them any notice that an integral part of the team would be gone.
In order to get their ducks in a row, the mods of IAMA took the subreddit private, essentially closing one of the most popular parts of the site temporarily. When people began to notice and connected the dots on what had occurred, other subreddits began to go dark in protest.
The issue these subreddits are protesting are an out of touch and uncommunicative administration team. Mods complain that the moderation tools are years out of date, that the administrators don’t engage with them nearly enough and that moderators aren’t given nearly enough support considering the vital role they play in keeping the site running. A good breakdown of grievances can be found here, in an /r/OutOfTheLoop post.
The front page of Reddit was barren, with 200+ subreddits down it’s mostly pictures of Victoria, jokes at the expense of CEO Ellen Pao and bad jokes made by the opportunistic users who know they’ll never have a better chance to get to the front page. It’s still recovering to its usual state.
This might just seem like the knee-jerk response you’d expect from the Internet, kicking and screaming because someone they like is gone. It’s certainly possible Ms Taylor did something deserving of dismissal. But the issue here isn’t Victoria’s firing, it’s how Reddit has handled it.
Reddit knows how much it relies on users, but they yanked out an important piece in an intricate machine without any notice and left the moderators to figure it out. Reading the responses of founder Alexis Ohanian and CEO Ellen Pao, it’s obvious they had not considered the consequences of this move and have no plan in place to fix it. Ohanian’s response basically boils down to “seriously guys, knock it off! Seriously!”
That’s not a man with a plan going forward, to “triage the AMAs” as he put it. That man is panicking because blacked out subreddits is the single worst thing that can happen to Reddit. They can see what they did caused a major problem because they did it with no transparency, no notice, with no consideration of its effect on the redditors.
This is par for the course with modern Reddit unfortunately. Recently there was a significant backlash over the removal of “harassing subreddits” and while I doubt many people mourned the loss of a racist subreddit, Reddit handled the move awfully.
There was a post notifying the userbase that Reddit would be removing subreddits being used as a platform for harassment, which was followed by the banning of five subreddits. The criteria given for the bans: they were harassing people. That’s fine by itself, but users got justifiably upset with the lack of transparency in the move. They worried that this could mean the banning of any subreddit deemed unsavory. CEO Pao attempted to address these concerns by stating that Reddit was “banning behaviour, not ideas,” which meant you can be as awful as you want as long as you don’t harass, dox or attack others.
This didn’t help much (and was widely mocked) because since Reddit is judge, jury and executioner when it comes to bans, they choose how to apply this rule. If they want to ban you or your subreddit, they can say you were brigading or harassing and the users will have to take it on faith. If someone is harassing or doxxing, only Reddit knows.
It’s this lack of transparency and dramatic, edict-style moves from the administration that’s causing these blowups on a more regular basis. Shadowbanning, the subreddit bans, the Darkening—all these controversies have come as a result of moves made by Reddit without considering how the users will be affected.
Shadowbans are sold as a way to disarm spammers, as they won’t realize their posts are invisble, but they can also be used to silence users Reddit disagrees with. Removing platforms for serial harassers is empirically a good thing, but the mass banning of any similar subs after the initial bans is at odds with the “behaviour, not ideas” rationale given by Pao.
If you took every move at face value, these would be great tools to make Reddit a better place. But in practice they are nuclear options—a hammer when what Reddit really needs is a scalpel. Reddit is doing these things suddenly, decisively, with no test periods and little explanation. Usually it’s a single post and a comment or two from Pao, Ohanian or another Reddit high-up. It’s possible to do the right thing in the worst way, and lately Reddit has been holding a masterclass on that subject.
This is where someone says “it’s a private website! they can do whatever they want, you’re not entitled to anything!” and that’s true. But Reddit seems to believe the value of Reddit is in the name, the site, the hallways, the unprofitable business buoyed by venture capital, but they’re wrong. The reason Reddit is valuable is because it attracts ~150 million people a month—the value is in the users.
Reddit doesn’t make a profit right now, and they are desperately trying to figure out how to fix that. So they’ll cull a few subreddits that make them look bad, shadowban users who ask important people tough questions, and start trying to make money. But every time one of these controversies pops up, Reddit is bleeding users, losing people that make the site valuable to investors and advertisers. Coca-Cola doesn’t care about Reddit, they care that there are millions of people there to see their ads, but if Reddit keeps making these unilateral, stupid moves, Voat and Snapzu will start to look more and more attractive.
Reddit became popular because they were ready to capitalize on the failure of Digg; that they would be so disconnected from what made their userbase grow is baffling to me. Just look at founder Alexis Ohanian’s post history from the last day, he doesn’t seem overly concerned that the website is burning around him.
I like Reddit. I use it every day. I disagree with a lot of the moves that the administration has been making lately, but I still use it because it is still the best at what it does. It is still the front page of the Internet for me and a lot of other people. But it’s more than just a private company funded by venture capital trying desperately to turn the Internet into money; it’s a tool. It’s a means of communication and a community of millions.
So when someone says it’s a private website so they can do whatever they want, it rings hollow. Reddit does have to answer to its users, because they are what makes Nike and Ford, Nestlé and Sony want to advertise there; they are the reason celebrities wanted to do AMAs and they are unhappy.
Reddit is a private website, yes. But the size, the influence and the power of that private website is carried on the backs of users, and unless they stop this trend of abrupt, unclear and contentious moves, there won’t be enough users left to carry them.
Thoughts on The Darkening? Will you still be using Reddit? Can you get past the dumb name of Voat? Let me know in the comments, they’re down there somewhere I think.