The Internet is a great place because it gives people the opportunity to engage in their passions, whether their passions are video games or taxidermy, cards or cartography. Often the embodiment of this passion is the moderator. Someone who puts in a ton of time every day to provide something for people who share interests. Good mods with a good group can create thriving communities. But mods are human, and humans have a history of abusing power, whatever power that is. Today I want to talk about what a powerful moderator can do, and why you should be as worried about it as I am.
A little while ago you probably heard some sad news about TotalBiscuit. He announced in a twitlonger post that the cancer he has been fighting has reached his liver and it doesn’t look good. You probably heard that news, unless you get your gaming content from one of the biggest communities on the Internet: Reddit’s r/games.
If you’re an r/games subscriber, you probably heard crickets and saw an all-too-common comment graveyard.
The moderators nuked any threads about TotalBiscuit’s announcement and then (as has become common on Reddit) nuked comments mentioning TotalBiscuit, comments asking what was going on, and as the day wore on, comments calling the mods dicks.
Initally the explanation was that TotalBiscuit is not a prominent enough figure in video games.
TotalBiscuit. Objectively the most popular PC gaming critic, with 2.1 million subscribers on YouTube and top curator on Steam wasn’t important enough. Later in a clarifying post the rationale for the takedowns given by the head moderator was a rule prohibiting posts about non-gaming events in a gaming figure’s life.
Users were quick to point out that numerous times in the past and as recently as 3 months ago news about illness and death of gaming figures were allowed on r/games without incident. After that post though, it was radio silence from the mod team. It’s also worth mentioning that many users accused the head moderator of specific bias against TotalBiscuit based on his politics.
While this was blowing up, another moderator from r/games went to TotalBiscuit’s subreddit, r/cynicalbrit, and explained that while he and other mods agreed with the users, the top mod put his foot down and that was that.
For a full day, posting any TB content, mentioning him in a comment, or crying foul about the heavy handed moderation would get your comment or post deleted. In a community of over 600,000, this topic was off-limits because of one person’s application of their arbitrary rules.
It might sound like a minor issue, but the ability to control information and communication for massive communities like this is important. People get their news from the Internet, and the ability to control what news is seen is power, and power can be abused.
As far as I know, this moderator is nobody. He or she is the most senior moderator of r/games, someone who either got there first or stayed on the mod team the longest and because of that they can disallow content, enact rules, and exert control on this massive community. If they get too crazy the other mods can oust them, but users, the people who make a community, can’t do anything.
As I see it, the people who have this power are the last ones who should. The people with this power aren’t elected, hired or selected, they are the people with the most free time, who will work for free and who want this power. Would you ever give someone a job because they had the most time to do it? Or because they wanted the power the job would bring?
Reddit’s argument is that if you don’t like a community, you can leave it, start your own. Thats what happened with Reddit’s LGBT subreddit; long periods of moderator drama caused an exodus and users started r/ainbow. But in cases like this, the new community is always smaller and worse for it. Not every visitor will make the switch, or learn the story; they just found a subreddit called LGBT, shrugged and planted roots.
This is an issue with Reddit. The administrators are almost completely hands-off when it comes to issues within subreddits, only really stepping in when it comes to “hate-speech” and that only recently. A while ago, a holocaust denying conspiracy theorist redditor called “soccer” got control of the subreddit for the webcomic xkcd and wreaked havoc on the board. For a long period of time, nothing could be done; he was the top moderator.
This “king of the hill” model of control shouldn’t be good enough for the self-identified “Front Page of the Internet,”. Admins don’t want to step in, in their company values, they say they want to “Be stewards, not dictators. The community owns itself.” But they also want to “Create a safe space to encourage participation, embrace diversity of viewpoints and allow freedom of expression.”
These are lovely ideas, but at odds with each other in these cases. If a dictatorial moderator is exerting pressure on a community, they are breaching said values on their behalf. They can chase users out of a community they love because of arbitrary rules or because they have *ahem* novel theories on the gas chambers.
Dictatorial administrators can be an issue too, as we saw during the Reddit Revolt, but they are accountable. They are accountable to their organization and often to their real name. When a moderator stirs up trouble, they typically just go silent until people forget what random screenname they were mad at.
Reddit’s moderation gets a lot of attention because of its popularity and a userbase that will respond to these issues directly, but for issues of moderation it is hardly unique. For my money, Wikipedia’s system is far worse, both in terms of the actions of the moderators and the damage it can do.
Wikipedia bills itself as the free encyclopedia anyone can edit, but anyone who has tried to actually edit will probably tell you that isn’t exactly true. Behind the scenes, Wikipedia is an intensely political place. Large pages are policed, discussed, and curated by “Wikipedians” to revise page vandalism, make sure facts are sourced, and that the page is generally accurate.
But sometimes it seems like the Wikipedians’ first priority is bureaucracy, not accuracy. When author Philip Roth pointed out a large mistake on the page of one of his books, his efforts to correct were stymied by the Wikipedians running the page. Roth wasn’t considered a reliable enough source on his own work.
This story got visibility via Roth’s open letter in the New Yorker, but this sort of thing happens all the time on Wikipedia. I’ve had to fight to correct my father’s Wikipedia page on events I was present for, because there wasn’t an acceptable secondary source. Obviously Wikipedia needs rules to maintain the integrity of its information, but when zealous moderators are arguing with an author about his own book, or a son about what his father died of, I question whether accuracy is the veteran Wikipedian’s highest priority.
The other issue with Wikipedia’s power editors is that they are just people, and people are eminently fallible. It’s the same issue that leads to holocaust deniers running subreddits; to be a respected Wikipedian, you just need to invest time. Once you have this status, you can revert changes, ban people from editing, and wield a measure of authority over one of the biggest repositories of information in history.
People have biases. Either intentionally or subconsciously people will bring their own politics, their own agenda into whatever they do. Wikipedia would argue that with thousands of editors, biases are filtered out, but thats not really true is it? If I edit a page that user: Ser Amantio Di Nicolao (Wikipedia’s 2nd most prolific editor with over 1.4 million edits) has an interest in, how likely is it that my edit will be accepted?
These power editors are people, they have their interests, and they have their agendas, and we don’t know anything about them. When the Encyclopedia Britannica is published, there’s an expectation that the curators know what they’re talking about; for one of the most highly active Wikipedians, we know that “For a living, (he) do(es) things. And stuff.”
Wikipedia is not Reddit. If a malicious moderator gets control of a popular subreddit, they can kill a community. A powerful Wikipedian, however, has much more influence. Everyone uses Wikipedia, for everything; it is the closest thing to a last word possible on the Internet. If they want to spin a controversial subject or remove an unflattering fact on a subject they’re fond of, they can.
When someone goes to Wikipedia they aren’t looking for nuance, or considering that what they’re reading is anything short of fact. The ability to control what it says is incredibly important, and it seems like that control is awarded based on who has the most free time to wield it.
The more important the Internet becomes, the more these positions matter, and nobody seems to be worried about it. Does this stuff not make you a bit concerned? I’m not ashamed to say it does me.
The issue with moderation is that in exchange for the free work performed, accountability is sacrificed. You can address Jimbo Wales, Steve Huffman or Alexis Ohanian far more than you can address JSm1th89. If a bad moderator does something, it is the easiest thing in the world to say “the community runs itself, we had no idea;” the hard thing and the right thing is to recognize abuses of power taking place on your website.
Sites like Reddit and Wikipedia matter, and if they’re going to continue to matter, people need to start paying attention to the potentially troubling power of the Internet moderator.
What are your thoughts on Internet Moderation? Do you have any horror stories about bad communities? Or am I just doomsaying on a non-issue?