Reddit’s Community: Can’t Win With ‘Em, Can’t Win Without ‘Em

You know the story from beginning to end: A regular old website earns popularity, gains top users who are almost celebrities, and then the site dies more quickly than it rose.

A lot happens in between, but those are the basics of it.

Digg was a perfect example of this. Flickr is another. All of these sites have something in common: A fanatical reliance, if not focus, on ‘community.’ It’s worth remembering that having users is not the same thing as having a ‘community.’

Users ‘use’ a product, while a community participates in facets of the site such as how it works, what features will be worked on, and so forth. In reddit’s case, the community even helps the site operate.

Reddit has both users and community members. For reddit, one doesn’t work without the other; they cannot exist without each other. However, once you’ve lost the trust of your community — a core group of hardcore users of any number — your service will atrophy, and you will lose your users en masse.

Today, reddit issued an “apology” to nobody in particular to appease who-knows-who. Its temporary CEO, Ellen Pao even provocatively proclaimed that the company had “screwed up,” not just this time, but many times over the years:

I mean it when I say we screwed up, and we want to have a meaningful ongoing discussion. I know we’ve drifted out of touch with the community as we’ve grown and added more people, and we want to connect more. I and the team are committed to talking more often with the community, starting now.

Predictably, no real examples were given, and thus no real lessons have seem to have been learned. Empty words are fiat currency in the most ironic sense. And, once again, a ‘community’ company is attempting to reason with an entity that is unknown; a community of anonymous people on the internet.

There’s no way to win this battle, because there’s no way to put a finger on what the battle is. The only thing that is known is that there will always be a battle.

Unwinnable Battles

This time the war was waged over the firing of a popular employee. The next time? No one knows. Why are these battles unwinnable? Because reddit’s community — and the community of similar services  — don’t see the site as a business or a company, even though the Paos of the world do. The two will never be aligned.

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.00.12 PMDigg’s unwinnable battles are the things legends are made of: The AACS encryption key debacle, and then the death knell that Digg 4.0 brought.

When Digg first took the encryption code down from its site (because they were threatened with a lawsuit), which was posted by its community, it was called out by its core users for being soft, or for being “sell-outs.” Those users didn’t understand that it’s really hard to raise money or sell yourself when you’re about to be sued.

A community doesn’t care, because they don’t necessarily see you as a company, a profit seeking entity that has light bills and server tabs. They just see pixels and clicks. The two are related, but aren’t exactly the same.

When Digg 4.0 was launched, the community was so angry about the redesign, which they weren’t consulted about as much as they had been in the past, they left for reddit. This must have infuriated the company, but its founder Kevin Rose dropped a sarcastic riposte with clear diffidence:

If Reddit is your new home and it’s something you really enjoy I’m all for that.

The Downward Spiral

That’s how you lose a community: indifference.

The past few days for reddit has been strikingly similar to Digg’s last days as a force on the internet, including its founder, Alexis Ohanian, alienating the core community with what they perceived to be indifference:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 2.37.21 PM

That particular comment was in reference to the following:

Ohanian apologized, but the damage was, and is done.

Ellen Pao won’t be accepted by the community. No “CEO” will, because as we know, communities don’t care about companies in the same sense. Her apology came from a place where current and future business is all that matters. I mean, it’s her job, so you can’t blame her. That’s why having the founder of the company around is helpful, so long as the community trusts them.

If you can’t trust the founder? Who can you trust? Ask Yahoo and Digg for the answer. It’s nobody.

Moral of the story? Making bucks off of the backs of a community is possible, until they take their backs somewhere else. It’s a tightrope. Reddit fell off.

Rose said he was OK with his community going to Digg’s competitor reddit. Where will redditors go?