Depending on your perspective, Reddit’s either in a pickle — or it’s a billowing garbage fire. Leave the most horrible content up and it will continue to facilitate hatred while seeing bad press, spooked advertisers, and disgusted users fleeing the site. Ban it and move away from the free speech many thought Reddit stood for, and it could see an exodus of hardcore users and the unpaid moderators that run the site, plus stoke a war with the trolls.
That’s why I reached out to some of the leaders and founders of top online communities to ask if they had any advice for Reddit.
This issue has been stewing for years, but blew up into a full-scale crisis recently. The firing of Victoria Taylor, one of the few employees the community moderators trusted, caused a backlash leading CEO Ellen Pao to resign. Co-founder Steve Huffman has been brought back to take control, and he plans to lay out his policy plan later today.
But given the toxic controversy surrounding the issue, most of the online community leaders we contacted were understandably not keen to get involved. Their reluctance underscores just how tough this challenge will be for Reddit.
Chris “Moot” Poole, founder of long-standing anonymous message board and troll haven 4Chan relayed to me that he didn’t want to comment.
Alan Schaaf, founder of Imgur, a massive image sharing community that’s also where Redditors host pictures, told me “Imgur’s community dynamics are actually really different from those of Reddit, so that I don’t think much of my advice would be very helpful for them.”
Brooks Buffington, co-founder of Yik Yak, the popular anonymous text-sharing app for college kids, told me “There’s already so many people with opinions on it that we’d prefer to avoid piling on.”
Josh Miller, product manager of Facebook standalone app Rooms, an anonymous-if-you-want-to-be set of mobile forums, wanted to talk but got vetoed by PR.
Interestingly enough, the only leaders willing to talk don’t lead their communities any more, or those communities have shut down.
Chrys Wechseler from now-defunct anonymous sharing app Secret told me he advocates for a strong policy of banning hate speech:
“What the Civil Rights Act of 1968 did for physical hate crimes, online communities should do to protect their members from hate speech (speech that directly attacks people based on their ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disabilities or diseases.). This protection comes in the form of clearly outlined community rules and diligent enforcement. We removed these kinds of posts and users at Secret and Facebook does this as well. I don’t see this in Reddit’s rules anywhere today.
Rules alone aren’t enough. You need to enforce them. If you don’t enforce your rules (removing content, communicating violations to offenders and banning repeat offenders), you might as well not have them. It is *critical* to be transparent when introducing rules and *predictably consistent* when enforcing them. Bad or unclear rules lead to inconsistent enforcement, and nothing infuriates a community more than inconsistent behavior from leaders of the community or company. Personally, in young or troubled communities I prefer a zero-tolerance approach to serious offenses like hate speech and ban users on sight to try to contain the problem ASAP (versus just removing the content and issuing warnings).
Another thing to note is that bad behavior is sometimes coupled with fast growth. Companies should be wise enough to identify this and sacrifice short-term growth in favor of long-term community health. Remember: In a garden, weeds grow faster than flowers.
Hate speech is never OK and it’s the responsibility of the communities and the companies to uphold their members’ civil rights.”
Ade Olonoh, co-founder of shuttered anonymous question-and-answer site Formspring weighed in, saying:
“It clearly seems that the problems stem from a lack of communication. At Formspring, we certainly had our problems with the community, but we made some good strides because we had public conversations with the community every day.This was somewhat easy because our product centered around answering questions publicly, but we made it a habit of talking aboutFormspring on ourFormspring accounts. My account was promoted to the community for that purpose, and many of our employees received questions directly from the community as well. We encouraged everyone to respond — engineers, designers, execs — not just PR or community teams.By no means did this solve all our problems, but the end result is that our core community knew that the CEO and staff heard questions and concerns, and often received a real, honest answer that gave some insight into why we made the changes, and what our vision was for the community.”
Kevin Rose, co-founder of early link share voting community Digg, gave a thorough answer, suggesting that Reddit take a more hands-off approach, empowering community members to decide what stays or goes, but suggests the best move might be making Reddit a non-profit:
“For me what’s always made Reddit so great is that extremely long-tail of crazy, at times chaotic communities. I think to start to come in and crack down on some of that chaos would be a really detrimental thing to the product. One of the mistakes we made at Digg is that we tried to define what the community would be by a fixed taxonomy and never really let them really explore and create their own Subreddits, enabling anything to be out there. The problem that you have is that at some point being a VC-backed business, there needs to be a financial outcome for the business. Potential acquirers would look at some of the dirty laundry here and get spooked.
So really, my main concern for Reddit is that they lose a lot of that in cracking down on this.
When I think of Reddit, I think they’d be better off with more of a Wikipedia-style model. An open, non-profit organization that pushes more towards the realm of free speech and tries to really not suppress information. If I was in charge of the platform, I’d be looking to move it out of the hands of VCs and into the public domain, and allow it to be a non-profit, and figure out a way to get the platform in a place where there’s a decentralized environment to allow it to breathe on its own.
I have to imagine the VCs are not happy with what’s going on here. There’s been a lot of turmoil. i’m not sure what their current burn is, so I really don’t have a lot of visibility into what’s going on financially. If they haven’t burned through the cash that they’ve raised, certainly there’s a way to allow investors to get out what’s left, and convert that structure to a non-profit, and allow the community to back it. Obviously Reddit is going to take money and resources to run. But I would put the weight of that onto the community and have the same thing you see every year with fundraising efforts on Wikipedia.
The thing about Reddit is, why is management dictating which Subreddits should live or die. Why not have the community do that? it feels like they should build a tool that allows the community to go in and vote on which ones belong on the site or not. To put it in the hands of the few is a very dangerous thing.
I think that people do the right thing if you give them the power and the tools to make those calls. When people were voting down all the really bad content from Digg that they didn’t feel was appropriate, every once in a while we’d have to step in, but more or less people want to see good, high-quality content. And there’s a lot of the hate speech and a lot of the other things that are going on here, I think if you allow the masses to say “this doesn’t belong here”, allow them to stand up for their own community, I think that they’ll take action. It’s worth at least trying before having management step in and having heavy hands here.
It just seems more in spirit with what they built.”
Today at 1pm PST, Reddit’s new CEO will outline his policies and hold an Ask Me Anything to get feedback from the community. Reddit’s finally coming to the fork in the road.