I have to make a con­fes­sion here. Reddit is not as bad as I orig­i­nal­ly thought it was. That is to say, the web­site itself is not a com­plete wash. Last mon­th I had report­ed on what had become known as the Reddit ModTalkLeaks, where for­mer Reddit mod­er­a­tor Xavier Mendel had released IRC chat logs detail­ing the sor­tied behav­ior in which a cer­tain clique of vol­un­teer mod­er­a­tors for the site engages. Since then, I have spent time research­ing the his­to­ry of Reddit from the cor­po­rate lens and from the view of users and mod­er­a­tors.

I haven’t been the only one to describe Reddit’s col­lec­tion of boards, known as sub­red­dits, as vir­tu­al fief­doms. The over­ar­ch­ing rules and ToS that Reddit has in place do affect how the­se sub­red­dits oper­ate but they each have their own edicts, rules and cul­ture laid out. Some even eschew the com­mon rules of “red­di­quet­te” (the bul­let points Reddit at large would like you to abide by while using their plat­form).

This is to illus­trate that, even though Reddit is a cor­po­rate owned enti­ty, not every sub­red­dit con­forms to the rules and cul­ture of the web­site at large. The admins of Reddit have a rule they dub “The Prime Directive,” in which they state “when it comes to inter­fer­ing in the affairs of a [sub]reddit: the cre­ator of a [sub]reddit has absolute author­i­ty over that [sub]reddit,” but they have been known to inter­vene when they felt nec­es­sary. So even at the admis­tra­tor lev­el, rules and their enforce­ment can be a flu­id thing.

2015-04-29-09_03_44-reddit.com_-about-redditIt’s easy to fall into the log­i­cal fal­la­cy of gen­er­al­iza­tion when look­ing at a com­mu­ni­ty the size of Reddit’s. I want the read­er to keep this in mind going for­ward. It’s not the tool that is harm­ful or dam­ag­ing in and of itself, it’s the uses that peo­ple put that tool towards that makes it so. The same can be said of Reddit mod­er­a­tors and users on Reddit. Not every piece of tape is used to block the mouth of a speak­er, and not every gun is used to kill.

Having laid that out, there are fair­ly egre­gious issues have come up at Reddit in the past. These are not just iso­lat­ed to the vol­un­teer army that works at Reddit either, as evi­dence of shaky actions sit in a time­line of pub­licly report­ed arti­cles and accu­sa­tions of admin­is­tra­tor mis­con­duct are dis­cussed in the few chan­nels that allow such talk. The issues and dra­mat­ics I have read about would be more rem­i­nis­cent of what would hap­pen with Chan boards or web forums, not a cor­po­rate ran site worth an esti­mat­ed $500 mil­lion.

1000016-00-00-00-00_lgReading com­ments, espe­cial­ly on Reddit itself, on some of the­se issues, I come across a com­mon line of thought among casu­al users of the site. “Why care? Why take this web­site so seri­ous­ly?” For me, that is an easy query to answer. Reddit is a for prof­it com­pa­ny, bought by Condé Nast in 2006 and made into a sub­sidiary of Advance Publications in 2011. Reddit self-describes itself as “the front page of the inter­net” and fea­tures AMA (Ask Me Anything) ses­sions with promi­nent fig­ures from actors and musi­cians to America’s own 44th President, Barack Obama.

That influ­ence is held by a pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny, Advance Publications, which ben­e­fits great­ly by allow­ing its site to run as ver­i­ta­ble wild wild west. One can look at Celeb-Gate (AKA “The Fappening”) when admins allowed leaked pho­tos of celebri­ties to stay up, vio­lat­ing their own pri­va­cy rules for a well-known exam­ple. Or quasi-legal actions such as allow­ing Reddit users to sell guns with­out back­ground checks, bypass­ing fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions. We even have dis­cus­sions about Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s court bat­tles, and talk of her husband’s civil fraud pros­e­cu­tion, being scrubbed from the site. How about instances of mod­er­a­tors sell­ing their influ­ence and tak­ing bribes?

Why care?” Because this is a high­ly influ­en­tial com­pa­ny and site that has a his­to­ry of allow­ing con­tro­ver­sy to occur and hap­pens to ben­e­fit from the atten­tion. Masses of press sites gain heavy traf­fic from Reddit, as well as use the site to mine for break­ing events. And this comes from a site that is owned by a con­glom­er­ate that oper­ates dozens of print and online pub­li­ca­tions. Personally, it bog­gles me that more peo­ple don’t care about how Reddit oper­ates.

Corporate Reddit has built a very con­ve­nient sys­tem where they have hun­dreds of peo­ple work­ing for them for free as mod­er­a­tors. These mods and the users can then be the scape­goat for any impro­pri­ety that comes up. Setting up admins to work as a buffer for bad PR and to act with cer­tain mods to han­dle site issues would seem to be a nice setup.

It puts Reddit into a catch twenty-two, though, as a site worth half a bil­lion dol­lars and as a com­pa­ny work­ing under the larg­er cor­po­rate struc­ture of a ninety-three year old pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny.

Corporate is either unaware of a major­i­ty of what hap­pens on their site, or they are aware and work with the dra­ma to boost their traf­fic and influ­ence. Which is worse to you? A site so neg­li­gent that it reg­u­lar­ly allows uneth­i­cal actions to occur, or  a site that har­ness­es con­tro­ver­sy to increase their prof­its?

One can’t expect a com­pa­ny of seventy-one employ­ees to know every­thing that occurs, but it’s been seen, at least on an admin­is­tra­tor lev­el, that they have ties to the mod­er­a­tors and an ear to the ground. To me, if I was work­ing at Reddit oper­a­tions, it would be neg­li­gent to not work my best to know what occurs with­in the site’s walls.

Even though web­sites are pro­tect­ed again­st lia­bil­i­ty in most instances of ille­gal user con­tent being post­ed, I would expect such a large, influ­en­tial, com­pa­ny to take more than just the min­i­mum steps nec­es­sary to stay on the right side of the law. As a com­pa­ny with investors to answer to, I would want to assure those investors that their mon­ey and con­fi­dence was well-earned.

After the pub­li­ca­tion of my orig­i­nal Reddit arti­cle, I had some mod­er­a­tors at the site reach out to me that claim expe­ri­ence in some of the­se con­tro­ver­sies. I was able to ask some ques­tions to them about mat­ters, and a mod­er­a­tor known as AssuredlyAThrowAway had a few things to say.

When asked if there were any con­nec­tions between paid Reddit employ­ees and vol­un­teer mods he said:

Yes, Alexis Ohanian [co-founder of Reddit] lived with /u/Drunken_Economist (Justin Basset, now an admin) back when Justin was just a pow­er mod. Justin and his friends, who call them­selves ‘the rat pack’-, have a sub­stan­tial amount of con­trol over the site in my opin­ion.”

When asked if cor­po­rate Reddit knows what hap­pens behind the sce­nes, he answered:

Corporate red­dit knows about every­thing that occurs on the site. Half of what the admins do is keep track of the meta [board to board inter­ac­tions] the ensure that their allies main­tain as much pow­er as pos­si­ble.”

During my research,  I had come across a par­tic­u­lar board a quite a few times. r/Shitredditsays, or SRS, seems to have a cer­tain amount of influ­ence on the site. They also look to be the author­i­ty to go to on the new direc­tions Reddit would like to take, as shown in this arti­cle by The Guardian that talks with var­i­ous SRS mod­er­a­tors about “good red­dit” and “bad/dark red­dit.”

But SRS doesn’t seem to have clean hands in events sur­round­ing the site either. When we asked mod­er­a­tor AssuredlyAThrowAway about SRS, he laid down the­se accu­sa­tions. It’s of note men­tion­ing the­se have not been inde­pen­dent­ly ver­i­fied.

SRS has a lot of pow­er on the site, but it was the result of serv­ing as the ‘admins use­ful idiots’.

SRS start­ed on some­thing awful as a thread for raid­ing red­dit. Eventually, some ‘goons’ from Something Awful (oper­at­ing as some­thing called the ‘cir­cle­jerk mili­tia’) cre­at­ed a sub­red­dit called /r/preeteengirls and post­ed cp [child porn]. They then sent an email to Ander[s]on Cooper which point­ed him to that sub­red­dit along with anoth­er sub­red­dit called /r/jailbait. The goal of this oper­a­tion was to get exter­nal pres­sure in order to force the admins to shut­down /r/jailbait. The admins had want­ed to shut down /r/jailbait for a while as well but for them it was a ‘free speech prob­lem’. So, when they saw that the goons were doing they let them get away with cre­at­ing the bait sub­red­dit.

After Cooper ran his sto­ry on jail­bait, the goons began the last phase of what they called ‘project pan­da’; where­in they got a hold of doxx [sic] on the cre­ator of /r/jailbait and the cre­ator of /r/creepshots and start­ed spread­ing the leaks via some­thing called the pred­di­tors tum­blr. The admins took 18 hours to ban the pred­di­tors tum­blr site wide.

In that time, Adrien Chen from Gawker was able to get ahold of the infor­ma­tion and pub­lished a doxx [sic] piece on VA. The admins also refused to ban links to the gawk­er piece. As a result, mods from most major sub­red­dits (in a rare show of sol­i­dar­i­ty) came togeth­er and all agreed to block gawk­er from their sub­red­dits (a ban which still lasts, for the most part, to this day). pri­or to this week [the week intial modtalk­leaks came out], the leak from the modtalk chan­nel from doxxgate [sic] was the biggest leak of pri­vate info regard­ing red­dit mods in the his­to­ry of the site. Here are the logs from that leak–

This is not to con­done any actions done by either SRS or what the sub­red­dits in ques­tion post or how they are run. Independent details of the­se events are hard to come by, if any one read­ing has any infor­ma­tion or clar­i­fi­ca­tion of the­se events please con­tact me and I will expand on this or retract as nec­es­sary.

If true, this dis­plays anoth­er exam­ple of Reddit and its admins pur­pose­ful­ly allow­ing back alley fights to dic­tate site oper­a­tion. Reddit would like to allow the veneer of being pro-free speech and anti-censorship to stand, and seems to not want to make the hard choic­es a cor­po­rate owned site should. Instead allow­ing inter­per­son­al spats and board-to-board civil wars to occur as a way to enforce pol­i­cy.

We have already seen how the pet mod­er­a­tors on Reddit at oper­ate at times. The admin backed cliques main­tain infor­mal con­trol of large parts of Reddit already. What if peo­ple were work­ing on for­mal­iz­ing this con­trol? This is exact­ly what we saw in anoth­er leak from the for­mer mod­er­a­tor Xavier Mendel.

In this detailed paste­bin, he lays out the plans and work him­self and oth­er mod­er­a­tors had done to cre­ate a group that would con­trol what the front page of var­i­ous pop­u­lar sub­red­dits would dis­play and to cre­ate the “per­fect” sub­red­dit that would be placed as a default sub­red­dit on the main page. They had “CSS mods, mods who knew every­one, mods who had good con­nec­tions with admins, admins them­selves, mods who worked with bots and stuff, expe­ri­enced auto­mod­er­a­tor peo­ple, all that” in place to enact this plan, even going so far as to make spread­sheets of var­i­ous mod­er­a­tors and their reli­a­bil­i­ty which equat­ed to “will­ing to do the things we do if we ask.”

The doc­u­ment goes on to say that two things put a hitch in the­se plans, keep­ing them from being ful­ly enact­ed at this point. One rea­son was delayed admin respon­se. Xavier says that this low­ered moral and cre­at­ed apa­thy for the project. The oth­er was the con­tro­ver­sy known as Gamergate that start­ed in August, and the myr­i­ad events that have occurred since August because of it.

Reddit-Image-2All of this tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion, it seems to paint a pret­ty poor paint­ing of what Reddit is the­se days. So why do I start this piece by say­ing it is not all hor­ri­ble? Because it’s not the tool that’s bad, it’s how that tool is used. As it stands now, there are still many great users and mod­er­a­tors using Reddit. Not every sub­red­dit is embroiled in pol­i­tics and con­flict. Indeed, even though I had only start­ed active­ly using red­dit a few months ago, I have been able to find some pret­ty cool nich­es.

Reddit is a site that is lit­er­al­ly made of its users. Despite work­ing again­st their anti-censorship roots, there is some­thing worth fight­ing for to me. It may be an uphill bat­tle, and there are alter­na­tive sites out there, but I can see why peo­ple would want to work in keep­ing the spir­it of this site alive.

What I fear is cor­po­rate Reddit tak­ing its sweet time decid­ing what it wants to be now. While they allow back­room pol­i­tics and sub­red­dit pol­i­tick­ing to dic­tate what Reddit is to users and out­siders, the only peo­ple that ben­e­fit are the alter­na­tive sites.  Every web­site reach­es crit­i­cal mass, and if Reddit doesn’t decide what it wants to be, then it will be decid­ed for them by their users and observers. All it takes, at this point, is a cer­tain per­cent­age of its user base and mod­er­a­tor staff start­ing an exo­dus to anoth­er site to turn Reddit into the next Digg. A lot of peo­ple would say that it’s turned into Digg 2.0 already.

There is a fight for the soul of Reddit occur­ring and what form the site will take when it is all said and done is anyone’s guess. What is known, though, is that despite the con­tro­ver­sies Reddit has had, late last year it got pumped with $50 mil­lion investor dol­lars, had a record-breaking 2014 in regards to vis­i­tor counts, and pos­si­ble plans to share stock with its users (though they may have been scrapped). I believe it’s safe to say that Reddit isn’t going any­where any­time soon. What the site is like in the com­ing years is all up to the users who fre­quent it.

I’ll mod­i­fy an oft quot­ed say­ing to close out:


Stay tuned for a future arti­cle detail­ing the pow­er dynam­ics behind the sce­nes with mod­er­a­tors and how con­trol is main­tained in such an ad-hoc com­mu­ni­ty.

Note (6:15pm EST 4÷29÷2015): Changed the word­ing of the line men­tion­ing stock shar­ing with users. This plan may have been scrapped. I have reached out to Reddit for con­fir­ma­tion.

Josh BrayEditorialEditorial,RedditI have to make a con­fes­sion here. Reddit is not as bad as I orig­i­nal­ly thought it was. That is to say, the web­site itself is not a com­plete wash. Last mon­th I had report­ed on what had become known as the Reddit ModTalkLeaks, where for­mer Reddit mod­er­a­tor Xavier…
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Josh Bray
Josh has worked in IT for over 15 years. Graduated Broadcasting school in 2012 with a focus on A/V pro­duc­tion. Amateur pho­tog­ra­pher with a pas­sion to make things work… by any means nec­es­sary. Leader of the crazy exper­i­ment called SuperNerdLand
Josh Bray

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