Reddit As It Stands Now

We detail our findings while researching the history of operations, both corporate and site-wise, of the social sharing site Reddit.


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.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent below.
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. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand

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