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.

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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. Editor-in-Chief and do-er of tech things at SuperNerdLand