Over the last few months, the internet's favorite watering hole, Reddit, has been in a state of turmoil. First, the natives got upset when a few of their communities were banned for being abusive. Then they went into full-stage revolt when a popular employee, who ran the site's "Ask Me Anything" channel was let go, with several subreddits going dark in protest. In response, the company's CEO Ellen Pao stepped down. But that hasn't quite quelled the rebellion. Diehard Redditors all have a similar explanation for why the self-anointed “front page of the Internet” has been plunged into chaos: the workers feel taken advantage of.
“[Ask-Me-Anything moderator Victoria Taylor] being let go was just the latest in a series of ‘do more with less’ situations,” the lead moderator of r/science, whose username is nallen, told Fusion. “You can't really trace where the management went wrong, since it has mostly been a story about neglect.”
Reddit has approximately 70 paid employees, but more than 20,000 volunteer moderators who act as the primary overseers for the site’s more than 9,000 active message boards, which in turn attract upwards of 170 million visitors each month. Those volunteers tell Fusion that they feel that the site's leadership is increasingly out-of-sync with the politics of the people that are running the ship.
Other sites that rely on community labor, such as Wikipedia, have also run into trouble expecting dedicated masses to carry the weight. But unlike Wikipedia, Reddit is a for-profit corporation, bought and then spun out by Condé Nast, a major media company. Its dedicated masses demand that if Reddit profits from their free labor, the company take their needs seriously.
The lockdown of Reddit’s most popular forums two weeks ago in protest of the firing of Taylor, a well-liked administrator, was the culmination of years of frustration. In conversations with more than a dozen top Redditors and others that closely follow the company, nearly everyone said that Reddit took its first step toward that rebellion long before Taylor was fired or the company’s controversial, recently-resigned CEO Ellen Pao took the reins.
Redditors told Fusion that for years, the company’s management has ignored their requests.
Evidence of this is buried all over Reddit itself. For more than six years, for example, moderators have begged the company’s administrators for sticky comments, a feature that would allow subreddit moderators to pin a particular comment to the top of a post to highlight things like subreddit rules. So far, Reddit has ignored those requests, leaving Redditors to try and come up with their own creative hacks.
For almost as long, Redditors said the company has ignored requests for a much-needed overhaul to moderators’ internal communication system. And for help with brigading, what is essentially a downvoting lynch mob.
“We donate our time and talents to Reddit, a for-profit company, because we truly like building cool things on the Internet for others to enjoy,” a pair of moderators for Reddit’s most popular subsection, IAmA, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
Time and time again, they wrote, the company’s leaders have been “tone-deaf” in listening to the community’s requests.
“We feel strongly that this incident is more part of a reckless disregard for the company’s own business and for the work the moderators and users put into the site,” they wrote.
When Ellen Pao took the helm, that simmering dissatisfaction began to bubble. Pao’s reign seemed to send a signal to Reddit’s community that the company’s priorities had shifted.
After hacked celebrity nudes were posted on Reddit in 2014, Reddit took them down, citing copyright infringement. But at the time then-CEO Yishan Wong also made clear that Reddit was not about to start policing the content that appeared on its pages.
In a blog post titled “Every Man is Responsible for His Own Soul,” he wrote, “we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers."
But soon after Pao became CEO, Reddit announced new policies banning so-called revenge porn, implemented sweeping anti-harassment policies and closed down some of the site’s most offensive subsections, like r/fatpeoplehate.
Backlash boiled. To the moderators who performed so many functions for the site for free, it felt like corporate overlords had come to take over, turning what had seemed like a democracy into a feudal fiefdom.
“The overall ‘feel’ of the admins and Reddit as a whole has been increasingly corporate,” another moderator told Fusion. “Which is to be expected, seeing as how they are a company and they need to make money to support this insanity. But too often the approaches taken felt like sanitizing things to draw in ads.”
Victoria Taylor’s ouster was the final straw not because Taylor was particularly loved, but because it signaled to the Reddit community how disconnected the company’s management was from the masses.
Mike Tachulski, a Reddit user and PR rep, broke the news to Reddit’s moderators after a client showed up at Reddit’s offices in New York to participate in an Ask Me Anything interview on the site. His client, Dr. Gregory Hummer, a trauma surgeon and entrepreneur, had flown in from Ohio to do the AMA with Taylor, whose duties at Reddit included acting as a liaison between Reddit, moderators and anyone who wanted to do an AMA. When Hummer got there, he was informed Taylor had just been fired.
“They offered no follow-up whatsoever,” said Tachulski. “I even called Condé Nast, and all they could give me was an old phone number for Reddit that didn’t even work.”
Moderators of the “IAmA” subreddit relied on Taylor’s support to make the planned interviews happen. When news spread that she had been let go without Reddit appointing anyone to fill her role, the “IAmA” subreddit went dark for 24 hours. It was soon joined by other subreddits that shut down in protest.
“We all had the rug ripped out from under us and feel betrayed,” wrote one top moderator of “IAmA, karmanaut, garnering more than 6,000 upvotes.
When Pao stepped down last week, it was viewed as a victory by many in the Reddit community. But that victory has since been tempered by the suggestion that Alexis Ohanian, a Reddit founder and chairman of Reddit’s board, had actually made the call to let Taylor go.
Ohanian’s favor with Redditors had already begun to wane after he had shrugged off frustration from the community after Taylor’s firing.
“You managed to burn through years of goodwill in an afternoon here,” one moderator wrote during an exchange between moderators of /r/science and Ohanian that was later leaked. “What I think you don’t grasp here is that reddit doesn’t have any credibility when it comes to responding to users or mods.”
Moderators of r/AskReddit, one of the site's most popular forums, have now put a timer on their demands, saying that if the company does not make good on promises to deliver two new sets of better tools by Sept. 30 and Dec. 31, they will shut down the section.
Most of Reddit’s problems have stemmed from a lack of communication. What the moderators are trying to clearly communicate now is that they want a say in how Reddit is governed in exchange for their free labor.
As Reddit continues to grow beyond being a weird corner of the internet into truly being the internet's front page, the site is increasingly a contradiction. It's a democratic fiefdom.
As one moderator put it: "in some ways, they're victims of their success." Reddit has thrived by giving the power to the crowd, giving it the ability to decide what's important, what should be torn apart, and what should be up-voted. It made the crowd powerful in steering the public debate, and now that crowd has turned on its leaders.