Reddit's Conflict With Its Moderators Has Long-Term Implications For Everyone

The average Redditor might not feel it now, but the volunteer-driven online forum's recent community management practices should be cause for concern.

Reddit's Conflict With Its Moderators Has Long-Term Implications For Everyone

It’s been a turbulent time at Reddit for the last month or so. The news that Reddit’s announced API monetization would be extremely cost-prohibitive, which directly affected many popular third-party apps (some of which are accessibility-focused, such as RedReader and Luna), triggered the largest online protest seen by the online discussion site once branded as “the front page of the internet”. But despite the efforts of over 8,000 subreddits setting themselves private (and essentially inaccessible) for a week or more, Reddit held the line and shut off their API access to non-paying developers on July 1st.

If you need a summary of the whole ordeal, The Verge has a great stream of articles covering the protest on Reddit and all the little details that came from it.  But in essence, Reddit is essentially back to relatively normal operations nearly a week after its shutoff of non-paid API access.

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Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash

If you’re not a “Redditor” (the colloquial term used for someone who is a regular on Reddit) or you are and you’ve seen these protests go by, there’s a variety of opinions that you might have about the whole affair. You might whole-heartedly support the protest or feel that Reddit is unfairly and obstinately pushing a change onto its users, or dislike Reddit’s management for doing so. Or you might instead feel that the moderators engaged in the protest are in it for a power play hidden behind a seemingly benign agenda. Or you might simply feel a sense of indifference to the whole thing if you use Reddit’s default app with few issues, don’t think the protest did anything, or are just feeling inconvenienced by subreddits with aggregate news you keep up with having been inaccessible. But I think that regardless of what opinion you have about the protest, the community management that Reddit engaged in to try to deal with these concerns has a potential long-term impact - and I don’t think it’s a good one.

human hand neon signage
Photo by charlesdeluvio on Unsplash

The primary reason I believe Reddit’s userbase may one day in the future see a negative effect of how the protest was handled is that the “two-way communications trust” that usually exists between a privately-owned service/company and its users was broken. I define this trust as a productive feedback relationship between a company and its user community based on mutual respect and understanding, driven in part by a compromise that cedes part of each party’s agency to affect things. Community Managers use this trust, and in fact perhaps even exist because of it, in order to gather meaningful feedback and a vital communications loop that ideally is beneficial to everyone involved.

The “trust” part of what I’m talking about is essentially boiled down to the following:

  • The company, even though (via private ownership) it has the unilateral authority to do whatever it wants, trusts the user community to give constructive feedback it finds useful when those policies don’t fit or need changing, as well as to not lower the quality of the service by being disruptive.
  • The user community, even though it has the ultimate power of deciding (or not) to patronize the company’s service and thus control its continued existence, trusts the company to listen to feedback, and to implement changes and policies that are largely understandable, even if they may not wholly agree with them.
four people watching on white MacBook on top of glass-top table
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

When the two-way communications trust works, it results in a company that is kept honest by its userbase and can be made aware of a perspective it may not be aware of, and a user community that will go to bat for a company and drive more people to it. But when it’s busted, it can lead to all kinds of trouble on both sides.

A combination of stubborn unilateral authority and non-ideal feedback handling on the part of Reddit’s management is what I think broke this trust over the past month, including:

As such, once this trust was broken, it was no surprise to see moderators and users do things like change subreddit scopes to things involving John Oliver or only offering fashion advice from long-ago. Yet others stubbornly stayed closed, or opened under protest.

woman in black long sleeve shirt covering her face with her hands
Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

If you’re someone with professional experience with community management like me, you know that one of the first things to know is that “just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should”. While we’re ultimately employees of the companies we represent, we still have a practical and altruistic motivation to maintain trust with our communities. And when we are able to help broker a compromise or decision that is largely agreeable to both company and user communities, it’s a win for everyone. So to see Reddit use every tool in its toolbox to utilize its ownership as a blunt weapon to break the protest was, while perhaps ultimately successful to deal with the short-term pain, not in the best interest of its trust moving forward. It’s even more concerning when you know that moderators, though not all angels and with certainly their fair share of issues, are a user community that directly contributes to the relevancy, agency, and ultimately, the financial status of the site through volunteer hours cultivating and shepherding their communities. It certainly makes Reddit’s CEO calling the volunteer force they are dependent on “landed gentry” seem like something out of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.

Ultimately, Reddit counted on the average user not caring about how this went down and for that critical mass to overcome its moderators concerned member of its user community. They performed the cold business calculus and looked at the numbers, and perhaps used the average user’s desire to participate in Reddit to turn them towards their own purposes in breaking the protest. All of these are legitimate tactics for a privately owned website and were mostly successful, this time - but the cost may be felt down the line.

The average Redditor may have felt fine with what Reddit did or even praised it, depending on how they view subreddit moderators as a whole, but if Reddit’s management was mostly unwilling (outside a few concessions) to listen this time to a visible outcry, how willing will they be to listen to its users or work with them when they decide to make a change they might care about more? Some of these include decommissioning the significantly popular legacy Reddit view from pre-2018, or making changes to advertising practices to entice ad campaigns but annoy users.

While Reddit has maintained stances that it will not make changes that negatively affect the userbase as a whole, their word alone may mean significantly less due to their actions from the past month. The fact of the matter is that we just don’t know, and now that the two-way community trust is broken, that’s a problem - even if not everyone using Reddit realizes it currently.