The Death of Reddit

[edit July 12: when you’re done here, I wrote a followup for you: Fixing or Replacing Reddit, some quick thoughts — take a look! chuq]

Two or three times a year I get asked why I don’t use Reddit, typically from someone telling me about all of the great stuff on it. They’re right, there are a lot of interesting communities and activities that happen on Reddit and a lot of people doing good and interesting things…

But.

My favorite visualization of online communities is the community bar. I’ve used, managed and built online communities going back into the 1980s, many of them sports related, so it’s natural to look at those communities as sports bars. The thing I’ve always told people interested in community management is this: if you’re running a sports bar, and you have a gang of bikers move in, you have two choices. You can either eject the bikers, or you’re running a biker bar. I never set out intending to put my time and energy into a biker bar, so I always worked to prevent the rowdy elements from taking over my communities, because I knew that would cause the people I wanted to be around to leave and find some other place to be.

To carry this visualization to Reddit, what you have is a really large, multi-floor building with a large ground-floor common space and a huge bar area filled with a wide variety of people. Much of the rest of the building are community rooms that people can use for their organizations and meetups to get together and interact. it’s a huge — and very successful — community space.

Reddit, however, has a basement, and in all honesty, the owners of this building would prefer nobody look down there, because again, it’s a big space full of community rooms as well, but down there are the groups Reddit feel are part of the community but would prefer most of us would stay avoid. In some ways Reddit should be lauded for being inclusive of all community groups, even the uncomfortable ones, but down in that basement is a big part of the ultimate death of Reddit.

Here’s the thing. there are groups that don’t feel the need to behave, that see that rebellion against authority as the base of their enjoyment. And there are people who simply get off by destroying what others build or screwing up what others enjoy. If you invite those people into your house, eventually some of them are going to start pissing into your fireplace or throwing chairs at each other in the main hall. Even if you keep them in their own out of the way mostly hidden community room, the things they do will attract attention adn the authorities, and when the police come through your front door and raid your basement, your other patrons will notice. When that happens often enough, you’ll see more and more of those become ex-patrons. Most of us don’t want to party in a biker bar. Hell, most of us don’t want to party next door to a biker bar, or within blocks of a biker bar. Once your place gets that reputation, it’s going to make everyone around it nervous.

That, in a nutshell, is one of the big problems at Reddit: they wanted to be inclusive, which is a laudible (if somewhat naive) goal. Groups of — questionable — ethics and reputation have taken advantage of that, and it doesn’t matter if you have a big building with ten floors of community rooms full of great people organizing to do great things, that basement full of bikers is going to end up dominating your reputation and the conversation about you.

I don’t have a Reddit account because, ultimately, I could not support Reddit because of the groups they allow into that basement. How you feel about it is a decision you have to make, but in my mind, to the degree you help Reddit thrive by being a user, mod or contributor, you’re contributing to the success of that basement floor of rooms you’d never want to visit as well. I won’t enable that behavior, even indirectly. I am not judging your decision — but I am encouraging you to think and judge yourself.

Reddit, to put it bluntly, is a case study of how not to build a community. It’s well summed up within Re/Code’s piece on the removal of Pao as CEO. The final trigger was the dismissal of Victoria Taylor, and the reason the moderators reacted so strongly was in large part because Taylor was basically the only one at Reddit who actually talked to the moderators and acted as liason between the communities and the organization. There have also been long and loud complaints about the poor quality of moderation and administration tools.

Pao made a number of strategic mistakes, a key one deciding to talk at the community instead of to it when the Taylor dismissal went public and by trying to spin the reaction by discussing the situation with the press instead of the community directly. When she tried to rectify that mistake (it was too late) she posted a post that was immediately voted into oblivion by a pissed off community, instead of posting the note in a form that was immune to voting where it would be seen and not torn to pieces by the community.

Stop and think about that for a minute. Pao, who is trying to run a business that supports a major community, didn’t reach out to that community, but instead talked to the press. When she realized that just made everyone more angry, she tried to talk to the community, but showed only that she was unfamiliar with how the system actually worked and evidently wasn’t smart enough to go find someone to show her how to do it right until her third try.

For a person in Pao’s position, not knowing how your own system and software works is a massive fail. Not bringing in someone in PR to help you craft the message and get it posted appropriately is a big fail. There were organizational failures that other parts of Reddit let this happen without someone hauling her into a room and saying “you need help. Let’s figure this out” is a big fail; or perhaps they tried and she wouldn’t listen. Either way, huge failure. That Pao initially tried to spin this in the press instead of work this out with the community is a fail that’s a combination of her background working through the politics of executive boardrooms and her VC background — but it’s still a fail. All of this leads to the inevitable conclusion that she was the wrong person to be leading Reddit (and now, she no longer is), and that the board made a bad hire bringing her in.

So in my world, Reddit’s board in its entirety ought to be announcing their resignations along with Pao, but it won’t happen. She’ll be the fall guy here, when in fact Reddit was fatally broken when they brought her in, they hired the wrong person when they brought in Pao, and now that they’ve removed her, they have an even bigger crisis on their hands and aren’t any closer to being able to fix any of it.  Pao probably should have known she was the wrong person for this role, but the bigger failure here is the board that hired her — there’s plenty of fail to spread around here, though.

The board, however, will likely skate through this relatively unharmed, much as the board of HP did when it fired Mark Hurd and hired Leo did, then had to fire Leo and hand the whole mess to Meg Whitman to fix for them. That’s the nature of these things, but we should remember and place that blame where it ultimately falls: not Pao, but Pao’s boss, the board.

Not that it really matters Reddit is fatally broken and has been for a while. I understand the attempt to build a business model to support Reddit, but if you think through the history of community sites, it’s very, very hard to find many where this has been done successfully.

 

Reddit is fatally broken for a number of reasons:

  • As noted above, the tools for managing the community are poor and from listening to what a number of moderators have said, the success of Reddit is despite the system and tools, not because of it. If I were a potential investor and interviewing users and moderators, I’d be very wary of investing here because it sounds to me like the IP of the site is weak.
  • The moderators are all volunteers, and there’s no legal requirement or incentive for their activities to align with the company’s needs and goals, and in many cases, of course, they don’t. How do you make a site successful when the people with the most power and authority on the site and the ones most responsible for the site’s success have no incentive to do what the company asks, and the only option the company has to solve this disconnect is a nuclear, scorched earth option?
  • As a sub-note of that last point, why, oh why aren’t the biggest and most successful subreddits run by the company or have their mods hired into contract/consult agreements where they’re on company payroll in some way? How can you honestly cede control at this level and think it’s a good idea?
  • How do you make changes to a community when the users like it as it is and have no incentive to accept changes, and you can’t make them because you’ve ceded control of the biggest and most critical pieces to people not under the company’s control?
  • Reddit became a big and popular site in part because it was founded on a belief in free speech and didn’t put any limits or controls on that, nor did it put behavior limits on its users or moderators. So it unsurprisingly attracted users that were attracted to these lack of rules and limits. And then when the behaviors of those people became unacceptable (or more correctly, when the press about Reddit was so consistently about the damaging behavior of these groups that it was defining how people viewed Reddit) Reddit attempted to put rules in place and shut down a few of the most abusive groups — and not surprisingly, people brought to the site because they wanted a place without rules got upset at having rules placed on them, and hilarity ensued. And from what I can tell, Reddit was surprised at this reaction.
  • By the way, moderators can take their groups private temporarily? Who thought that was a good idea? public -> private is a reasonable change for a group, but it is never, ever EVER a good idea to let someone take a group that’s private and make it public. The chances of harm to its users is immense and that’s an incredibly stupid idea. That the reddit mods could lock down their groups in protest to Reddit is a bad idea in general, but the way they could do it and the fact they could un-do it later is a massive privacy design flaw in my mind.

So Reddit is a cluster. The way the site is built technically is poor with weak tools for the admins and moderators. The rules that built the community and the way the power structure of the community is set up means the people with the most power have the least need to buy into Reddit’s attempts to take more power within the company and away from the volunteer moderators who have done most of the hard work with the site. Throw a lack of any real feedback system between company and moderators or users, and a lack of any real reward system to moderators by the company, and why is anyone surprised nobody particularly cares what the company wants if it doesn’t seem to benefit the users?

I see poor management with a naive attitude about the use of the site, weak tools and IP, a mis-aligned power structure where there’s no need for the people with the real power to care what the company wants, no real communication between company and its moderators or users, and a lot of really toxic users and groups that have caused the site major PR and reputation disasters but which the company is both reluctant and in many cases unable to control or remove.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?

How do you fix this?

You don’t. You can’t. Reddit has failed, and we are now witnessing its immolation.

So what should Reddit do? Let me say up front this basic fact: if the Reddit board were to call me up and offer me a blank check to come in and fix Reddit for them, I would laugh and hang up. I wouldn’t touch this disaster under any circumstances. But if they were to ask me what advice I have for the idiot stupid enough to take this gig, here’s what I’d tell them:

Don’t try to fix it. It’s broken. It can’t be fixed. Instead, it’s time to decide what the service you want is, and build that service out of the ashes of the failure of this Reddit. A great starting point is the AMA and the most popular reddits. Figure out the revenue model and make sure it’s baked in to this new model. Anything that isn’t part of this new model that exists on the old site will end up being shut down. you can expect that won’t go well when you announce it.

Identify your top 25 community mods and your 50 most popular/largest/busiest subreddits with topics you plan on supporting in the new Reddit. Hire them and make them your core community team, with a charter of working with and training talking to and listening to all of your other mods. This is the crew you need to build a strong communication and camaraderie with you unpaid mod teams.

The 2nd tier mods who run large and successful groups but aren’t part of this team (say, the 100 most important or influential) are all put on some kind of contract that pays them something for their time and the success of their reddits. It may not be huge, but it’ll help give them incentive to align with company interests and make agreements with them more easily binding legally.

All mods will have to agree with the new site T/C and the rules of engagement and behavior for groups and mods. Make it very clear any that won’t will have their groups taken over and run by Reddit until a new moderator is found and takes over. The old mod should no longer have the ability to delete or lock the community, at least through this transition. If they want to run off to 8chan let them, and if their users follow, let them. But you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised how many will stick around in the mainstream groups, even if the lead mod gets huffy and bolts.

All of those groups that hang out in what I lovingly call the basement? They have to go away. Nuke them. Give them two weeks and they go away. They are not an asset or a help and they have no place in the new site.

When you have all of this in place, make the announcements, make the changes, and move forward.

And don’t forget to duck.

Whoever takes this on can expect to be hit by a massive backlash online, and it’ll probably leak out into the real world. Expect to be doxxed. Expect to be swatted. Expect to have dead (or live) rats mailed to your house. Expect to move your family to a safe house, or some other country, for a while for their protection. Expect to have many late nights where you stare at your email inbox and wonder why you took that job and that you’re not being paid enough.

And maybe, if you design the new site right and stick to your guns and not cave to the screaming and yelling and swatting, you’ll come out of the whole maelstrom with a viable site and a new company worth running, and with any luck, you won’t spend the next five years waking up screaming from the dreams.

And man, oh man. If you do, I’ll buy you all the beers you want and listen to the war stories. It’d be awesome — from a distance.

But seriously, Reddit may be functional, but it’s dead. Don’t fix it, use it as the base to build something better, and start fresh to get away from all of the mistakes that were made building this one. it won’t be easy, it’ll definitely be loud, stressful and painful, but I think even with that, it’ll be less painful than trying to make what’s currently there work right.

there comes a time with communities that go toxic where the only real answer is to take them out behind the barn and Old Yeller them. That time has come for Reddit.

Other interesting things about Reddit’s problems:

(for those that don’t know me, why should you care what I think? Maybe you shouldn’t, and maybe I’m blowing all of this out my butt. time will tell. But I’ve been using, managing, moderating, building and architecting communities since the early 1980s. A lot of my work has been in email, but I’ve also done a lot of web and application community work in tools like vBulletin, PHPbb, confluence, Jive, WordPress, Drupal, Web Crossing, and others. Back in the day I was a Sysop or mod on AOL, on CompuServe, on GENie, on sites you’ve never heard of or I can’t talk about. I once wrote an entire BBS in Fortran. I’ve even done it on Google+ and made it work, which was harder than it should have been. I did the software that drove lists.apple.com (and still does) and Apple’s internal list server (and may still). I’d built things for groups as small as a dozen and as large as tens of millions (in 16 languages). Y0u’ll find my name on documents about the USENET backbone cabal. So I’ve been living, eating, breathing and stressing out over online community for most of my life, and I bet I’ve made just about every mistake out there, except Reddit has invented many mistakes I never would have considered anyone who gets communities to try. So I know and love communities, and Reddit, for all its size and scale, is by far the worst designed and built community I’ve ever seen, and it depresses me that people are proud of having built it. And even with that, it can be fixed, but I feel sad for anyone who tries, because that job is going to suck like few jobs that have ever existed…)