Inside the battle for the soul of Reddit

Think of Reddit, the Internet’s self-proclaimed front page, as the plankton of the digital information ecosystem. The vast, labyrinthine network of forums, founded in 2005, is the site where all other sites go to feed: on memes, on news stories, on ideas or whiffs of them.

But contrary the view from 10,000 feet, Reddit does not surface stories on the force of the crowd alone. Behind the Internet’s great trend-machine sits a complex, faceless hierarchy of volunteer moderators, called “mods.” Casual users never see them, and even avid Redditors — as the site’s denizens call themselves — have limited power to challenge them.

That has provoked something of an existential struggle in the Internet’s largest news forum, though few have articulated it that way. Is “the front page of the Internet” a democracy that is crowdsourced by virtual millions? Or is it a series of allied feudal kingdoms, steeped in abstract politics?

“The system has its flaws,” admitted Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager. “But it’s a powerful system that for the vast majority of [the Web site] works great.”

“Works great” is, of course, a relative assessment. While a whopping 110 million people visited Reddit last month — by comparison, the mammoth CNN.com averaged 67 million monthly visitors in 2013 — segments of the site are rife with accusations of moderator censorship, neglect or abuse.

Never has that been clearer than in the past four months, when two of the site’s most popular forums, r/news and r/worldnews, repeatedly deleted a major scoop about British intelligence by Glenn Greenwald. Less than three weeks later, a user in another major forum, r/technology, reported that mods systematically blocked terms like “NSA” and “net neutrality.”

“This is real bad news,” concluded a Redditor codenamed “creq” in his post uncovering r/technology’s blocked terms. “This place is heavily censored.”

In reality, the forum wasn’t so much censored as poorly moderated. But in either case, the incident exposed a more troubling and more systemic drawback of the site: When you hand such profound power to anonymous moderators, the Internet is essentially at their whim.


A screenshot of the Reddit frontpage, as of this writing. (Reddit)

Inside Reddit

That’s particularly true on a site like Reddit, where the politics and power dynamics are opaque obtuse, even to people on the inside. Essentially, Reddit consists of a series of forums, called “subreddits,” which anyone can create. Within each subreddit, users can submit posts (links, photos, questions, etc.) and either up- or down-vote the posts other users have submitted. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, with their ever-evolving, user-friendly interfaces, Reddit’s bare-bones design — sky-blue header, white background, plain Verdana text — has hardly changed since 2005. Each subreddit is a list of links. Each post includes a series of nested comments.

Posts that have been up-voted by large numbers of Redditors move up the subreddit’s “hot” list, thereby gaining visibility. Enough votes can push a post to Reddit’s front page, where it’s exposed to millions of people.

That up- and down-voting system would appear to signal a certain degree of democracy — and it does. As Martin explains, the great benefit of Reddit’s infrastructure is that it allows communities to create spaces entirely of their choosing.

But neither the Reddit front page, nor the network of subreddits behind it, operates without controls. Each subreddit is operated by a moderator, who can make and enforce any editorial decision he wants (including whether or not to appoint other mods). Most of the time, those decisions make sense and help the community run in a smooth manner: deleting spam, blocking disruptive members, that kind of thing. But mods also have the power to delete posts they don’t like or whose politics they disagree with. Alternately, they can slack off their moderation duties to the point the forum fills with junk or spam.

In either case, corporate Reddit tries not to intervene. “We don’t want to be referees,” Martin said. If the company’s three community managers must show their disapproval, they do it subtly — rearranging the highly visible default subreddits to which all users automatically belong.

In Reddit’s nine-year history, overseers have only had to demote default subreddits a handful of times. Last year, they bumped r/politics and r/atheism in favor of more active communities, like r/television and /gifs. Then, just last month, another long-time default fell from grace: the embattled r/technology, which — with its 5 million members — is one of the largest forums on the site.

The battle for r/technology

A screenshot from creq's post. (Reddit)
A screenshot from creq’s post of filtered words in r/technology. (Reddit)

By comparison, the user who brought down r/technology was a small fish in the vast Reddit waters. Creq, a Redditor of only seven months, didn’t moderate any big-time forums or hoard any considerable store of karma — Reddit shorthand for street cred — when he noticed that certain topical words seemed to appear in the forum much less than one would expect. On April 13, he posted a list of “banned” keywords to r/technology, alleging that mods censored posts that contained those terms. The list included everything from “NSA,” “Snowden” and “spying” to “Dogecoin” and “Flappy.”

“Can we create a … spinoff, to get away from the anal mods?” one user commented.

“They’re not anal,” another fired back. “They’re corrupt.”

In point of fact, it seems, the r/technology mods were just complacent: with too many users, and too few active mods, they created a bot to automatically torpedo links on potentially spammy or politicized subjects. But that means that, for a window of several months, stories on those subjects — net neutrality, the NSA scandal, cryptocurrencies — disappeared from one of the Internet’s most important technology forums.

To further complicate things, many of r/technology’s mods were so-called “super-users” — senior Redditors who had accumulated massive amounts of karma and who often ran several major forums on the site. One of them also moderated r/bestof, r/food and r/history, all default subreddits. Another oversaw more than 360 other subreddits, including the wildly popular r/EarthPorn. (None of the moderators contacted by the Post responded to requests for comment.)

Critics wanted the top mods to resign, explain their policies, or some combination of the two. The ensuing back-and-forth, which lasted days, essentially brought the forum to a standstill. On April 17, Reddit pulled r/technology from the default subreddits banner, citing rampant dysfunction there.

“They had no critical mass to moderate the community,” Martin said. “We saw this as an opportunity to kind of say — hey, let’s see what happens. Maybe other subreddits will attract that audience.”

The war for Reddit

That principle, what Martin and others at Reddit HQ like to call “market fluidity,” is actually one of the fundamental underpinnings of the laissez-faire Reddit system. If moderators act out, the logic goes, Redditors can just take their business elsewhere — maybe to r/tech, which has grown markedly in recent weeks, or r/futurology, upon which Reddit recently bestowed default status. Market fluidity is, in theory, a check on moderators’ influence: If they become too powerful, or too irresponsible, users can simply leave.

Unfortunately, Martin admits, the system often doesn’t work that way in practice. A subreddit with a critical mass is not easily toppled, particularly when it’s held by a powerful mod with control of multiple subreddits on the site. Spin-off forums with odd names can be hard to find by search. Plus those super-mods, some users have complained, belong to expansive political networks that can stifle dissent across subreddits or punish users who act out.

One particularly melodramatic Redditor, bemoaning the inequity during the battle for r/technology, compared the situation to the French Revolution: “When French peasant stormed the Bastille, pretty much every royal in Europe started hand-wringing and condemning popular dissent … see if you can apply the analogy to these facts.”

That metaphor’s a little dramatic, of course, but it expresses the essential, existential question of Reddit as it grows up. Can there be such a thing as pure democracy online? Or does the web require something else?

In the weeks since the great r/technology coup, Reddit has failed to answer that question. While the community has new moderators and a new transparency policy, it still suffers from intermittent in-fighting. Creq, the r/technology user who first spotted the censorship, is now a mod of the forum, himself. The majority of his last thousand posts are retorts to Redditors accusing him of abuse.

The mods come and go, it seems; the system stays. And still, behind a curtain many Internet-users don’t even acknowledge, a cabal of faceless, nameless wizards work controls that we can’t see.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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Caitlin Dewey · May 16