Is Reddit, the Internet’s Biggest Ball of Twine, Beginning to Unravel?

by | Jul 8, 2015 | Web/Tech | 0 comments

Late last week the hugely popular and heavily trafficked /r/IAmA sub on Reddit went dark — private, actually, with the result of locking out the entirety of its user base — as the group’s mods reacted in shock to the sacking of Victoria Taylor, the beloved and über-talented talent-wrangler responsible for coordinating thousands of “Ask Me Anything” interviews with newsmakers, stars of stage and screen (and tiny screens) and interesting people of all sorts.

Victoria Taylor, formerly of Reddit. (Image: Reddit)

Victoria Taylor, formerly of Reddit. (Image: Reddit)

Other popular subs quickly followed suit, while still more expressed their solidarity by offering a wall of content related to the event of Victoria’s dismissal — and almost nothing else. Reddit being what it is, there’s now a sub dedicated to the protest.

If you’re a Redditor, perhaps you’re nodding your head right now. You probably couldn’t not know this. If not, however, you’re likely asking yourself…

What’s a Reddit?

Reddit is perhaps the Internet’s largest ball of twine. It’s a construct, an assemblage of untold millions of strands of cat5 cable and yarn, gold brocade and kevlar fiber and butchers’ string. It’s an Internet community of communities-of-interest, a virtual place that consumes knowledge of things both useful and profane, and excretes power and belief, rage and ennui. It is — in the fashion of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods — a premiere roadside attraction.

“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”

“Come again?”

“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel, some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples, or cathedrals, or erect stone circles, or…well, you get the idea.”

— Neil Gaiman, American Gods

 

Have a predilection for animated gifs of cats doing things cats do?

There’s a reddit for that — a subreddit, actually — that’s how Reddit’s communities of interest are categorized. Fond of watching Vice President Joe Biden eat sandwiches? There’s a subreddit for that, too. Enjoy Pokemon? Fancy conspiracy theories? How about both of them, together? There are even subs dedicated to searching out weird subreddits. The breadth and depth of Reddit subs — the number and types of bits of string — boggles the imagination.

Coming soon to a subreddit near you.

Coming soon to a subreddit near you.

There’s a reason for that. Any registered user can create a subreddit about virtually anything that’s not expressly illegal, no matter how esoteric or politically incorrect or curious. (/r/TreesSuckingAtThings? Oh, you wacky kids.) Once you create a subreddit, you are that sub’s moderator. It’s up to you to set the tone for your sub, to determine what sort of content and links should be allowed, and to create and apply the rules that will support your sub’s vision.

“… people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

— Neil Gaiman, American Gods

 

Any user can post a link to a subreddit.

All submissions are voted up or down, and every user can vote on any submission. Posts and links that reap more positive votes than negative votes bubble up, and become more visible. Links that are very popular can skyrocket to the Front Page, where they are still more visible and will likely become still more popular, and voila — a viral meme is born (soon to appear on BuzzFeed, no doubt.)

Imge: Eva Blue (www.flickr.com/photos/evablue/5282805183)

Imge: Eva Blue (www.flickr.com/photos/evablue/5282805183)

Point is, Reddit is a capital “M” Meritocracy. Posts and links are judged by fellow Redditors and rise to the level of their perceived value. That’s kind of what we thought the Internet was supposed to be, right? A level playing field where everybody had the opportunity to contribute, and the best ideas, the best arguments, the best thinking won? So just where did all these cat pictures and rage memes and knitted hats come from? What kind of way is this to run a utopia, anyhow?

 

Discovering yours is not the dominant point of view? That’s part of the deal.

There’s an underlying social contract that supports this meritocracy. It implies that, no matter how you feel about something, individually, it’s the collective’s point of view that will dominate discourse, even when that point of view is silly, childish, impractical (oh, especially if it’s impractical!) or entirely beside the point. The group you’ve become a part of is made of people. Weird, damaged, squishy people. People just like you. But different. And that’s pretty awesome.

It’s also why Redditors were instantly up-in-arms over the sudden termination of Victoria Taylor. Because the point of view of the Reddit collective — and in particular the site’s army of unpaid moderators — was that Victoria was an essential part of communication between mods and an increasingly isolated team of Reddit admins. And that the complete lack of communication regarding Victoria’s dismissal, whatever its circumstance, was a slap in the face to the moderators who do the lion’s share of curating the content that has made Reddit “the front page of the Internet.”

So, is this were Reddit begins to unwind? I won’t presume to make a prediction. This much, however, is certain: Reddit needs a plan to win back the hearts and minds of its volunteer moderators, and in so doing, keep the wheels on its content moderation practice. More, it needs to back up it’s talk with some action, particularly to modernize the tools that moderators use daily to manage their subs. Finally, Reddit leadership needs to provide its paid staffers — Reddit admins — with the soft skills necessary to communicate effectively with moderators and users, alike… those weird, damaged, squishy people. You know… people just like you. But different.

Feature image [cc] by Randy Lane.

Updates

July 8, 2015 NYTimes Opinion Page: Why We Shut Down Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ Forum

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