In Mod we trust

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Yesterday, Reddit continued it’s dramatic month of what can only be described in a public relations context, as a cluster fuck.

After the sudden and mysterious firing of Reddit Inc. emploee Victoria Taylor, one of the site’s most popular communities (known as subreddits, or ‘subs’) – /r/IAMA temporarily shut itself down. I’m still unclear as to whether the temporary closing of the sub was originally because the mods were so blind-sided and had to take stock to figure out what to do without their single most important Reddit employee, Victoria – or if it was a protest. Whatever the initial reason, it quickly developed into a site wide black out denouncing the decision.

Mods who were in charge of some of the sites most popular subs took them dark in protest and solidarity with Victoria. You couldn’t submit, vote, comment or even VIEW content on the participating subs (of which, there was at least dozens). To mix metaphors, it was an absolute shit storm that reached fever pitch at break neck speed.

Suddenly, one of the internet’s most trafficked websites was barely usable for the majority of its users. Victoria was a much loved member of the Reddit family and a rare link between the user base and the internal staff. Under her watch, some of the world’s biggest celebrities gave Q and A sessions with Reddit’s users. Victoria, it is said, fought hard to make sure celebs didn’t just pick and choose softball questions and ensured press and PR agents weren’t answering instead of the real McCoy (or sitting President or Astronaut or Double-dicked dude).

This is the latest chapter in what appears to be the medium paced destruction of Reddit. The site, which relies entirely on user submitted content and user participation to dictate what visitors see, has really been fucked with this year. Presumably, this is a direct result of the leadership of interim CEO Ellen Pao. For years, Reddit was a bastion of self-policing communities. It was, formerly, a rare mass meeting place for adults to discuss news, life, offer support for each other going through tough times and yes, share pictures of cats and barely dressed (or not all) attractive girls. The self-sustaining nature of Reddit and its subs was built into the website’s DNA and the entire reason for its success.

As I write this, one of the most upvoted posts on one of the site’s most popular subs (/r/pics – which has become the defacto dumping ground of protest posts while this story develops) is an image of Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian standing to deliver a TED talk during 2009. The slide behind him reads: “You no longer control the message. And that’s OK.”

The incredible lack of communication between Admins (the people who work at Reddit) and the Mods (the volunteers that run the individual communities and keep Reddit alive) has been palpable. It’s a huge issue and failing from the site’s leadership team. But that’s repairable. What may not be is a drifting from that original guiding principle of (within legal bounds) letting the community dictate its terms. Unpopular subs fade away into obscurity and unpopular mods are outed and de-robed.

Last month’s mass protest after the shutting down of several highly offensives subs was chalked up as a major victory for the internet in the liberal media that bothered to cover the story. But they missed the wider point. The questions becomes: Who is drawing the line of offence? Who is deciding where the moral line is and who decides what happens when it is crossed? It used to be the so-called ‘hivemind’ of the Reddit community. But increasingly, that is not the case.

A statement has been issues by the mods at /r/IAMA now, it’s tone is professional but pissed off. It’s clear things have not been good between them and the Admins for a while now and this was the final straw. Not only do they express a lack of clarity of advanced notification from Admins around policy changes, they are providing insufficient support in times of extreme need they give the example of when someone is being doxxed – (outed publicly while personal information being posted on Reddit, which has always been a huge no-no). Mods only have so much administrative power on the website and apparently Admins have been slow to act in some of these dangerous cases.

Reddit’s leadership team can go about patching these relationships with Mods back and return the site to functioning order but I cannot see how large portions of the site’s user base will ever forgive or forget what’s been happening the last year or so. The trust is gone and whether it’s accurate or an unfair characterisation held by a critical number of users, it will not come back under Ellen Pao’s leadership.

UPDATE: According to a former Reddit employee’s AMA, Ellen Pao, when questioned on whether she and the leadership team were looking for a new CEO after months of her in the interim CEO role, responded with “You’ll have to pry this position from my cold, dead hands!!!” The “pry” comment was quickly deleted either by the former employee or Mods but many users are commenting and quoting it in the thread. The thread has since been deleted.

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