For the last 40 years or more, online platforms have relied on people to facilitate and support our online communities. In the early 70s, they were the librarians and shopkeepers of Community Memory. In the 80s, they were the WELL’s “conference hosts.” In the 90s, they were AOL’s “community leaders.” In 2015, they are Wikipedia’s “administrators,” Facebook’s “admins,” Slashdot’s “moderators,” or XBOX’s “enforcement united.” And on platforms like Twitter without moderators, we find the need to invent them. These moderators are the founders, designers, promoters, facilitators recruiters, legislators, responders, and enforcers of our online social interactions.
This summer, I’ve been doing qualitative research on ways that Reddit moderators develop common interests as they face the company, as they face their subscribers, and as they relate to other moderators. Just in the top 20,000 subreddits by subscribers, Reddit has 50,790 moderators. This July, moderators of 2,278 subreddits joined a “blackout,” demanding better communication and improved moderator tools. The blackout is one moment in the wider research I’m doing, a moment where tensions and common cause rose to the surface. Blacked-out subreddits constituted 60% of the top 10 subreddits, 29% of the top 100, and 5% of the top 20,000 subreddits, representing a total of 134.8 million combined subscriptions.
Since I can only get so far by reading Reddit threads, I’m now interviewing Reddit moderators to learn more about your experience as a moderator and your experience of the blackout. If you are interested to talk, please message me on Reddit at /u/natematias.
Work In Progress: Charting the Reddit Blackout of July 2015
Since I’m also a software engineer and quantitative researcher, I’ve been complementing my qualitative work with data analysis on what I was able to collect from the public API, combined with /u/GoldTesting’s dataset of blackout participation. Mostly, I’ve used that data to decide where to look and who to reach out to. The conversations I found led me to think about several hypotheses I could also test statistically:
When moderators discussed the blackout with their subscribers, many debated the idea of “solidarity,” wondering if they were too small to have common cause with larger subs or if they were too small to make a difference. Others expressed strong opinions that joining the blackout meant standing with other moderators or standing for Reddit users as a whole.
The conversations I found led me to think about several hypotheses I could test statistically:
H1: Larger subreddits were more likely to join the blackout, maybe because their moderators were part of ModTalk, where much of the blackout was discussed, or because they felt a blackout would make a difference, or because they felt common cause with other mods of large subs.
H2: Subreddits with more moderators were more likely to join the blackout, perhaps mods in these subs would have greater solidarity with others.
H3: Subreddits with mods who also moderate other subreddits that participated in the blackout were more likely to join the blackout
To illustrate the data used for my statistical tests, here are two network graphs of shared moderators between subreddits. The first graph includes the top 20,000 subreddits in terms of subscribers (as of mid-June 2015). The graph one filters only subreddits with more than 10,128 subscribers. In the network graphs, subreddits that did not black out are tinted blue, while yellow-tinted subreddits joined the blackout.
The charts are laid out using the ForceAtlas2 layout on Gephi, which has separated out some of the more prominent subreddit networks, including the ImaginaryNetwork, the “SFW Porn” Network, and toward the center, the ShitRedditSays “fempire”. These networks are notable because some of them made network-wide decisions about their participation in the blackout.
Using this dataset, I conducted a logistic regression testing the above hypotheses.
H1: Larger subreddits were more likely to join the blackout. This hypothesis is supported. On average in the population of top 20k subreddits, there is a large positive relationship between the log-transformed subscriber count and a subreddit’s probability of joining the blackout, holding all else constant.
H2: Subreddits with more moderators were more likely to join the blackout. This hypothesis is supported, very very weakly. I wouldn’t make much of this.
H3: Subreddits with mods who also moderate other subreddits that participated in the blackout were more likely to join the blackout. This is supported. On average in the top 20,000 subreddits, there is a positive relationship between the log of moderator roles in other blackout subs and a subreddit’s probability of joining the blackout, a relationship that is mediated by the overall number of moderators shared with other subs, holding all else constant.
So, is there evidence of moderator “solidarity” ? Yes, if we consider H1 to be a test of solidarity associated with similar subscriber numbers, and if we consider H2 to be a test of solidarity related to the number of moderators one works together with, then yes, we see support for the solidarity hypothesis. However, my qualitative research shows that many subreddits voted on this issue, indicating that subscribers also matter to this picture. Furthermore, many mods of smaller subs also expressed solidarity, even if smaller subs were less likely to participate. So more work needs to be done.
CAVEATS: This is just a preliminary statistical test. I have much more work to do before publication:
- I need to define better hypotheses that can answer theoretically-meaningful questions
- I need to do much more work to confirm the validity of my data collection, data processing, and models
- I need better definitions of “solidarity”
- This needs to be peer reviewed
In particular, I plan to spend more time with network scientists to understand the best way to set up my dataset for statistical analysis. There are many ways to project a complex network onto a single table for statistical tests, and I may need to try a different approach. Note also that this model does not include time as a factor, and that I use the term “predict” to refer to statistical inference rather than some ability to predict participation in the blackout before it occurred.
I’m sharing these preliminary results because I hope they’ll attract interest from Reddit moderators, and hopefully lead me to more interviews and data while I still have time to talk to people and enrich my understanding of what happened. If you are a Reddit moderator and want to talk with me, please message me at /u/natematias.
The Social Media Collective extended family compiled a bibliography on the digital divide (including gender gaps) and ICTD. Thanks to all of those who contributed!
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(or, What’s New About Getting an Old Degree?)
I’m delighted to be teaching an intro seminar for all the new Ph.D. students in my department’s graduate program. One of my goals is to give these students a place to talk about the environment of graduate school itself. How does getting a Ph.D. work? What do you need to know?
This task has made me reflective. At first I thought I should pass along readings that had been inspirational for me during grad school. That sure didn’t work. Here is the advice I apparently once loved:
Once you have identified some [thesis] topics you are interested in, you can research them rapidly by spending a few hours on the telephone calling up experts in the field and pumping them for information…although it may cost you a few dollars in long-distance bills… —Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or Ph.D., p. 182
I wrote the paper with which this book begins on a microcomputer. Though this first experience with one frightened me a little at first, writing soon seemed so much less work that I wondered how I had managed before. —Writing for Social Scientists, p. 151
Having surveyed the basics…it’s time to consider the role that electronic communication can play. The most important thing is to employ electronic media consciously and deliberately as part of a larger strategy for your career. —Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students
Fortunately, these days every legitimate library has a copy machine, and each copy costs about a dime. —How to Write a Thesis, p. 86
The process of getting a Ph.D. is very old. Wikipedia claims the first Ph.D. was awarded in Paris in 1150. I thought Ph.D. advice would be more likely to stand the test of time.
These days you’ll find better dissertation advice on Tumblr. Or at least you’ll find some comic relief from Tumblrs like When in Academia…
(That’s some great tagging.)
The upshot is that it looks like a fair amount of the advice about how to get a Ph.D. has to do with the available communication technology of the time. Both the stuff that’s in everyday use, and also the scholarly communication infrastructure (which I’ve also blogged about recently).
Has anyone reading this ever attended a conference paper sale? (No, that’s not about buying pre-written term papers.) Or have you ever received an academic journal article “preprint request postcard?” Here’s an image of one:
Source: Google Scholar Blog.
So far I’ve come up with a list of things that seem to still be helpful. Caveats: I’m aiming to help the social science and humanities students interested in communication and information. Our first year students won’t be teaching yet, so I am not focusing on teaching with this list.
Hopefully there are some readers who will find this list useful too.
How to Get a Ph.D. — The Draft Reading List
Agre, P. (2002). Networking on the Network: A Guide to Professional Skills for PhD Students. http://vlsicad.ucsd.edu/Research/Advice/network.html I’ll excerpt the following sections:
- Building a Professional Identity
- Socializing at Conferences
- Publication and Credit
- Recognizing Difference
- Your Dissertation
- Academic Language
anonymous. (ed.) (2015). “When in Academia.” http://wheninacademia.tumblr.com/
Becker, H. S. (2007). Writing for Social Scientists. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. — Don’t let the title of this book fool you, it is equally applicable to graduate students in the humanities and professional programs. I’m excerpting the following sections:
- Freshman English for Graduate Students
- Persona and Authority
- Learning to Write as a Professional
- Terrorized by the Literature
Cham, J. (2013, January 21). “Your Conference Presentation.” (image.) PhD Comics.
Edwards, P. N. (2014). “How to Give an Academic Talk.” http://pne.people.si.umich.edu/PDF/howtotalk.pdf (13 pp.)
Germano, W. (2013) From Dissertation to Book. (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press. — Note: “Passive Is Spoken Here” is a great section heading. I’ll excerpt the chapter:
- Making Prose Speak
Sterne, J. (2014). How to Peer Review Something You Hate. ICA Newsletter. (2 pp.)
Shore, B. M. (2014). The Graduate Advisor Handbook. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. I’ll excerpt:
- Mutual Expectations for Research Advising (pp. 143-146)
Strunk, W., Jr. & White, E. B. (2000). The Elements of Style. (4th ed.) New York: Longman. (Important: You must avoid any “Original Edition” or public domain reprint that does not include E. B. White as a co-author. The version without E. B. White is a different book.)
@yourpapersucks (ed.) (2015). “Shit My Reviewers Say.” http://shitmyreviewerssay.tumblr.com/
I see that it’s a list woefully lacking in anything like “social media savvy for Ph.D. students” or “How new forms of scholarly communication are changing the dissertation.” I’m sure there are other newish domains I’ve left out, too. What am I missing? Can anyone help me out? Please add a comment or e-mail me.
Yours in futurity.
(this blog post was cross-posted to Multicast.)
Last Thursday and Friday, moderators of many of Reddit’s most popular discussion groups “blacked out” their subreddits, preventing access to parts of the site by Reddit subscribers and cutting off some of the company’s advertising revenue for half a day. What may not have started as a protest quickly became one, with many moderators complaining that the company needed to offer better communication and better tools to its volunteer moderators. Reddit’s management responded within hours, apparently after substantive negotiations with moderators, and promised to meet those demands.
This story was covered widely in the press last weekend, with the MediaCloud project tracking 92 articles in the mainstream media and 51 in its “tech blogs” dataset.
As a PhD candidate spending my summer researching the work of moderators on Reddit, I’ve been asked repeatedly by journalists to share my results. I’ve resisted commenting, because we often want easy answers in the heat of the moment: will Reddit survive, what do I think about Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, are moderators are exploited labor, a “product being sold” to advertisers? In my research this summer, I’m trying to go beyond these important, near-term questions to understand the work that Reddit moderators do and how they see it.
Although it’s too early to share my results, I *can* share some of what I’ve found. I hope this post is useful to journalists writing about the Reddit blackout, and I hope that Reddit moderators read this too, so you can tell me what I am getting right, what I’m misunderstanding, and what conversations I’m missing.
- Why Does This Matter?
- What Is a Subreddit?
- What Do Reddit Moderators Do?
- How Do You Become a Moderator on Reddit?
- How Many Moderators Are There?
- What Does It Mean to “Go Dark,” “Go Private,” or “Black Out” and is This A New Thing?
- How Did Moderators Decide to Take Subreddits Private?
- What Were the Consequences of Taking Subreddits Private?
- Who’s In The Majority? What Do “Reddit Users” Think?
- Final Thoughts and Next Steps
How I’m Doing My Research
In this post, I avoid linking or directly mentioning specific Reddit users or subreddits for research ethics reasons. They’ve had a hard enough week without me sending more attention their way. Read more about my methods, ethics, and promises to Reddit users here.
Even before this weekend’s controversy, I had analyzed 50 interviews with groups of subreddit moderators, constructed a historical timeline on the history of the idea of subreddits and the role of moderators, followed hundreds of job board postings where moderators apply and accept moderating roles, and watched videos about the work of moderators. I also collected summary statistics from the Reddit API to understand how many moderators there are. Finally, I have personal experience facilitating and moderating a high profile online community, The Atlantic’s Twitter book club, which I moderated from 2012-2014.
Since the blackout started, I have spent most of my waking hours archiving and reading material about the controversy, including:
- Over 500 links that appeared in the Reddit Live feed on the blackout, a feed maintained by Reddit users
- Data on which subreddits went private, and by implication, which did not
- Over a hundred of messages stating why “this subreddit is private” during the blackout
- Hundreds of discussions in subreddits debating if they should go private
- Around 50 discussions in subreddits that chose not to go private (I’m still adding to this)
- “We’re back” discussions, where moderators justified, defended, or apologized for the decision to go private
- Notable discussions in “meta-subreddits” where users from across the site reflected and responded to the issue
- Historical records of other times that moderators made subreddits private
- Limitation: I do not currently have access to the private subreddits where moderators of top subs discussed their decisions and goals, nor the conversations between mods and the company. Even though I can offer assurances of privacy, anonymity, and security in my archival of those conversations, moderators of the largest subreddits have not at this point trusted me to participate, a choice that I can understand.
- Limitation: I haven’t archived conversations off-reddit where people claiming to be moderators have discussed the issue, because I have no way of confirming that they are actually moderators. The one exception is journalistic interviews or op-eds that name the moderators.
It’s too soon for me to draw conclusions from such a wide-ranging dataset, but I mention it in case there are important conversations I’m missing. If you’re a reddit moderator, or if you mod a sub where moderators discuss these issues, please contact me at u/natematias.
1. Why Does This Matter?
Reddit is one of the world’s most popular social/content platforms, with roughly half of Twitter’s monthly active visitors and 2/5 the monthly unique visitors of Wikipedia. YouTube, Facebook, and many news sites review content through flagging systems, with large numbers of paid staff reviewing content. For example, the Huffington Post pre-moderates 450,000 comments per day, paying between $0.005 and $0.25 for every comment. When The Verge recently turned off comments, worried that “sometimes it gets too intense,” they may also be saving a *lot* of money. Reddit mostly relies on its volunteer moderators to support and maintain conversations on the site, and the company has traditionally offered them substantial autonomy in return.
My research on the Reddit moderators isn’t just about Reddit. Anyone who cares about a fair, free, and meaningful social web should be paying close attention to sites like Reddit, Meetup, Craigslist, and Wikipedia that rely mostly on user initiative. If volunteer moderators, upvoting systems, and other community-driven approaches to supporting large-scale collective projects ultimately fail (and there are many ways to fail), it will be hard to justify anything but a fully-commercial web. At the same time, platforms are also creating new categories of work that defy the boundaries and expectations of mid-20th century labor, new categories that also create new problems.
Whatever the wider issues, the blackout also matters deeply to millions of subreddit moderators and subscribers. Content, conversations and relationships on Reddit are fully a part of many people’s lives. In addition to books, jokes, porn, deals, advice, inspiration, debates, and news, people also sometimes go to Reddit to ask for feedback on intimate questions they would never dare ask anywhere else, including help with thoughts of suicide or responses to their religious and political doubts. Sometimes, when pseudonymity is not enough; users create throwaway accounts to ask especially sensitive questions.
Moderators on Reddit have a great responsibility of care for those who participate in their groups. They also have a great deal of pressure and scrutiny from their subscribers. When discussing the decision to go private, many moderators described the difficulty of weighing the cost that this choice entailed. I hope I do their work justice in this post.
2. What Is a Subreddit?
Subreddits, conversation groups on Reddit, are often compared to forums, mailing lists, and earlier bulletin board systems. Contributions can usually be up or down voted, and are then algorithmically sorted on each subreddit’s front page. Unlike earlier discussion platforms, users on Reddit can move between public subreddits without having to create new user accounts, and contributions will sometimes surface on other parts of the site based on how popular they are.
Each subreddit has its own volunteer moderation team, who have wide ranging influence over the visual style, rules, and operation of that subreddit. Importantly, many of the popular subreddits are configured so that moderators don’t pre-approve participants; instead, they tend to take a reactive approach to behavior on their “subs.”
The ease of finding, joining, and participating in a new subreddit might be one reason that many users talk about “Reddit” culture. Many moderators describe their own communities as nicer, more welcoming and supportive than the “rest of Reddit.” This impression is at least partly shaped by the flow of newcomers who arrive when a sub becomes momentarily prominent due to highly upvoted content, a special event like a live Q&A (called AMAs), or “drama” among subscribers.
The commingling and collision of different conversations on Reddit is similar to what danah boyd came to call “context collapse” in her early 2000s research on Friendster. On Friendster, boyd observed burning man attendees, gay men and geeks responding to the discovery that they were conversing on the same platform. Reddit is designed to facilitate context collapse at speed and scale, supported by popularity algorithms that tend to draw attention to upvoted content and “drama” alike.
Reddit’s algorithms were the reason Reddit created the very first subreddit in January of 2006, its “NSFW” section. Trying to use popularity and voting systems to curate the “Front Page of the Internet,” Reddit’s creators noticed that porn and other complicated material was being promoted to the top of the page. By creating an “NSFW” section (the name “subreddit” came a month later) and excluding it from the front page, the company could decide which conversations to promote without interfering with the autonomy of user voting.
Over the next two years, the company started dozens of new subreddits, mostly to separate conversations happening in different languages. Then in Jan 2008, a year and a half after its acquisition by Condé Nast, and 10 months after introducing ads, the company launched “user-controlled subreddits.” Before then, users could join official company subreddits, reporting spam and abuse directly to the company. Now they could create their own public and private subreddits, taking action themselves to “remove posts and ban users.” Although subreddits have evolved since then, the basic structure has remained much the same.
Subscribing to a subreddit does not always imply an idea of “membership” in a “community.” Many users treat subreddits as newsfeeds. The default view for logged-in users uses a news feed algorithm to create “your front page” from “hot” posts across all of your subscriptions. As with the Facebook newsfeed, users subscribing to subreddits this way will only see a few of the most prominent posts.
3. What Do Reddit Moderators Do?
Recent press coverage has focused on the work of moderators to filter the content and conversations that are posted to the site. Moderator teams do much more. They are:
- founders, entrepreneurially creating new subreddits and growing their subscriber base.
- designers, creating unique styles for their subreddits, designing ads to attract other users to their sub, writing copy for the sub’s public-facing materials as well as its wiki. Moderators also design and customize the bots that help them do their work and participate in the sub’s conversations.
- facilitators, maintaining the structure of conversation on their sub, whether through AMAs, weekly discussions, contests, or votes. Moderators also participate in discussions.
- recruiters and promoters, promoting the subreddit to subscribers, soliciting contributions, and recruiting other moderators.
- legislators and judges, discussing and defining the rules on the subreddit’s sidebar and wiki, as well as taking actions to enforce what they think the conversation ought to be.
- responders, taking actions to respond to internal “drama” and external sources of influence, which may be welcome or unwelcome.
Much of this work is made possible through special features that Reddit makes available to moderators, alongside custom software that non-employees have created, from bots to browser plugins.
Moderators are not the only people to do this work. Subscribers are often very active in these areas too, as Brian Butler observed of mailing lists in the late 90s. Moderators’ actual behavior is also not always so neatly defined or benevolent as this list implies, and they vary widely in the effort and attention they give to subs.
My own understanding of moderators’ work is evolving as I continue to read and observe their work across the site.
4. How Do You Become a Moderator on Reddit?
The simplest way to become a moderator is to start your own subreddit. Most moderators of more popular subreddits are added by other moderators, through a variety of processes:
- A friend outside Reddit asks you to do it as a favor
- You see a call for help from a moderator on a subreddit you subscribe to
- You follow the job board where moderators post moderating opportunities
- After you become known for your capability at some aspect of moderating (CSS, bots, diplomacy), you are approached by moderators to join the mod team
- Hoping to build your reputation and connections to moderators, you do an internship in one of the subreddits
Just as other moderators can add you as a moderator to a subreddit, they also have the power to remove you from the sub.
5. How Many Moderators Are There?
There are roughly as many moderator accounts as subreddits. In a random sample of 100,615 subreddits (roughly 1/6 of all public subreddits), I found 91,563 unique moderator accounts. A similar proportion of moderator accounts supports Reddit’s top conversations. A sample of the 9,880 subreddits with the greatest number of subscribers had around 9,900 moderators, with an average of 5 moderators per subreddit, after taking out bots.
Some moderator accounts are likely throwaway accounts, where a single moderator uses multiple personas to support different subreddits. Bots have their own moderation accounts. I’ve also seen numerous cases where the moderators use a single account to distinguish when they are speaking for the entire mod team and when they’re speaking in a personal capacity.
Finally, because some moderators specialize on things like bots or CSS, some users are moderators of very large numbers of subreddits.
6. What Does It Mean to “Go Dark,” “Go Private,” or “Black Out” and is This A New Thing?
Moderators have the power to make their subreddits private, which prevents anyone who is not explicitly approved from accessing or contributing o the subreddit. In a large public subreddit, this action has the effect of preventing almost everyone on Reddit, including most subscribers, from accessing or posting to the subreddit. All of the content of the subreddit also disappears from the public web, and given enough time, may also disappear from search results.
Reddit may possibly lose advertising on private subreddits, since the content is not public. However, it’s also possible that the controversy on Reddit could have attracted even more attention and revenue to the site. There is some evidence from subscription bots that subreddits that stayed up received unusually high numbers of new subscribers during the blackout. (An economist would find this question fascinating, if Reddit ever chose to share its advertising data.)
Moderators have taken subreddits private before, and while I’m still studying the history of this tactic, I’ve seen it used mostly to deal with internal or external drama.
External drama: Moderators sometime take a subreddit private to protect it from large waves of attention from elsewhere on the site. This can happen when a subreddit becomes unexpectedly promoted by algorithms to the site’s front page, when an internal controversy gets onto the “drama” subreddits, or when other subreddits try to “brigade” a group by influencing the votes of its comments. In these situations, it can be hard for moderators to deal with comments from people who don’t care or don’t yet understand the norms of their group. Moderators do have other ways to prevent or deal with this problem, like removing their subreddit from Reddit’s main feed or default listings. Making their sub private is a last line of defense.
Internal drama: Other moderators make their subreddit private to show their displeasure with subscribers.
I know of one case where making a subreddit private was used to put pressure on a company. In this case, a moderator of a gaming-related subreddit was unhappy with that company’s handling of a beta program. To pressure the company to change its policy, this moderator blacked out the fan conversation on Reddit.
Blacking out a subreddit can make its subscribers angry. On this gaming subreddit, some subscribers retaliated by “doxxing” the moderator, finding and posting the moderator’s sensitive personal information. In response to this internal drama, the moderator temporarily took the subreddit private again as a defense against their attacks.
This week, when two moderators of the IAmA subreddit claimed in the New York Times that they weren’t intending to start a protest by setting their subreddit private, it’s not unimaginable. If you’re worried about a huge influx of controversy into your subreddit due to a surpsie HR decision by the company, blacking out is one of the things a moderator can do to to gain the breathing space to respond– even if it is probably the most extreme response short of deleting the group entirely.
What made last weekend so unique was that moderators of so many subreddits blacked out on the same day, many of them expressing support for a set of demands for which they could at least find solidarity. That appears to be new.
Some subreddits are now adding timers to their sidebar, promising to black out again if Reddit doesn’t make satisfactory changes.
7. How Did Moderators Decide to Take Subreddits Private?
Over the last week, I’ve archived hundreds of conversations in subreddits as they decided if they should join or not. While many subreddits showed no evidence that moderators ever discussed the idea with their subscribers, many of them discussed it or put it to a vote.
Because the controversy and blackout happened so quickly, many moderators missed it completely. In some cases, moderators asked subscribers if they should join, only to be told that the subreddit had already blacked out and already concluded their participation. In some cases, moderators made unilateral decisions that were later reversed by other moderators, sometimes leading the original actor to lose their position.
In many other cases, moderators did often say that they had discussed the idea among themselves, often talking about their actions as a group rather than as individuals. Other moderators refer to deliberations with the company and other subreddits’ moderators, conversations that I don’t have access to.
When staying open, moderators sometimes justified their choice by describing the harm that could result, especially among subreddits that offer direct support to people with urgent needs. In several of those cases, moderators took heavy criticism from their subscribers for declining to join the protest.
8. What Were the Consequences of Taking Subreddits Private?
Although the press has focused on the pressure that Reddit is under from its moderators, those moderators have also been under great pressure from Reddit users, whose social lives they abruptly disrupted. To study these pressures, I have collected an archive of “We’re back” conversations where moderators justified and defended their blackout decisions.
In their complaints, many subscribers drew parallels between Reddit’s treatment of moderators and some moderators’ lack of communication with their own subreddits. When IAmA moderators Lynch and Swearingen wrote in the New York Times, “Our goal is not to cripple Reddit or hinder the community. We are all the community,” they echoed language that many other moderators used to win over their worried and upset subscribers.
At the same time, declining to go private also risked moderators’ legitimacy with subscribers. Many Reddit users supported the blackout, pressuring moderators to join in. Some of those supporters were opposed to Reddit’s staff and CEO in general– the Change.org petition calling for her dismissal was originally created weeks ago by subscribers who wanted the company to reinstate fat-shaming groups. Other subscribers expressed support for Victoria Taylor, the employee whose abrupt termination sparked the blackout. Moderators who declined to go private likely found their leadership questioned.
9. Who’s In The Majority? What Do “Reddit Users” Think?
I don’t think this is the right question. There is a huge variation in how different groups of moderators and subscribers handled this issue, and I’m still reading through it all. So far, my research will be based on the public conversations that moderators had with their groups, but if there are other conversations that I should know about before putting it into the scholarly record, please contact me.
10. Final Thoughts and Next Steps
I’m still growing my sense of what happened, why it matters, and what this episode can reveal about the more enduring questions of what it means to do volunteer work in online communities. I hope this post helps answer basic questions about subreddits, what moderators do, and the history of going private.
I also hope it helps Redditors understand more about the state of my research as I continue to ask questions. If you’re a reddit moderator who thinks I’m missing something, or if you mod a sub where moderators have been discussing these issues, please contact me at u/natematias.
Join us today, Thursday July 9 at 3pm ET (9pm CET), to listen to SMC’s Mary L. Gray on a special Theory of Everything‘s online discussion on life in the sharing economy. Benjamen Walker and Andrew Callaway, the official Theory of Everything instapoder, will also be hosting.
Mary is currently researching labor and the sharing economy in the Social Media Collective.
To make sure you don’t miss it, sign up here
We leave you with the latest episode of Instaserf’s, a three-part series about life in the Sharing Economy.
As we say goodbye to the *amazzzzing* Rebecca Hoffman <serious sad face emoji>, we have the solace of welcoming Andrea Alarcón to SMC’s ranks.
Andrea received her MSc degree from the Oxford Internet Institute, and her BSc in online journalism from the University of Florida. She has researched ICT4D, online language barriers and data collection by international corporations in developing nations. She has worked as a web producer and editor for the World Bank, and in social media for Discovery Channel in Latin America. She currently writes about digital culture for Colombian mainstream media.
Please join us in welcoming Andrea to MSR!
What would be a sustainable and inclusive approach to child safety online? Today at the Berkman Center, Mitali Thakor presented her research on human trafficking and moderated a discussion of how we see and respond to issues of child safety.
Mitali Thakor is a PhD student at MIT’s history and science of technology program, who studies sex work, sex trafficking, technology, and digital forensics. She uses Feminist STS and critical race studies to explore the ways in which activists, computer scientists, lawyers, and law enforcement officials negotiate their relationships to anti-trafficking via emergent technologies and discourses of carceral control.
“What is human trafficking?” asks Mitali. In this growing “industry” of activism, there are so-called abolitionist networks, alliances between evangelical abolitionist Christian organizations committed to fighting prostitution and sex work aligning with feminist organizations who fight sex work, which they see as sexual exploitation. Mitali shows us campaigns by feminist organizations and Christian organizations working together. In her research, she’s interested in the peculiar alliances and valences of this particular anti-trafficking network.
This network uses metaphors of slavery, and idealized ideas of what freedom is about. Men are often imagined as “defenders against slavery.” One organization has a campaign called “The Defenders USA,” where you get your own shield and sword to be a defender against prostitution.
What happens when evangelicals and feminist activists work together– how does that affect our trafficking policies? Mitali says that in 2001, a UN protocol on trafficking began to inform how most countries approach a wide variety of issues from trafficked labor to pornography and sex work. In the US, responses tend to be focused on sexual exploitation rather than wider labor exploitation. Although the agriculture industry dominates US trafficking, the focus on sexual exploitation is associated with a “rescue industry” and heavy involvement of law enforcement. This approach, called “carceral feminism” by some feminist scholars, often involves NGOs and the state working together.
Mitali tells us the story of Monica Jones, a black trans woman social worker in Phoenix, who was arrested by the police in collaboration with anti-trafficking organizations. The ACLU has called this “arrested for walking while trans.” A court has judged her trial unfair and opened it up for retrial. Mitali says that this is one example where carceral feminism involves the policing of sexuality and the incarceration of marginalized groups.
As a PhD student at HASTS, Mitali does extensive fieldwork with computer scientists, law enforcement, and the bureaucrats/government officials who are making decisions about child safety.
Mitali calls this collaboration between NGOs and police “para-judicial policing.” In her fieldwork with a Dutch organization, Mitali is studying these collaborations. She shows us a video by the NGO Terres Des Hommes, who go undercover to manipulate a fake girl computer model to identify “webcam sex tourists” and hand them over to the police. Mitali has spent time with this organization and the partners they have in southeast Asia.
Sweetie, this generated avatar of a girl, was created by a gaming company for Terres Des Homes. Sweetie can do 14 different movements, including her arms. She does not undress on camera, does not do any kind of sexualized acts, is just sitting, and is able to talk and move her arms. This campaign was set up, working out of a warehouse (they were worried they would be found by the people they were chatting to). They went onto webcam chats, and then used the Sweetie image in a minority of cases. They brought the conversation to the point where it seemed like the man wanted something, took whatever identifying information they could, printed a physical packet of papers, and walked the list of names to Interpol and Europol. Many law enforcement officers find this abhorrent and stupid. This is the work of the police, they say. NGO organizations describe this as a new and cutting edge model for the future of addressing these issues. Terres Des Hommes calls this “pro-active policing.”
When TDH submits these names, who’s actually arrested? The number is under 20, only people who had previous cases open. The sting operation can’t directly lead to an arrest.
Why a filipino child? After testing a variety of avatars, the company settled on her. The image is an amalgam of over 100 children that the organization works with. The organization has been working in the philippines for a long time.
Who is the organization trying to catch? Whenever there’s a non-law-enforcement effort, there’s already a pre-determined predator they’re trying to catch. The number one chatters of Sweetie were from the UK and US, but number 3 was India, and women also chatted with it. This was an unexpected outcome; they were expecting to catch European men.
Mitali also researches other visualization and imaging techniques for identifying and detecting “missing children.” She’s also interested in the “gamification of surveillance” and the use of this surveillance (whether photo tagging and image recognition or avatars) to carry out these “policing” activities.
Citing questions raised by her fieldwork, Mitali says, “I’m interested in feminist technologies, and interested in design and ending exploitation. “What is at stake in these issues? Do young people have rights? Do they have rights or sexual rights? What does it mean to talk about young people and sexual rights. Are young people’s sexual rights protected under the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child, and do law enforcement think about that? How do we think about risk, and do we see online spaces as spaces of opportunity? What is a problematic versus a dangerous situation? And finally, I’m thinking about governance and design: law enforcement, NGOs, computer scientists, and companies working together. What do these partnerships mean, who’s not at the table, and what might it mean to actually have young people involved in exploitation campaigns?” Mitali asks us to imagine speculative possibilities for ending exploitation and liberation that still uphold children’s rights.
Question: Sweetie was an amalgam of many real children. Did those children or those parents consent to this use of them? Mitali: many NGOs face this issue. Terres Des Homme works with many young people who don’t have parents or guardians. Their images were used without their consent, and the Philippines government complained, having felt targeted by this campaign. This idea of “webcam sex tourism” — which this organization coined — combines many complex ideas, and was a publicity campaign.
Question: Why did they generate computer generated children in pornographic situations? Mitali: child pornography is illegal in the US and legal in Japan, and are often met by challenges by the ACLU. In the US, we use the phrase “child pornography,” but in the EU, “child abuse images” and “child exploitation images” are the more common terms. The US has moved from a rehabilitative model to one that sets out to incarcerate people for life. As older crimes like public indecency are now tried under trafficking laws, these new laws are changing penalties for longer-standing issues.
Mary Gray: Many of these campaigns see the Internet as a “stranger-danger threat” when we know that most abuse comes from family and friends. Mitali: campaigns to address sexual exploitation tend to turn into censorship for all sexual information. What might it take to support young people to negotiate risks that they experience?
Question: You have people responding to an image that is false. How might this be considered a form of entrapment? What if people say, “I know this wasn’t a child- it didn’t look very real.”
David Larochelle: You mentioned that this was a publicity stunt. What was the organization hoping to accomplish aside from catching perpetrators? Was it trying to scare people? Raise money? Mitali: Definitely to raise money; that’s always the goal of any NGO. I think it’s more than a publicity campaign, however. They wanted to “wake up the police who weren’t doing anything.” The police said, “of course we’re always doing investigations, you just don’t hear about them.” This NGO and many organizations are reshaping themselves around this trafficking frame. Two years ago, they changed their tagline from “saving the children of the world” to “stop exploitation.” This is why I make the link to human trafficking and the anti-trafficking industry, where this is becoming their goal. Now, police are working closely with these organizations on Sweetie 2.0. The Dutch police are the number 1 employer in the Netherlands, were nationalized several years ago, and hired computer scientists and psychologists to work on their team for exploitation issues. The police psychologists responded, “if you want to believe that [sweetie] is a real child to you, it will be real enough.” What does “real enough” mean for policies around “implied,” “artificial,” and “cgi” forms of pornography.
Question: What about the effects of international organized crime? There are groups who are making a lot of money doing this, and police departments are involved because they get kickbacks. The speaker mentioned that when people tried to do work to end human trafficking, they received threats. Mitali: I don’t know too much about organized crime around trafficking, but this was a major concern of the NGO. They didn’t want this design process to get out, and they did their work from an undisclosed location. They now say, “I don’t know why we were so paranoid.” The traditional police’s fear about “proactive policing” is that
Mitali notes that Anonymous has done a lot of anti-trafficking work themselves. Operation “PedoChat” claimed to have outed a large number of people chatting with children and seeking sex online. Mitali notes that “I’m uncomfortable when we have so many entities involved in many kinds of policing. It’s this classic fear of ubiquitous surveillance. What are our fears about young people, and what happens”
Question by me: Having shared more complex cases, what directions do you find most promising in the sex trafficking space. Mitali tells us about an organization called “End child prostitution and trafficking,” and they’re interested in doing research on sexy selfies. For an NGO to be doing that kind of research is radical and maybe is thinking about inclusive design. To have organizations doing thinking about “child” and “sexuality” next to each other is a radical move.
David Larochelle: how does gender play into these debates? Mitali: with trafficking cases, it’s hard to get numbers and specific data, but some researchers in specific places have documented trafficking of boys and men, especially for sexual exploitation. When you use imagery that only shows women and children, you do a service in ignoring very real exploitation towards men and boys. Furthermore, the number one form of exploitation is of adult men and women in meat packing plants and farm work, but it’s easier and safer in the current US political context for organizations to focus on sex trafficking and women. When I talk about “carceral feminism,” we’re seeing “heavy policing” life imprisonment as strong responses to these issues, with incentives like the “war on drugs.”
Question: Viscerally, these crimes of forcing someone to do something against their will feel pretty abhorrent. Where do you see law enforcement fitting in? Mitali: one way would be a child-centered approach rather than “finding the bad guys.” Instead, we might focus on supporting the people who are missing. When children are “rescued” by these campaigns, what happens to them? People who are not citizens of the country where they are rescued, they’re often deported. A child and rehabilitative approach would focus on finding exploited children and care for them long term.
Question: How much research have you done into the conditions of the children who were doing webcam chats in the Philippines? A serious discussion of their digital rights has to be understood in the context of their access. For example, Sonia Livingstone is arguing that any discussion of digital rights for children must include analysis of access; it’s easy for people in the Global North to assume similar access for children in the Global South. Mitali: I’ve done some research in Cebu, which is where this NGO works. Internet Cafes are common physical social spaces for people to play games and also cam. Terry Senft has done research with camgirls– and we need more work with children.
Question by me: I know you’ve published whitepapers and other reports together with Microsoft; how do you think about the role your work places in these issues. Mitali: I turn the lens on people in positions of power, doing ethnography of the police and methods of policing. Other researchers have looked at children, and cultural spaces of children’s sexuality. I hope that this work can help people think about the people in positions of power, something that STS is designed to do.
Mary Gray: How do the police feel about this being the “drain” of their focus versus other kinds of policing. Mitali: it depends on the funding of policing. When you have child exploitation centers in the police, it’s not a burden. But when NGOs get involved, they tend to feel like they have to clean up other organizations’ messes. They also can be concerned when other organizations press against what they see as their borders.
Mitali: As I write a report on “child safety,” I’m trying to find links to people who involve young people in design processes. Nathan refers to Roger Hart’s work on Children’s Participation. Mary Gray refers to Hasinoff’s book Sexting Panic.
Readers with further ideas and suggestions can reach Mitali on Twiter at @mitalithakor.