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What Just Happened on Reddit? Understanding The Moderator Blackout

July 9, 2015

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.

  1. Why Does This Matter?
  2. What Is a Subreddit?
  3. What Do Reddit Moderators Do?
  4. How Do You Become a Moderator on Reddit?
  5. How Many Moderators Are There?
  6. What Does It Mean to “Go Dark,” “Go Private,” or “Black Out” and is This A New Thing?
  7. How Did Moderators Decide to Take Subreddits Private?
  8. What Were the Consequences of Taking Subreddits Private?
  9. Who’s In The Majority? What Do “Reddit Users” Think?
  10. 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.

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