Reddit meltdown: how not to build a community

Reddit is having a bit of a meltdown. Volunteer moderators have taken many of the site’s most popular and trafficked communities to private, making them impossible to read or participate in. Many others are staying open based on their purpose (to inform or to educate) but making clear statements that they support the issues raised.

The shutdown was triggered in protest at the sudden dismissal of Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s director of communications, who coordinated the site’s Ask Me Anything feature. But it’s more than that: the reason communities beyond r/IAmA are going dark is about longstanding issues with the treatment of moderators, communication problems and moderation tools, according to many prominent subreddit mods.

Really good community management matters. Communication matters. Being heard matters enormously to users, and the more work an individual is doing for the site, the more it matters to them personally.

Relying solely on volunteer moderators and community self-organisation limits what’s possible, because without the company’s support – both negative, in terms of banning and sanctioning, and positive in terms of tools, recognition and organisation – its users can’t effect significant change. What’s possible with buy-in from Reddit staff is far more interesting than what’s possible without – the AMAs Victoria supported are the prime example. It should be concerning for Reddit that there are so few others.

Communities grow and evolve through positive reinforcement, not just punishment when they contravene the rules. If the only time they get attention is when they push the boundaries, users will likely continue to push boundaries rather than creating constructively. They act out. Encouraging positive behaviour is vitally important if you want to shape a community around certain positive activities – say, asking questions – rather than focussing on its negatives.

That encouragement extends to offering the community leaders the tools they need to lead. The majority of moderators of Reddit’s default communities – the most popular ones on the site – use third-party tools because the site’s own architecture makes their work impossible. That should not be

And evolving communities need consistent procedures and policies, and those have to be implemented by someone with power as well as the trust and respect of the community. Power is relatively easy; any Reddit admin or employee has power, in the eyes of the community. Trust and respect is incredibly difficult. It has to be earned, piece by piece, often from individuals disinclined to trust or respect because of the power differential. That work doesn’t scale easily and can’t be mechanised; it’s about relationships.

Today’s meltdown isn’t just about u/chooter, though what’s happened to her is clearly the catalyst. It’s about the fact that she’s (rightly or wrongly) perceived to be the only Reddit admin to have both power and trust. She was seen as the sole company representative who listened, who worked with the community rather than above or around them. She was well-known and, crucially, well-liked.

Reddit needs more Victorias on its staff, not fewer. It needs more admins who are personally known within the community, more people who respond to messages and get involved on an individual level with the mods it relies on to do the hard work of maintaining its communities. It needs internal procedures to pass community issues up the chain and get work done for its super users and those who enable its communities to exist. It needs more positive reinforcement from those in power, especially in the light of increasing (and, I’d say, much-needed) negative reinforcement for certain behaviours; the community needs to see what ‘good’ looks like as well as ‘bad’. Not just spotlighting subreddits and blog posts about gift exchanges – actual, human engagement with the humans using the site.

Firing the figurehead for Reddit-done-right is not a good way to start.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

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