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.

Buzzfeed’s news numbers

Digiday has a piece today announcing that 17% of Buzzfeed’s web traffic goes to news. Here’s the key part:

Of BuzzFeed’s 76.7 million multiplatform unique visitors in April (comScore), 17 percent were coming for news. The publisher historically hasn’t broken out its content by vertical to comScore, like other top news sites including CNN, Yahoo and The Huffington Post do. But it started to on a limited basis as of last month, when it began breaking out its Entertainment and Life coverage (43.7 million and 20.1 million uniques, respectively) to comScore. Stripping out those verticals leaves 13 million uniques for the rest, including hard news.

Ignoring analysis for the moment, let’s just look at the reasoning here. Unique browsers can visit more than one section of a site, so it’s possible that there’s overlap, and that simply subtracting the known verticals from the known total traffic isn’t a useful way to start. (I’m not certain of comScore’s methodology for vertical breakouts, but would be surprised if it doesn’t let sites count a user twice in different verticals, given that audiences overlap.)

So that 17% could be higher than it appears at first. Then, that 17% includes hard news plus everything that doesn’t fit into Entertainment or Life, so the actual audience for Buzzfeed’s news could be smaller than it appears at first.

The other element here is that unique browsers are the broadest possible metric, and likely to show news in the brightest light. In March, again according to comScore, Buzzfeed averaged 4.9 visits per visitor and 2 views per visit in the US, for roughly 10 views per visitor. If, among the 17% who visited news at all, five of those views are to news, then news is very, very well read with an exceptionally loyal audience. If just one of those views is to news, then news is much less well read than “17% of traffic” might suggest.

This post has been brought to you by early morning web analytics pedantry.

Update: Digiday has now altered the headline of its post and the text of the paragraph posted above.

Reach and impact: news metrics you can use

I’ve been thinking about this Tow study for a while now. It looks at how stats are used in the New York Times, Gawker and Chartbeat; in the case of the latter, it examines how the company builds its real-time product, and for the former, how that product feeds in (or fails to feed in) to a newsroom culture around analytics. There’s lots to mull over if part of your work, like mine, includes communication and cultural work about numbers. The most interesting parts are all about feelings.

Petre says:

Metrics inspire a range of strong feelings in journalists, such as excitement, anxiety, self-doubt, triumph, competition, and demoralization. When devising internal policies for the use of metrics, newsroom managers should consider the potential effects of traffic data not only on editorial content, but also on editorial workers.

Which seems obvious, but probably isn’t. Any good manager has to think about the effects of making some performance data – the quantifiable stuff – public and easily accessible, on a minute-by-minute basis. The fears about numbers in newsrooms aren’t all about the data coming to affect decisions – the “race to the bottom”-style rhetoric that used to be very common as a knee-jerk reaction against audience data. Some of the fears are about how analytics will be used, and whether it will drive editorial decision-making in unhelpful ways, for sure, but the majority of newsroom fear these days seems to be far simpler and more personal. If I write an incredible, important story and only a few people read it, is it worth writing?

Even Buzzfeed, who seem to have their metrics and their purpose mostly aligned, seem to be having issues with this. Dao Nguyen has spoken publicly about their need to measure impact in terms of real-life effects, and how big news is by those standards. The idea of quantifying the usefulness of a piece of news, or its capacity to engender real change, is seductive but tricky: how do you build a scale between leaving one person better informed about the world to, say, changing the world’s approach to international surveillance? How do you measure a person losing their job, a change in the voting intention of a small proportion of readers, a decision to make an arrest? For all functional purposes it’s impossible.

But it matters. For the longest time, journalism has been measured by its impact as much as its ability to sell papers. Journalists have measured themselves by the waves they make within the communities upon which they report. So qualitative statements are important to take into account alongside quantitative measurements.

The numbers we report are expressions of value systems. Petre’s report warns newsrooms against unquestioningly accepting the values of an analytics company when picking a vendor – the affordances of a dashboard like Chartbeat can have a huge impact on the emotional attitude towards the metrics used. Something as simple as how many users a tool can have affects how something is perceived. Something as complex as which numbers are reported to whom and how has a similarly complex effect on culture. Fearing the numbers isn’t the answer; understanding that journalists are humans and react in human ways to metrics and measurement can help a great deal. Making the numbers actionable – giving everyone ways to affect things, and helping them understand how they can use them – helps even more.

Part of the solution – there are only partial solutions – to the problem of reach vs impact is to consider the two together, but to look at the types of audiences each piece of work is reading. If only 500 people read a review of a small art show, but 400 of those either have visited the show or are using that review to make decisions about what to see, that piece of work is absolutely valuable to its audience. If a story about violent California surfing subcultures reaches 20,000 people, mostly young people on the west coast of the US, then it is reaching an audience who are more likely to have a personal stake in its content than, say, older men in Austria might.

Shortly after I arrived in New York I was on a panel which discussed the problems of reach as a metric. One person claimed cheerfully that reach was a vanity metric, to some agreement. A few minutes later we were discussing how important it was to reach snake people (sorry, millennials) – and to measure that reach.

Reach is only a vanity metric if you fail to segment it. Thinking about which audiences need your work and measuring whether it’s reaching them – that’s useful. And much less frightening for journalists, too.

UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d are being cut back…

… and that’s a sad thing. Per Buzzfeed:

UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d are more niche areas and have very high costs for the volume of traffic. It is therefore more sustainable for us to invest resource in an integrated digital team, focusing on the main areas of the Mirror site which have more mass-market appeal.

“We remain committed to digital and will continue to invest and innovate in this area, including with new roles both now and in the future. The sites will remain for the time being.”

Paul Bradshaw has an excellent overview of the legacy of those sites for British media – they have had a huge and surprising influence on the way the Mirror tackles the internet, for sure, but also on other legacy media in the UK, spawning copycats on both content and workflow terms – to which Buzzfeed’s Tom Philips has added an insightful comment:

“Quite where it went wrong is a matter for another day, but my guess would be that Trinity Mirror didn’t know what they had – they seemed to limit funding for it at exactly the point they should have aggressively expanded. TM’s current explanation (that they weren’t delivering the traffic given their supposedly high cost) may be true right now, I’ve no idea, but it certainly wasn’t back in late 2013 when a tiny team was delivering 10 million unique users a month. If the Mirror weren’t able to make something sustainable out of that, then I don’t think the blame can lie with the talented staff who produced it.”

And Adam Tinworth points out that the world doesn’t necessarily need more Mail clones, which seems to be the way the Mirror’s going, and notes that there are a lot of superb digital journalists about to leave the Mirror.

Both UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d did pioneering work – often silly, often irreverent, often light and bright, but always and unfailingly digital. Ampp3d created the single best interactive I have ever seen for mobile. UsVsTh3m had the strongest integration of games into journalism that I’ve seen, using them for satire and for commentary rather than for news delivery. Both hired fantastic new digital journalists and let them talk in their own voices, to the communities they came from; the result was probably the most successful legacy media project to build youth voices and young readership that the UK has ever seen.

Those voices were important, and they changed a great deal. They will be very much missed.

Come work with me

Breaking radio silence on here to shout about the fact that I’m hiring a deputy in New York. Official title is deputy US audience editor, and there’s lots more info – and an application form – here. Basically, if you do interesting things at the intersection of journalism and the internet, and want to do them enthusiastically for the Guardian in America, get in touch.

More frequent blogging to resume shortly, I hope.

Goodbye, Australia

Sadness resists description. I am trying.

Last time I left a place it took me four months to say what I wanted to say about that process, and somewhere it stopped being about me but became about a single emotion, the way it hurts when you have constructed yourself through the things you take with you and then you are forced to leave them behind.

If I were making Detritus again, this time, it would not be about objects. It would be about people. It would be much closer to the bone and much messier. It would be about Australia.

I’m not very good at talking about emotions. I’m better at writing them, so long as they are righteous anger or contemplative melancholy. I am not good at joy; I hesitate to put words on it, to name it, in case it dissipates. I am even worse at pain.

I am heartbroken to be leaving. There. That is a way of wording it that does not say too much. It implies a great deal but leaves me some cover, some distance from the emotions themselves. I am not saying that at some moments my heart feels like it will burst out of my chest. I am not admitting that I wonder, truly, whether I will ever be at home anywhere again. I am not speaking on the rending of bonds that are no less strong for being relatively new. I am not even mentioning the loneliness I fear, the life I am leaving, the friends I love intensely who I might never have met, so easily, and now might never meet face-to-face again.

Never is a long time. I can safely say: I will come back, if it is within my power. It will not be the same; that’s safe to say too. I won’t come home to these people in my house, grinning and gaming and asking how my day was. I won’t be able to pop for coffee with them of an afternoon after my shift ends. I won’t jump off things and fall over in the same room any more. My Sundays won’t be proper Sundays. We will still talk. We will still jump. We will still game. We will still drink coffee. We will be many thousands of miles apart, but long distances are not the barrier they once were.

It is probably not safe to say the partings feel like grit scraped over raw bruised skin, each one a new pain on top of pain.

It’s right to talk about how excited I am about New York (and I am!), how much I am looking forward to the work (because I am!), how thrilling it is to live this ridiculous life, to live in these wonderful cities, to span the world (and it is, truly, it is). It’s good to say these things. It’s good to remember them. Even aside from the work, which promises to be wonderful, I am looking forward to arriving, to finding and furnishing an apartment, to MOMA, to Broadway, to the tall buildings and the shops and the crush of the city, to the food, to the rush and thrill of a new place and new people.

And it’s good to talk about how proud I am of what we’ve done out here, how lucky we’ve been to find such friends, to take such joy in work, to play in new cities and to have the great privilege of beginning to discover a country. How happy I am to be able to call Sydney home, even for such a short time. I would not swap this sadness for the sadness of never having come here, or the sadness of not making friends: I am glad to have made marks on this place, and to be marked by it in return. I have had a wonderful time.

But I’m scared, too. I’m scared we won’t find new people. I’m scared that this is my tribe and I’m making a terrible choice by leaving them, no matter that it is the right choice for my work. I’m scared that I’m fucking up. I’m scared that, of these two delicious cakes, the one I’m not choosing will be the tastiest. I’m aware of how incredibly lucky I am, to be able to be scared about all this.

Sadness is hard. My heart will not break, but it will scar; it always does, though this will be the worst wound I have inflicted in some time. My world will expand again and it will fill with new people and I hope, desperately, breathlessly, so hard I screw up my eyes and clench my fists, that the friends I’ve met here will never leave my life, even though I’m choosing, geographically, to leave theirs. I am an idiot for throwing away such happiness. I am making the right choice, to chase more. I am so lucky and so frightened of getting lost.

Goodbye, Australia. See you soon.

Pocket Lint #27: dragons

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Five stories about how, why and where we move.

That Dragon, Cancer – in its final hours of funding on Kickstarter.

“Mr. Jones, 64, has an intellectual disability and a swollen right hand that aches from 40 years of hanging live turkeys on shackles that swing them to their slaughter. His wallet contains no photos or identification, as if, officially, he does not exist. And yet he is more than just another anonymous grunt in a meat factory. Mr. Jones may be the last working member of the so-called Henry’s Boys — men recruited from Texas institutions decades ago to eviscerate turkeys, only to wind up living in virtual servitude, without many basic rights.”

What it’s like to be pregnant, bipolar and at significant risk of post-partum depression in the UK.

The truth about the teenager who disappeared in the Michigan State University steam tunnels, sparking a national panic about Dungeons and Dragons.

“Do your best. Every deity and the spirits of your dead comrades are watching you intently. It is essential that you do not shut your eyes for a moment so as not to miss the target. Many have crashed into the targets with wide-open eyes. They will tell you what fun they had.”

Parable of the polygons: a playable post on how a small amount of bias leads to segregation in society.

“Whites can live, love, study, work, play and die in segregation … and still profess that race has no meaning in their lives.”

The woman who saw dragons.

The Magic Circle is set inside a high-fantasy remake of a fictional 80s text adventure, also called The Magic Circle, that has been in production for many years. The original was made by Ish Gilder, “a mild-mannered game designer who won’t let us call him a genius” in the words of a fake website for the game. An audio diary early on (of course there are audio diaries) reveals that The Magic Circle has been in production for two decades. It’s vapourware. The environment resembles a whiteboard outline that has been erased and redrawn – a beautiful, sinewy vision of sketch lines and uncertain clouds, with only occasional flashes of colour showing live elements.”

The Rosetta landing, cartooned live, in gif form.

“The moon is much larger than it appears to be. This is worth remembering because next time you are looking at the moon you can say in a deep and mysterious voice, “The moon is much larger than it appears to be,” and people will know that you are a wise person who has thought about this a lot.

Poem of the week: Us Two, A. A. Milne

Game of the week: Detritus, which I made last time I moved 10,000 miles around the world.

Tumblr of the week is an Instagram instead: Follow Me.

Pocket Lint #26: implicit

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“The 22 bus is the only route that runs 24 hours in Silicon Valley and it has become something of an unofficial shelter for the homeless. They call it Hotel 22.”

The problems with capitalism, as explained by a Minecraft hedge fund manager.

A medical actor who fakes illnesses so trainee doctors learn empathy. “Empathy means realizing no trauma has discrete edges. Trauma bleeds. Out of wounds and across boundaries. Sadness becomes a seizure. Empathy demands another kind of porousness in response.”

What does an orgasm look like?

Every email is a ghost story.

Harvard’s tests for implicit associations about race, gender and sexual orientation.

“With my form of multiple sclerosis, I quickly started to realise that while the disease would likely never kill me by itself, the sheer weight of time could still do some serious damage. You know. All the wonderful things I should have done before. All the terrible things that might now happen. Playing Spelunky’s genuinely refreshing in this regard: it’s a reminder that the only moment that really matters is the moment that’s currently unfolding. Strategy dries up and blows away in the present, and in its place you’re left with tactics, with what to do for the next thirty seconds. Forget the City of Gold – how do I handle this frog that’s blocking the exit? Forget my plans for the afternoon, what’s with this stutter?

On being a black male, six feet four inches tall, in America in 2014.

“Capturing Knight was the human equivalent of netting a giant squid. He was an uncontacted tribe of one.”

Revenge bento.

It’s a bad fence.

Poem of the week: Epistle: Leaving, Kerrin McCadden

Game of the week: Crossy Road

Tumblr of the week: To My Unborn Son

Ophan, the Guardian’s live stats tool

Digital audience editor Chris Moran, my former boss at Guardian UK and an all round top bloke, has explained Ophan to, and if you’re interested in knowing what I do or understanding how I do it, it’s an excellent primer on how we’re building analytics into the newsroom:

“We know everything about print, pretty much, there’s not many tricks left in the bag, we’ve done it for 200 years and we’re used to it. But the internet’s changing all the time, as much as anything else.”

An idea central to Ophan, said Moran, was for it to be useful to everyone working at the outlet, something he referred to as the “democratisation of data”.

This is at the absolute heart of what’s worked for us out here in Australia. We couldn’t have had the success we have out here without this feedback loop – not just the data, but also editors, subs and reporters all working with and caring about the data. Ophan’s transformed how we work, and will continue to do so as it adapts to the changing internet. There are no analytics tools on the market that do what it does, and building it into the heart of the newsroom is a crucial part of making it successful.

In other news, it’s been a little quiet round here as I gear up for leaving Australia; lots of small projects are on hiatus while I pack up life into boxes again, including Pocket Lint, my ongoing game design work on BOPTUB, and standard curmudgeonly blogging approach. Normal service will be resumed as soon as we are sure what is normal anyway.

Pocket Lint #25: permeable

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She’s not playing it wrong.

“The euphoria made time pass quickly, and the light outside faded as it got later and later into the evening. We were sitting at a table drinking, and talking, and she was telling me about a tattoo she planned on getting on her upper arm. She grabbed my hand, and ran my fingertips slowly over the spot she wanted it, staring into my eyes. Oh yes, something was building. The moment is burned into my memory, the moment before everything changed.”

The line between terrorism and mental illness.

How extreme isolation – as used in prisons and as a torture tactic – breaks down the human mind.

Climate change is a mental health issue: “The ability to process and understand dense climatic data doesn’t necessarily translate to coping with that data’s emotional ramifications. Turns out scientists are people, too.”

NASA has posted a huge library of free-to-use space sounds.

“A few weeks ago I killed a patient.”

Pop Up Playground are crowdfunding to support Melbourne’s Fresh Air festival next year. Without them, Spirits Walk and Ludonarrative Disco Dance would never have happened. If you like fun, accessible, games in real space, even if you can’t make the festival, please support them; they help keep game makers making.

Poem of the week: since feeling is first, e. e. cummings

Game of the week: TAKE CARE

Tumblr of the week: Clickbait Dissertations