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.

#jcarn: Dear Santa, please bring us all more time

Given the recent dearth of posts on here, my request in response to this month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt is probably not surprising, though it may be impossible.

Dear Santa, for journo-Christmas I would like more time. Not just for me, but for everyone.

I was lucky enough, recently, to be part of a Guardian hack day. As a result, some awesome tools got built, including three that I started using inmediately. They’re still very much in beta, being improved and worked on occasionally, but I use them constantly. They’ve changed my job. Not by giving me new things to do, but by automating some repetitive, tricky, admin bits of the job and therefore making them require less time and attention – so I can spend more time and energy focussing on the bits that really need it.

That’s wonderful. It’s a gift of time. It means I can work smarter, not just harder. I wish, if I have to be limited to one Christmas wish, that every journalist and everyone involved in making journalism – including developers – could have at least one tool, in 2012, that makes the tedious admin bits of their jobs faster. I hope that every tricky CMS for journalists that contains unnecessary time-consuming admin processes releases an update that makes it no longer so.

And, because this isn’t a one-way process, I hope that every journalist takes the initiative to go find out where their techies live and actually talks to them, in person, about the problems they have. There’s no point griping only to each other about the difficult bits, or in keeping quiet and carrying on doing things that don’t make sense: tell developers what’s wrong, because otherwise they won’t know it needs fixing. Sometimes what looks like a tech problem is actually a communication issue, because the people who need to know that something’s broken haven’t been told.

These fixes often aren’t the big, sexy, exciting projects for devs. They’re the sort of thing that, if it exists, you very quickly take for granted. Things like, say, a spellchecker that also flags up common house style violations, or a geolocation module that understands when you type “Norwich” that you want the geographical area defined by the boundaries of the city of Norwich, not a point at the centre of its postcode area. They’re often small niggles that you’d only notice if you’re doing these processes day in, day out, many times a day.

In an age of cutting costs, one of the most precious resources we have left is our time. Anything that saves it, that means it can be spent doing journalism or making tools that journalists can use, instead of busywork, is a wonderful thing.

Oh, and if you work in a place that has admin staff, go say thank you to them. They deserve it.

Pointless babble

A study (warning, PDF) was published recently by Pear Analytics looking at Twitter usage, which found that more than 40% of all tweets are “pointless babble”. It’s a startling result – I for one was expecting a much higher percentage of spam and links posts – but I’m fascinated by the idea that a type of communication making up such a large proportion of a medium is defined as “pointless”.

The study authors defined six groups – news, spam, self-promotion, conversational, pass-along value and pointless babble – and babble is the only one that carries a value judgement. “Pointless babble” is a biased description, and I’m not sure why the authors of a statistical study decided to pass judgement on their data – or whether they even realised that’s what they were doing.

The implication is that we shouldn’t be babbling, we should be doing something else instead. No one wants to know whether you’re eating a sandwich or on a train – this is babbling, minutiae, and therefore without purpose – pointless.

For many Twitter users, someone else’s conversational tweets are often uninteresting unless they are directed at you, whereas your friend tweeting that their bus is stuck in traffic might be very relevant if they’ve arranged to meet you in half an hour. Sometimes status updates are far from pointless – “out of hospital, all’s well” is a long way from a pointless post even if it’s not directed at anyone in particular.

And I suspect, but can’t prove except with this very study, a lot of people use Twitter like Facebook status updates, following people rather than friending them and using the site as an easily-accessible Facebook lite. The description of that usage as “pointless” seems more than a little harsh – particularly when you’ve just found that 40.55% of the site is examples of that type of usage.

Many of these utterances are the sort of speech that human beings use to remind each other, and themselves, that they are still alive. It’s a way of keeping in touch without saying anything, akin to talking about the weather (if you’re English, of course). Rather than calling it pointless, wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask why this use is so common, and whether it’s a feature of Twitter rather than a bug?

There are a couple of other question marks for me about this study – why did the authors chose not to sample tweets on Saturday or Sunday? Why didn’t they sample between 5pm and 11am CST – that’s 11pm-5pm GMT, neatly missing the daytime usage of a lot of non-American folks? Did they include non-English language tweets?

But those are methodology quibbles, when my main problem with the study is the way it demeans a form of communication as “pointless” without asking whether or not it has a point. I don’t know if it does, but I’d retweet any study that had a go at finding out.