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.

Reddit thinks it’s a government, but doesn’t want to govern

In non-spoof news, today Reddit’s CEO posted a blog post about why it wasn’t going to take down a community specifically devoted to sharing naked photos of celebrities acquired by hackers and very much not endorsed by those pictured. Then, having drawn a line in the sand, it promptly banned the community. That caused, unsurprisingly, a lot of users to react with confusion and not a little anger, pointing out – among other things – that ban was more than a little hypocritical if Reddit was going to continue not to police other problematic communities (pro-anorexia and self harm communities, for instance), and suggesting that Reddit’s response was only because of the status, profile and power of the victims in this instance (the site doesn’t take down revenge porn, for example). There’s been another round of explanation, which boils down to: Reddit got overwhelmed and therefore had to take action. That actually bolsters some of the arguments made by users – that it’s only the high-profile nature of this incident that forced action – but if the first post is to be believed, Reddit doesn’t see that as a problem. It wants the community to choose to be “virtuous” rather than being compelled to do so – it wants its users to govern themselves. But it also thinks it’s a government. Yishan says:

… we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers.

Yishan simultaneously argues that Reddit users must arrive at their own self-policing anarchic nirvana in which no bad actors exist, and that Reddit is not a corporation but a governing force which has both the right to police and, strangely, the responsibility not to do so. Of course Reddit is a corporation, subject to US and international laws. Of course its community is not a state, and its users are not citizens. Yishan is dressing up a slavish devotion to freedom of speech regardless of consequence as a lofty ideal rather than the most convenient way to cope with a community rife with unpleasant, unethical and often unlawful behaviour. Doxxing, revenge porn, copyright infringement so rampant it’s a running joke, r/PicsOfDeadKids: none of these things are dealt with according to the social norms and laws of the societies of which Reddit is, in reality, a part. Only when admins become overwhelmed is action taken to police its community, and at the same time the CEO declares the site to be, effectively, the creator of its own laws. This would be nothing but self-serving nonsense if it weren’t for the way it’s being used to justify ignoring harmful community behaviours. Reddit’s users are right to point out that the company only acts on high-profile issues, that Reddit’s lack of moral standards for its users allows these situations to develop and makes it much harder for the company to police them when they do, and that the site’s users suffer as a result of its haphazard approach:

This is just what happens when your stance is that anything goes. If you allow subreddits devoted to sex with dogs, of course people will be outraged when you take down something else. If you allow subreddits like /r/niggers,of course they’re going to be assholes who gang up to brigade. The fine users of /r/jailbait are sharing kiddy porn? What a shocking revelation. The point is, you can’t let the inmates run the asylum and then get shocked when someone smears shit on the wall. Stand up for standards for a change. Actually make a stance for what you want reddit to be. You’ll piss off some people but who cares? They’re the shitty people you don’t want anyway. Instead you just alienate good users who are sick of all of the shit on the walls.

If Reddit thinks it’s a government, it should be considering how to govern well, not how to absolve itself of the responsibility to govern at all.

10 things I learned from a web traffic spike

Look Robot wordpress stats

Last week, my other half wrote a rather amusing blog post about the Panasonic Toughpad press conference he went to in Munich. He published on Monday afternoon, and by the time he went out on Monday evening the post had had just over 600 views. I texted him to tell him when it passed 800, making it the best single day in his blog’s sporadic, year-long history.

Next day it hit 45,000 views, and broke our web hosting. Over 72 hours it got more than 100,000 views, garnered 120 comments, was syndicated on Gizmodo and brought Grant about 400 more followers on Twitter. Here’s what I learned.

1. Site speed matters

The biggest limit we faced during the real spike was CPU usage. We’re on Evohosting, which uses shared servers and allots a certain amount of usage per account. With about 180-210 concurrent visitors and 60-70 page views a minute, according to Google Analytics real-time stats, the site had slowed to a crawl and was taking about 20 seconds to respond.

WordPress is a great CMS, but it’s resource-heavy. Aside from single-serving static HTML sites, I was running Look Robot, this blog, Zombie LARP, and, when I checked, five other WordPress installations that were either test sites or dormant projects from the past and/or future. Some of them had caching on, some didn’t; Grant’s blog was one of the ones that didn’t.

So I fixed that. Excruciatingly slowly, of course, because everything took at least 20 seconds to load. Deleting five WordPress sites, deactivating about 15 or 20 non-essential plugins, and installing WP Super Cache sped things up to a load time between 7 and 10 seconds – still not ideal, but much better. The number of concurrent visitors on site jumped up to 350-400, at 120-140 page views a minute – no new incoming links, just more people bothering to wait until the site finished loading.

2. Do your site maintenance before the massive traffic spike happens, not during

Should be obvious, really.

3. Things go viral in lots of places at once

Grant’s post started out on Twitter, but spread pretty quickly to Facebook off the back of people’s tweets. From there it went to Hacker News (where it didn’t do well), then Metafilter (where it did), then Reddit, then Fark, at the same time as sprouting lots of smaller referrers, mostly tech aggregators and forums. The big spike of traffic hit when it was doing well from Metafilter, Fark and Reddit simultaneously. Interestingly, the Fark spike seemed to have the longest half-life, with Metafilter traffic dropping off more quickly and Reddit more quickly still.

4. It’s easy to focus on activity you can see, and miss activity you can’t

Initially we were watching Twitter pretty closely, because we could see Grant’s tweet going viral. Being able to leave a tab open with a live search for a link meant we could watch the spread from person to person. Tweeters with large follower counts tended to be more likely to repost the link rather than retweeting, and often did so without attribution, making it hard to work out how and where they’d come across it. But it was possible to track back individual tweets based on the referrer string, thanks to the URL wrapper. From some quick and dirty maths, it looks to me like the more followers you have, the smaller the click-through rate on your tweets – but the greater the likelihood of retweets, for obvious reasons.

Around midday, Facebook overtook Twitter as a direct referrer. We’d not been looking at Facebook at all. Compared to Twitter and Reddit, Facebook is a bit of a black box when it comes to analytics. Tonnes of traffic is coming, but who from? I still haven’t been able to find out.

5. The more popular an article is, the higher the bounce rate

This doesn’t *always* hold true. However, I can’t personally think of a time when I’ve witnessed it being falsified. Reddit in particular is also a very high bounce referrer, due to its nature, and news as a category tends to see very high bounce especially from article pages, but it does seem to hold true that the more popular something is the more likely people are to leave without reading further. Look, Robot’s bounce rate went from about 58% across the site to 94% overall in 24 hours.

My feeling is that this is down to the ways people come across links. Directed searching for information is one way: that’s fairly high-bounce, because a reader hits your site and either finds what they’re looking for or doesn’t. Second clicks are tricky to get. Then there’s social traffic, where a click tends to come in the form of a diversion from an existing path: people are reading Twitter, or Facebook, or Metafilter, they click to see what people are talking about, then they go straight back to what they were doing. Getting people to break that path and browse your site instead – distracting them, in effect – is a very, very difficult thing to do.

Look Robot referrals
The head of a rather long tail.

6. Fark leaves a shadow 

Fark’s an odd one – not a site that features frequently in roundups of traffic drivers, but it can still be a big referrer to unusual, funny or plain daft content. It works like a sort of edited Reddit – registered users submit links, and editors decide what goes on the front page. Paying subscribers to the site can see everything that’s submitted, not just the edited front. I realised before it happened that Grant was about to get a link from their Geek front, when the referrer started to show up in incoming traffic – that URL, behind a paywall, is the place where links that have been OKed are queued to go on the fronts.

7. The front page of Digg is a sparsely populated place these days

I know that Grant’s post sat on the front page of Digg for at least eight hours. In total, it got just over 1,000 referrals. By contrast, the post didn’t make it to the front page of Reddit, but racked up more than 20,000 hits mostly from r/technology.

8. Forums are everywhere

I am always astonished at the vast plethora of niche-interest forums on the internet, and the amount of traffic they get. Much like email, they’re not particularly sexy – no one is going to write excitable screeds about how forums are the next Twitter or how exciting phpBB technology is – but millions of people use them every day. They’re not often classified as ‘social’ referrers by analytics tools, despite their nature, because identifying what’s a forum and what’s not is a pretty tricky task. But they’re everywhere, and while most only have a few users, in aggregate they work to drive a surprising amount of traffic.

Grant’s post got picked up on forums on Bad Science,, Something Awful, the Motley Fool, a Habbo forum, Quarter to Three, XKCD and a double handful of more obscure and fascinating places. As with most long tail phenomena, each one individually isn’t a huge referrer, but the collection gets to be surprisingly big.

9. Timing is everything…

It’s hard to say what would have happened if that piece had gone up this week instead, but I don’t think it would have had the traffic it has. Grant’s post hit a chord – the ludicrous nature of tech events – and tapped into post-CES ennui and the utter daftness that was the Qualcomm keynote this year.

10. …but anything can go viral

Last year I was on a games journalism panel at the Guardian, and I suggested that it was a good idea for aspiring journalists to write on their own sites as though they were already writing for the people they wanted to be their audience. I said something along the lines of: you never know who’s going to pick it up. You never know how far something you put online is going to travel. You never know: one thing you write might take off and put you under the noses of the people you want to give you a job. It’s terrifying, because anything you write could explode – and it’s hugely exciting, too.

Citizen liveblogging

Pretty sure this Reddit comment thread, from the night of the Zuccotti Park Occupy evictions, is the first time I’ve seen citizen liveblogging in the wild. It’s impressive work; short, timely posts, mostly reports from the video livestream, interspersed with links to videos, Twitter and other news coverage. There’s an attempt to verify whether one video shows tear gas being used or not. And it’s all done by someone who works at a hospital in a different state to the events themselves.

We’re rapidly creating a world in which the wide web of connections between people are functionally replacing the vertical connections between news outlets and people. Everyone is better informed, not necessarily because they know more but because the information is readily available, should they wish to discover something. The ambient information that anchor journalists and live reporters use to fuel their work is readily available to everyone with an interest; the new ease of publishing isn’t limited to finished stories or to eyewitness accounts, but extends to curation, information filtering and all that other juicy stuff we journos pride ourselves on.

This is fascinating.