Gideon Grudo and Tyler Krome are cheap journalists.
Grudo wrote the open-source story reddit revolts below, with Krome assisting. They want you to reprint, revise, repurpose, or rewrite it – without their consent.
Why give away their work? Says Grudo, a former SPJ national board member…
reddit is home to hundreds of millions of people who are interacting with media, posting about it, and commenting on it. Here’s a direct line to your readers. Almost 600 subreddits were created yesterday. That’s the kind of community engagement I deem coverage-worthy.
Grudo believes mainstream media need to cover reddit no differently than they would cover cops and city commissions. (He also believes in lower-casing the name, which annoys the hell out of me. But he’s just following what reddit does to its own name.)
Over the July Fourth weekend, reddit had its own fireworks. Thousands of reddit users exploded in protest when the social media network’s leadership fired one of its most popular employees.
Since reddit has 164 million users, the story was covered by mainstream media unaccustomed to dealing with the mysterious website – where not only are the users anonymous, so are the “mods” who oversee reddit’s forums and the “admins” who oversee the mods.
Just before the holiday, reddit headquarters – an equally shrouded group – fired a woman named Victoria Taylor without warning or comment. Taylor was popular among mods as reddit’s communications director, so in protest, thousands of them intentionally turned off their forums.
Here’s how The New York Times led its story…
Hundreds of sections of reddit, the popular online message board, were unavailable Friday in what appeared to be a protest by many of the site’s moderators after the abrupt dismissal of a high-ranking company employee.
But The Times never spoke with reddit leaders, admins, or mods. CNN sought comment from reddit leaders and got as far as, “A spokeswoman from Reddit explained in an email to CNN…”
A day later, TIME got what appeared to be an emailed apology from reddit’s CEO (“I want to apologize to our community for yesterday”) but no chance to interview her.
From USA Today to The Huffington Post to the Los Angeles Times to The Daily Beast, mainstream media quoted directly from reddit postings, whether from anonymous users or from reddit leaders themselves. Alas, no media outlet I perused actually interviewed anyone.
But Grudo and Krome did. Just in their spare time.
Devin Desjarlais worked twice with Victoria Taylor.
Taylor’s job was to host celebrities on reddit’s wildly popular “ask me anything” series. When Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul did an AMA, he worked closely with two women: Taylor and Dejarlais, a social media director who worked with Paul.
“She was always thinking one step ahead,” Desjarlais told Grudo. Her reaction to the firing…
“Oh man, redditors are not going to like this,” followed by “I wonder why?”
Taylor was “on top of her game and had a very good understanding of what needed to be done to facilitate the conversation,” Desjarlais says. “Working with her made the AMA process far smoother than it would have been because she had the understanding and the ability to move roadblocks like no one else could.”
Desjarlais concludes: “She had her hand in every corner of reddit and, from the looks of things, was very busy and involved from the ground, up. It seems like she had a system – and it’ll take a while for someone to pick that up.”
Grudo and Krome also spoke to reddit mods – on voice calls as well as by email. They went old school to report on the new school. Below is their behind-the-scenes look at how mods conduct their business, and why they revolted over July Fourth weekend…
By Gideon Grudo, with help from Tyler Krome
We interviewed several mods, some on the record and some off, to get an idea of how this site works. Through the interviews, screenshots of private messages, and some number crunching, we figured out some cool—and really uncool—stuff. For example, we rounded out what it would cost to run a subreddit if reddit paid its mods. For another example, we found that subreddits can get filled with sexist and ugly chatter with little to no oversight.
The blackout didn’t happen because one person got fired. It happened because mods were sick of being ignored. All of that could very likely change, but the folks we talked to aren’t getting excited yet.
ps: As we were putting final touches on this story, reddit came out with a new subreddit to support mods, the lack of which is covered extensively in the story below. We’re all looking forward to how that’s going to work and affect reddit’s universe. But it’s too early to tell if it’ll fix all of the issues we’ve found through our reporting.
Alex Baldwin stayed cool as Reddit burned down around him.
Baldwin (not Adam, not Alec, but Alex) is the leader of a small subreddit called Kotaku In Action (KiA).
He and a dozen other mods didn’t veil their subreddit in support of the blackout—they chose instead to keep the conversation going.
“We talked about the possibility of KiA going down, but seeing as lots of people were already discussing the blackout,” he said, “we decided to remain open so they could talk about it, and so we could document the events.
Baldwin isn’t sad it happened. It just might save KiA—which serves largely as a platform for those intimate with the GamerGate movement—from the wrath of reddit.
“I was glad to hear that the issues KiA was having with the admins weren’t because we were being singled out or anything,” Baldwin told us. “It was long overdue, and it certainly got the attention it was seeking.”
While reddit is still figuring out how to clean up the mess it made last week, it might eventually get back to cleaning house, too. It started with making mincemeat of five subreddits early last month, sparking Baldwin’s fear of a shutdown.
The Washington Post explains the early June bans…
The site permanently removed the forums Wednesday afternoon for harassing specific, named individuals, a spokesperson said. Of the five, two were dedicated to fat-shaming, one to transphobia, one to racism and one to harassing members of a progressive video game site.
reddit allegedly pulled the trigger on those subreddits with no notice or advance warning. That’s going to be different now, the 23-year-old University of North Carolina student said.
“reddit has more important things to worry about at the moment,” Baldwin said. “But I don’t think that’s really impacted any decision on whether or not KiA will be banned. If anything, it’s probably made sure that we’ll be informed before we get the axe.”
The relationship between KiA’s mods and reddit may be strained, but the relationship itself is hard to define. Why are mods like Baldwin afraid of a shutdown, and why were so many other mods so angry last week?
Surely, it goes deeper than the sacking of one employee.
Before you enforce rules, you need to write them.
Baldwin’s fears of losing KiA are magnified by the scariest thing of all: Ignorance. There is no log of clear and concise rules to show mods how to moderate.
For example: Do public social media pages constitute personal information (it’s against the rules to post those in comments)?
“A lot of times we’re just taking shots in the dark,” Baldwin said. “Recently, we had to delete a link to someone’s LinkedIn page because we considered it personal information. But we don’t know where the line needs to be drawn. Better to be safe than sorry.”
Outside of the folks working out of reddit’s California headquarters, no one really knows these things.
From his first days on the job, Baldwin—and every single mod on reddit—never received any training or hard guidance from the headquarters of the social web giant in any permanent sense. There’s no infrastructure for that kind of communication.
No one was listening. And if someone was, you never really knew if you were going to get a reply. Imagine emailing Comcast with a question about your service. Would you expect a reply?
Baldwin believes the blackout might change all that, but he ain’t holding his breath.
“I’m hopeful that something good is going to come out of this,” Baldwin said. “At the same time, I’m not entirely trusting of the admin team. I’ve seen a lot of talk but not a whole lot of action. To me, it seems like the things they were saying were just to get the major subreddits back online and I’m not totally sure they’re going to stick to their word.”
When the site turns black, it ain’t green.
Each new blacked out subreddit came with yet another affirmation for Baldwin and his crew: They aren’t alone. The site-wide meltdown didn’t materialize out of thin air—the sparks of revolution rarely do.
The revolt—taken together with its desire to go legit and start making some real cash—doesn’t bode well for reddit.
Forbes explains it well…
The fundamental problem reddit has is that its community has constantly been at war with ways management has tried to monetize the site. You would imagine that a site with 7 billion monthly page views might be rolling in dough, but due to reddit’s incredibly limited monetization strategies, they’ve never really been a profitable business.
We wanted to figure out what the blackout cost reddit. Here’s what we found…
Three-hundred and sixty-three subreddits participated in the blackout. That amounts to 153,329,940 subscribers losing access to their subreddit of choice.
We scoured a few posts, like this one, to come up with this data. For every subscriber, a subreddit gets an average of 0.5 page views per day. You can see the ratio of page views to subscribers for any subreddit (along with other interesting traffic statistics) like this.
Reddit makes a lot of money off its ads. One particular kind are “self-serve” ads, sold by pageviews: For between $1.50 and $5.00, your ad will be seen 1000 times on reddit.
So what did the blackout cost reddit? Our conservative estimate, based on the available numbers, is that it cost them $137,996 per day in lost self-serve ads alone. This doesn’t include its revenue from larger, commercial advertising campaigns or user donations flooded out by the shutdowns.
Pretty pennies force reaction. reddit has been able to assuage most of the mods enough to bring back subreddits from the dark beyond, but issues remain unresolved.
Before we get to the issues, let’s introduce the main players: the mods and the admins.
Mods are people like you and me.
Baldwin—who goes by TheHat2 on the site—and a dozen other people moderate what happens on KiA.
This comprises a myriad of responsibilities from deleting stuff on the site like harassing comments or spam posts to banning repeat violators to electing new users into the moderating ranks—it’s a lot of work.
He and his colleagues are called mods, and everything they do, they do for free.
Mods are the backbone of reddit.
They hold it all up. And they do it for the most part without any assistance from the headquarters of reddit, which offers no training or guidance to moderators. In fact, communications between mods and the people who work for wages at reddit to deal specifically with the site—these are the admins—are very strained and limited (more on that later).
Without these people who voluntarily and regularly complete “humble duties within a particular community,” according to reddit’s page about moderation (which the various mods we spoke to said they had never heard of), the place would become “one monolithic overall community.”
Mods ensure that subreddits stay in focus, acording to reddit:
As an example, imagine a /r/swimming and a /r/scuba. People can read about one topic or the other (or subscribe to both). But since scuba divers like to swim, a casual user might start submitting swimming links on /r/scuba. And these stories will probably get upvoted, especially by people who see the links on the reddit front page and don’t look closely at where they’re posted. If left alone, /r/scuba will just become another /r/swimming and there won’t be a place to go to find an uncluttered listing of scuba news.
The fix is for the /r/scuba moderators to remove the offtopic links, and ideally to teach the submitters about the more appropriate/r/swimming subreddit.
The moderation page doesn’t mention what’s left of reddit without these volunteers. For one thing, there’d be a fair level of chaos. So said KiA mod Daniel Sollie Hansen—redditor AntithesisD—a soon-to-be computer science master’s student from Norway.
“The community as a whole can’t really define what is harassment or what is personal information,” Hansen said, citing as examples some of the red flags mods find in comments and take action on. “As a moderator, you answer to the community,” he added. “It’s a question of accountability.”
So if the mods are accountable to the community, who’s accountable to the mods?
Admins are people like you and me.
The admins that run around reddit doing whatever it is they’re doing are all profiled on the company’s team page, complete with an alien avatar and favorite subreddits.
It kinda looks like a high school yearbook page.
Here’s the gist about the team:
reddit has 66 current and 38 former employees listed. These include everyone from CEO Ellen Pao to an “anti-evil engineer,” so we gotta assume not everyone on the list is running around the site interacting with mods or with the community.
Although the company is based in San Francisco, only 76 percent of its staff currently live there, based on our calculations. The rest live around the country, and a few abroad: There’s an admin in Ireland and another in Australia.
Recent hires appear to be focused on modernizing and monetizing the company (no surprise there): Three new mobile developers got picked up in the last year, along with a new VP of sales who joined the team in January.
While the company as a whole is fairly diverse, the specific teams in the company are a little more segregated: 88 percent of its technical staff, for example, is male, and every community manager but one is white. Two of the avatars are wearing fedoras (there’s a subreddit for those, but it’s currently blacked out).
We could go on, but it’s better to do that later with more input from reddit (what do you say, folks?)
What we do know is that admins tagged as community managers are definitely admins who talk to mods. There are six of those.
Six people. For all of reddit.
Mods say the admins neglect them. Here’s what that looks like.
Mods have cited throughout the blackout that admins’ neglect of them is one of their top concerns.
We asked the mods at KiA for examples. They had several.
On May 1, 2015, Baldwin reached out to admins about a sensitive issue.
He was concerned that some pro-GamerGate comments on KiA were inaccurate and potentially highly insensitive.
“We’re wondering if ‘deadnaming’ (using the pre-transition name of a trans person) counts as personal information, despite that name not being confirmed as theirs),” he wrote, adding that there’s no evidence of a transition, either. “We’d like your take on it, so we can dictate sub policy appropriately.”
Pretty serious stuff.
He immediately got a reply from u/LordVinyl to say the admins would look into the matter. (Lord’s blurb description on reddit’s team page is “I respect music copyrights because one cannot pirate vinyl – /r/VinylMasterRace – You may address me as Lord.” His favorite subreddits are /r/vinyl, /r/mancave, and /r/atheism.)
Then nothing happened. No response. For days. Then weeks. Then months.
Baldwin followed up on June 27. He’s yet to get a response.
Other attempts to get help from the admins might not even get this much of a reaction.
A post sent out in late June has received no reply at all. And this one asks for help so the mods can “keep any instances of harassment and abuse out of r/kotakuinaction.”
One of the promises to come out of the revolt is a singular contact for mods seeking help from admins. This person (krispykrackers) has supposedly been vested with the responsibility of listening to and responding to mod concerns and questions.
“It took something like this to spur them to action,” Baldwin said. “That it had to come this really shows how out of touch the admin are with the mod community.”
We don’t know what kind of training the admins get—or whether it matters.
We know mods don’t get training. But we weren’t sure about the admins.
When Baldwin turned to admin to get help, he didn’t know to whom he was turning.
His question about trans sensitivity, the one that got ignored, was answered by someone whose favorite subreddits had nothing to do with LGBT-related issues. If you’re looking for someone to consult you about how to treat trans issues in a public forum, then someone who publicly cites /r/mancave as one of three favorite places on the site might not be the smartest choice.
Or maybe Lord is an expert on these matters (we reached out to him to find out about his expertise but haven’t received a reply yet). There’s no way to know. When mods send a message to the admins, it goes to a general inbox where anyone might pick it up and deal with it.
How do they parse out those responsibilities? How should they?
“I think whichever admin handles concerns regarding reddit policy should know all the do’s and don’ts well enough to make the right calls when questions come up,” Baldwin said. “So, they should know site policy, what’s fair game and what isn’t, to the point where it can be uniformly applied and so that there are no contradictions on how it’s enforced.”
Is that even possible, though? Policy that transcends cultural divides sounds complicated and confusing. Is it on reddit’s shoulders to invent it?
Baldwin thinks it is. Slowly, he explained, as specific concerns get addressed, their resolutions can be used to mete out the new ones. You know, kinda like the justice system’s use of case law.
“They’d have to make some kind of guideline, like, ‘what absolutely is not allowed on reddit.’ For other items that may be more open to interpretation, it should be noted once a decision is made, not unlike setting a legal precedent,” he said. “As long as no wires get crossed along the way, and mods don’t have to work in uncertainty, it should be fine.”
But let’s not get tangled in speculation. Here’s what’s obvious…
Some mods think admins should be trained to deal with policy.
The mods don’t parse out anything you throw at them.
You the reddit user send them a message, it drops into a general inbox (it’s called modmail and we’ll get to it later), one of them picks it up and runs with it. You hope the mod you get is the best mod for the job.
And there’s no way for mods to know the same thing about the admins when they reach out for help. But it’d sure be nice, Baldwin said.
“Yeah, I’d absolutely be okay with admins having set roles, or at least all of the ones that handle community concerns to be versed in those sorts of things,” he said. “What I want is for all their decisions to be uniformly applied. No miscommunications, no double standards, just the same policy across the board, fairly applied to everyone.”
So here’s the common denominator: No one knows if they’re talking to the right person. And it’s not explained on the site (at least not where it can be easily found).
Oh, yeah, by the way: Not even the cofounder of the website knows how to talk to his people.
If you want a new A/C unit in your office, make sure the boss sweats.
The directionless messaging doesn’t just frustrate the mods.
When the revolt was in full swing and Alexis Ohanian (reddit’s cofounder, aka kn0thing) wanted to have a chat with all the mods, his options were limited. There’s no infrastructure for him to speak directly with all of them.
There are a few subreddits that mods attend regularly, but they’re relatively small. There’s /r/modclub with less than 3,500 subscribers and also /r/modhelp with just under 7,000. Is that enough? We couldn’t find stats on how many moderators exist, but we can say this: There are over 671,000 subreddits and each one needs at least one mod to operate.
To be fair, many of these could be empty and inactive and probably are. Many mods operate in more than one subreddit, too. One mod we spoke with operates in four active subreddits and several inactive ones.
So what did Ohanian choose? He chose /r/modtalk. That’s not linked because you may as well not click it. It’s an invitation-only subreddit, private and from what we’ve been told by several mods: cliquey.
Here’s what Ohanian posted in this behind-closed-doors subreddit (it may have appeared elsewhere. CNN quoted from it, for example:
Here’s the top voted comment in this thread:
And here’s the second top voted comment:
ICYMI: “By making us have to go out and find your announcements,” /u/hedgefundaspirations said, “you’re ensuring that we’ll miss a lot of them, especially people that aren’t subscribed here or in defaultmods.”
So to simplify it all, reddit’s cofounder had to use a locked and private subreddit to inform mods that he and his team are here to fix the problem of communicating with only a small number of mods.
Admins come, they see, they tell you to delete content.
Baldwin, Hansen, the rest of the KiA mods, and mods of other subreddits we’ve spoken to, sometimes get told by admin to cut something out.
On Jan. 2, 2015, the admin /u/ocrasorm contacted the mods at KiA to tell them to remove a post that he said broke the rules, kinda.
The mods were confused. What does “we do not like the idea of” mean, anyway?
The post in question was a call to arms for people to contact various companies and implore them not to advertise on Gawker’s website, citing unethical journalistic behavior. This is normal practice for many activist subreddits and it’s called email campaigning. One of the mods points back to the battle that many sites, including Google, waged against SOPA and reddit’s part in it.
Soon the back-and-forth changes. Ocrasorm changes his mind, retreats, and said his “wires were crossed.” The post is okay, he said, but only with certain types of contact information (general inboxes, like firstname.lastname@example.org as opposed to personal ones, like email@example.com).
But what are the rules? Ocrasorm never made mention of any. Are they arbitrary? Are they hard? Can he link to them?
In a long Q&A comment that Ohanian posted over the weekend to answer a slew of questions in one place, he answered one about KiA specifically and the Ocrasorm confusion:
The question about KiA: Speaking of /r/kotakuinaction, why are they disallowed from organizing email campaigns to corporations? (Famously, being told that posting a PR person’s company contact info at Volkswagen is not allowed) – and what rule of reddit does this violate?
Ohanian: We definitely need to re-think this rule. Adding to the list. Organizing an email campaign to target a PR person’s public corporate email seems like it should be reasonable. There are a few of rules we need to clarify.
Clarify is a good word. Let’s talk about clear rules.
On reddit, you can break the rules without knowing what they are and get banned for it.
What are the site rules? These might be them, buried at the bottom of the site and titled reddiquette (get it?), which is as much a guide for regular users as it is for moderators. A search inside of reddit.com for “how to moderate a subreddit” yields little.
After sifting through the backend of KiA and some of the interactions between admin and moderators (before the #redditrevolt, even), one thing is clear: Nothing is clear in the world of reddit moderation.
How does a mod operate when he doesn’t have a clear set of guidelines?
“We’ll just err on the side of caution,” Baldwin said. “We’re too frightened it’ll come back to bite us even if we turned to the admins.”
Hansen finds that mods just use their heads to get through most situations, like which posts to mark as spam or which to delete or which to deem so outrageous the poster needs to be banned. The recipe is vague.
“A little bit reddiquette, a little bit moddiquette, and a lot of common sense,” he said.
Baldwin offers: “Don’t be a jerk is the guiding principle for a lot of our rules.”
We already know that admins show up and tell mods to remove posts sometimes, regardless of jerkiness.
We already know that reddit shows up without notice and bans subreddits which, as disgusting as they were, weren’t told which rules they broke.
We already know what happens when you run around chopping off heads without justifying your actions: Things get dark very quickly.
Baldwin and Hansen are pretty sure KiA is doing the right thing. And to reddit, it’s certainly the right price.
They feel they’ve obeyed the “informal” moddiquette offered up by the admins.
They respond to complaints. They attend to reports of misbehavior. They say they’re squeaky clean.
But what is their job exactly? We mined the backend of their subreddit KiA and figured out a little bit of what it takes to keep a subreddit with almost 50,000 subscribers running.
In an average day, the 13 human mods of /r/kotakuinaction perform 360 moderation actions, and compose over 800 words of messages to users, not including the times they run around the subreddit itself, post within comment threads, and fiddle with the programming and design of the subreddit.
“Human mods” because the subreddit, like many, uses a bot called Automoderator—computer code that filters and flags content that is in blatant violation of the subreddit’s rules. It performs an average of 102 actions every day by itself.
Some of the actions can be completed very quickly—e.g., verifying that a flagged comment doesn’t contain a prohibited link, or marking an obviously spammy comment as spam. But actions also include things like editing the subreddit’s wiki page, or taking the time to determine whether or not a user deserves to be banned. We can’t know how long the mods deliberate philosophically over what to do in specific situations. Our numbers are based solely on the time it takes to complete the action itself.
If the moderators are experienced and quick, these actions might take around 15 seconds apiece, on average. Combined with a generous writing pace of 19 words per minute, this means that every day, two hours and 12 minutes go into making a subreddit work, or 71 minutes per week, per mod. If reddit paid its mods $9/hour, the minimum wage in its home state of California, they would owe the mods of KIA $7,227 every year for their work. But if you’re thinking of the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour, those savings drop to $5,822.
Doesn’t sound like too much, right? It isn’t. But let’s step out of the forest. KiA is one of over 671,000 subreddits. And we know that lots of those are inactive. Here’s a more modest estimate of active mods:
There are three subreddits where mods hang out: /r/modhelp, /r/modclub, and r/modtalk (the invite-only one). Modhelp has 7,012 subscribers, modclub has 3,450 subscribers, and modtalk has 1,100 subscribers on the dot, according to a mod we spoke to.
We average those to get 3,854 mods. This isn’t accurate (for many reasons), but it lets us come up with an idea of what mods save reddit.
So, 3,854 mods multiplied by $7.25/hour gives us 27,941.5/hour.
Per year, that’s $1,714,490. That’s a lot of money reddit’s saving on the backs of people who can’t even get help figuring out if letting a LinkedIn account link stay online will cost them their subreddit.
So why do it?
“It’s nice to have this feeling that you are helping people,” Hansen said. “You’re kind of a mix of a guardian and a servant.”
Hansen became a mod after responding to a sticky post on KiA asking for mod applicants a few months ago. The post asked those applying to jot down their timezone.
“I’m GMT+1 (Norway), and I tend to always have reddit on in the background when I’m on the computer,” he wrote in his application, adding “(which tends to be fairly often).”
Even mods have to sleep sometimes.
KiA mods, you see, were looking for new colleagues who’d be awake while they were snoozing. Someone had to take the midnight shift and watch over the users during twilight hours. Without finding international help, the subreddit would be helpless for as long as it took the mods to get their beauty sleep.
He got the job, partly due to that important GMT+1: “If you’re still interested, respond to this,” the job acceptance post read.
Hansen replied quickly, “Holy mother … I would be honored!”
Mods have to find their own way to deal with a subreddit that never sleeps on a site that never sleeps.
Admins sure did. Remember that conversation KiA had with Ocrasorm? The one about email campaigning? That admin is in Ireland, one of two outside the US.
Ireland’s GMT+0, in case you were wondering.
Looking onto redditor pastures…
It’s hard to see where reddit is going next. Is it going to redesign its site in some frenzied attempt to legitimize it and lose its entire userbase like Digg did? Is it going to clamp down and shut down tons of subreddits and clean up its act?
“I think there’s a small chance that Ellen Pao will be losing her jobs and that several admins’ heads will roll,” Hansen said. He may be right. The petition to kick her out is almost at 200,000 as I write this sentence. Her public apology on reddit July 6 didn’t meet the kindest responses.
“As for KiA, I think we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing,” Hansen said.
Baldwin is careful and hesitant to trust the admin.
“Until we’re stopped, anyway,” he said in reference to Hansen’s prediction. “I think we’re gong to see an exodus of sorts. I can’t imagine that people will stick around reddit after something like this. And I feel like some screw up is just around the corner.”
Maybe it is.
“reddit’s greatest strength is its community,” Baldwin said. “Once you don’t have that, everything else falls in on itself.”
Email Gideon Grudo at firstname.lastname@example.org.