Absentee and ineffective moderators are dragging down Reddit, and it's causing some of the site's 114 million monthly users to revolt.
In late April, popular subreddit /r/technology—one of the site’s largest—was removed from the default subreddits when moderators took a "hamfisted" approach to banning certain content, to quote Reddit overseer Erik Martin. New moderators were appointed by the Reddit admins and changes were promised, but as TechCrunch pointed out, similar demotions on other influential subreddits had been handed out in the past.
But this isn't like those other times. It's not just the technology subreddit that's seeing dissension; worldnews, another monstrous subreddit with several million subscribers, is also under attack. Since these initial eruptions, something unexpected has occurred: a sustained, systematic downvoting of almost every link submitted on behalf of the community, punishing posters with double digit karma losses.
As of Tuesday evening, the vast majority of the 400+ "top posts" still have double- or triple-digit negative karma. And there is no sign of this stopping. This reaction is not ignominy or apathy—this is open revolt. And Reddit, so far, has found no effective way of dealing with it. "Vote brigading," as mass downvoting is called, is a pernicious way to undermine a subreddit, as Reddit’s algorithm effectively counts 1 downvote as much as 10 upvotes. A lot of leverage can be created by a few troublemakers, if they are able to remain undetected, especially if downvoting occurs soon after the link’s submission. ("Downvote bots" are easier to deal with than humans, since votes are coming from predictable, mechanized source.)
Comments on the /r/technology situation—the only medium of exchange on the site, besides links—reveal a larger issue. As Reddit has evolved, it has developed a ruling class of moderators: a handful of people who vet new posts, decide the rules, and enforce them. For the most part in Reddit’s eight-year history, this has worked well, as it’s rewarded carefully curated communities with autonomy, and ostensibly democracy in how the site can be used. (You don’t like what’s there? Create your own subreddit, or contribute to an existing one to get it changed.)
Except now that the site has matured, the stakes are higher. It isn’t quite as easy to start a new subreddit that becomes enormously popular as it was, say, in 2010—especially if, like the technology subreddit, other verticals are getting placed on the homepage by the admins. Tone-deaf or absentee moderators now control large, powerful subreddits and don’t want to relinquish their position even when they are inactive, which can lead to overzealous censorship as a means of policing content, such as wantonly banning keywords.
Once-rival to Reddit, Digg, saw this danger of influence asymmetry for its active, early users and in 2010 took great lengths to make power users weaker; recognized in retrospect as its final mistake which dug Digg’s grave. Will Reddit be able to intervene further without further antagonizing the subreddit, and losing what is effectively several years of work growing the site’s influence on technology news via /r/technology?
In the intervening time, once-reliable /r/technology leaves no strong heir apparent to take its place, although a meta-discussion has popped up at reddit.com/r/technologymeta. Here's why the technology subreddit is so insurmountable. By the subscription numbers:
Note: Numbers rounded to the nearest thousand, as of May 6, 2014.
[Image: Flickr user Beatrice Murch]