Thinking about Reddit

I spend a lot of time on Reddit lately.  If you aren’t familiar with the site, you really should poke around for a few minutes.  It’s a web forum where people can post images, videos, articles, etc. and others can respond to them.  Their comment threading system is pretty magnificent, as is their system of upvoting and downvoting to see what content the community finds popular.  It’s really an awesome site.

Over the past few years I’ve slowly migrated from other sites (cough, one with a four-leaf clover) because I thought the community on Reddit was better.  To some extent, I still think that.  Yet, there are a couple really disconcerting problems I’ve noticed, and I’m beginning to side with the folks who are calling for a new community to be born.  It’s weird not to post this on Reddit, but I’m going to take a stab at three major issues I see as issues in the community.

First, I don’t want to be too nostalgic here, but Reddit has really become mainstreamed.  My friends on Facebook link from it all the time.  I’m guilty of doing it on some occasions as well.  What used to be a kind of nerdy hub has turned into a place where everyone can gather.  Okay, I guess, but it has lost some of the magic touch I thought it once had.  When my bro-ish or jock-ish friends are frequenting the site, I feel like I need to bury myself further away in another place.

I’m also concerned about poor moderation.  Some people have even blamed this on moderators being paid off.  What happens when a moderator (perhaps paid off, or just with a vendetta) acts as a gatekeeper of content on what is supposed to be an open community?  The current issues in r/technology are worrisome: any mention of Tesla motors is being auto-deleted through a filter.  If one messes with the spelling (say, Teslas or Telsa), it’ll pass through the filter.  Why would that subreddit filter out all discussion of Tesla motors?  As has been clear from lobbying efforts across the US, motor companies are afraid.  Could they be paying off Reddit moderators to shut down the discussion?  Maybe so.  It seems as though some media outlets have been unnecessarily slanted against Tesla, such as Top Gear, which produced an episode slamming their cars, which turned out to be completely false.  That video now has a warning that reads, “LEGAL NOTICE: This programme is now the subject of legal proceedings for defamation and malicious falsehood brought by Tesla Motors Ltd and Tesla Motors Inc against the BBC.”

Finally, on a very related note, I’m concerned about astroturfing.  Astroturfing refers to fake grassroots efforts, often paid for by companies.  Companies like Electronic Arts have been suspected of astroturfing, even on Reddit, where supposedly they will pay posters to comment favorably toward the company.  There’s no proof of course, but in some cases I’m really confused as to what would make someone support so fervently a company that is so anti-consumer (EA is the perfect example of this, but companies like Comcast aren’t far behind).  The idea that false discourse might be spreading through what is supposed to be a grassroots community is not something I cherish.  It’s downright frightening.  Corporate America has gotten remarkably good at using social media to its advantage.  Reddit might be the newest collateral in that fight.

These problems are problems that could overtake any community, but especially one growing to a large size.  With such a prominent website having what I perceive as serious problems, I question whether future sites will follow a similar model to Reddit or will deviate.  Undoubtedly, a competitor will crop up.  The question is whether that competitor is poised to avoid these problems.  For now, I’ll keep using Reddit, but I’ll do so skeptically.

Posted by Jeremy Johnson