Can Reddit Save Itself by Going Back to the Future?

Can Reddit Save Itself by Going Back to the Future?
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If you want to see what an online community looks like when it’s having a mid-life crisis, Reddit is providing a pretty good example at the moment. The so-called “front page of the Internet” draws a massive 170 million or so unique visitors every month, and has raised $50 million in venture financing, but it also appears to be in danger of being torn apart from within by conflicting impulses and visions of the future.

Those tensions led to the abrupt departure this week of Reddit’s CEO, Ellen Pao, after a user revolt stirred up by some of the site’s unpaid moderators, who felt they were not getting the support they deserve. And now, Reddit’s original co-founders have taken control of the site again, in an attempt to fix some of the cracks that have formed in their community. But is that even possible?

It’s ironic that in the midst of all this turmoil, Reddit celebrated its 10th anniversary — it has been a decade since Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman started the site in their dorm room at the University of Virgina, and eventually sold control of the community to Advance Communications, the parent company of Conde Nast. The term “sold control” is a bit of a misnomer, however, since one of the defining features of Reddit is that no one has ever been able to control it — not Ohanian or Huffman, and certainly not Ellen Pao or her predecessor Yishan Wong.

Like a number of other prototypical Web communities, Reddit is like a giant, sprawling real-time representation of the human id and ego — a massive Rube Goldberg machine with no governing force to stop anyone from saying anything they like, or posting anything that they think is funny, or sick, or disturbing. It’s like an anthill, but one where there is no queen or recognized authority or even common purpose — one where all the ants wander around doing whatever they want, whether it’s building something beautiful or destroying things just for the sake of destroying them.

As Ellen Pao pointed out in her goodbye note on the site, “the good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity.” Others have been much less kind, including Apple blogger John Gruber, who called it “a terrible, childish community posting on a site owned by a terrible, dumbass company.”

Veteran programmer and community developer Chuq Von Raspach compared it to a multi-level bar where the basement is full of bikers, and no one has taken the time to get rid of them, so their behavior poisons the whole community. Longtime blogger and XOXO conference founder Andy Baio said that “There are amazing, beautiful, inspiring parts of Reddit. But, increasingly, I’m ashamed to even admit I have an account.”

Like Baio, many of those who used to be supporters have given up because of the outpouring of sexism and racism and misogyny of late, especially with the recent GamerGate fiasco. Pao’s decision to leave was undoubtedly caused in part because of the waves of sexism and hateful remarks she was routinely subjected to. And the dismissal of moderator Victoria Taylor triggered a protest in part because moderators apparently believed it was another sign of how little attention is paid to them and their needs.

There aren’t many examples of such anarchic communities that have managed to make it to a decade or more, if only because they tend to self-destruct by blowing themselves apart from within before that happens. Digg, which is the most obvious comparison to Reddit, was a much larger site until it tried to implement a re-design focused on generating revenue from brands and media companies. The design irritated hard-core users, who fled, and it had little or no effect on revenue, so the site was eventually sold off as a shell of its former self.

Another community that is similar in many ways to Reddit — especially when it comes to its anarchic, almost pathological under-currents of behavior — is 4chan, which founder Chris “Moot” Poole started in 2003 when he was just 15. For years, the site was known primarily as a cesspool where every kind of bizarre and offensive material could be found, albeit one that also produced some of the web’s most enduring “memes” such as LOLcats.

It too went through a kind of midlife crisis caused in part by GamerGate, which insiders say took a toll on Poole as the site’s sole authority and administrator. Rather than have to deal with that kind of psychological battle every day, or try to find some way to evolve the site into a money-making business without losing what made it special, Poole stepped down and handed over “control” to a team of administrators.

So the only recent communities that are similar to Reddit either imploded due to bad management and a user revolt, or the founder essentially gave up because he couldn’t think of a way to fix what he had created (or didn’t want to).

Where does that leave Reddit? Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman have some of the moral authority that being co-founders provides, but any goodwill associated with that could disappear in a puff of smoke if they tangle with the embedded groups of miscreants and troublemakers who populate some of the site’s lower reaches. Banning one or two offensive sub-Reddits, as the site has already done, will look like a day at the beach compared to what happens if they really try to weed out all the bad actors.

As I tried to point out in an earlier post, Reddit is caught between its past as an anarchic, anything-goes, free-speech-at-any-cost kind of community and its potential future as an actual business with a CEO and all the other trappings of a modern corporation.

Sam Altman, the Y Combinator president who is also an investor and board member at Reddit, said the site doesn’t want to (and doesn’t need to) focus on monetization right now, but just wanted to grow. That creates its own pressures though — and Pao mentioned this in her departure message, saying one of the things that contributed to her decision to leave was that the board “asked me to demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believe I can deliver while maintaining reddit’s core principles.”

The path from childhood to adulthood is hard enough for people to manage, let alone a community made up of hundreds of millions of users who have become accustomed to doing whatever they want. How — or even whether — Reddit can manage to make that transition is not at all clear.

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