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Reddit is a Dying Mall
Why it'll only get worse from here.
“Everyone's moving on without me, into a world I don't understand.”
― Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic
Commercial social media is like a shopping mall. It’s entirely possible to have a constructive conversation in one, it’s entirely possible to have a fruitful political debate at the food court, but it’s not why the mall is built. It’s not what it’s for. What it’s for is commerce. Anything more is a happy byproduct.
These past two weeks saw some drama on Reddit that, while functionally different than the drama Twitter has been seeing over the past year, spiritually feels quite similar and I think is illustrative of the era we’re living in. A lot of people are questioning what Reddit is for. A lot of people are looking up from their bourbon chicken lo mein and asking each other if this has always been a food court because at one point y’know it really felt like a rec center.
What’s happening on Reddit is ostensibly about API access, which is basically the way third party apps and helper-bots interact with the site. It’s true that changing API access will seriously disrupt functionality, and I get why a heavy Redditor would be upset over it, but idk, somehow the reaction feels different than just annoyance at API changes. I’ve personally noticed more than a few people expressing that they view this as an opportunity to “get clean”, as if their drug dealer got arrested or something. And honestly, good for them! Recognizing that you can never scroll to the end is a hard step.
There have been some pretty funny twists and turns in this story. For example, Reddit started replacing moderators who were keeping their communities private, so many opened back up but only allowed posts about John Oliver, medieval art, or in some cases relaxing their rules about porn (the logic being that Reddit can’t sell ads in NSFW subreddits)1. Moderators are upset, but they’re also having fun. I don’t think Reddit inc is having much fun. From the outside this whole scenario seems to be a massive misunderstanding on the part of Reddit on what exactly makes their platform something people want to contribute to in the first place.
1: Maybe Don’t Fight the Volunteers Who Run Your Wooden Shoe Machines
“Enshittification” has been a buzzword lately as the big social media platforms try to maximize revenue. It’s one of those things that once you know to look for it, you’ll see it in action everywhere. The original essay by Cory Doctorow is short and absolutely worth a read, but here’s my best summary in three bullet points:
Platforms attract a large user base by being good to them.
Once they’re dependent, the platforms squeeze users in order to make it more appealing for businesses.
When those businesses become dependent, the platforms squeeze them to maximize profits for management and shareholders.
All the big tech platforms have followed this pattern: Facebook, Amazon, TikTok, eBay, Google. They used to be good, then they got less good, now they’re awful for everyone but also the only game in town. What we saw at Reddit this week is the company attempting to fully transition to the second bullet point (favoring businesses over users), and seeing its volunteer moderators (something that doesn’t exist on the other platforms) obstructing, and sometimes actively sabotaging Reddit’s efforts.
The thing with Reddit is that its whole system only “works” because a small percentage of its userbase is willing to provide content moderation services for free that other SocMed companies have to pay for. Facebook for example, is reportedly spending half a billion dollars annually on content moderation; a major savings for Reddit (who somehow isn’t profitable despite turning 18 literally today). In return for their efforts, Reddit has (historically) given moderators freedom to build and shape online communities to meet any vision their heart desires. In the first few years of subreddits existing, Reddit was so moderator-friendly that communities supporting “jailbait”, antisemitism and calls to violence were all given a welcoming home2.
Over time that freedom has been chipped away. And no, I don’t mean that in a “banning intolerance is the same as government censorship” sort of way. Reddit has quite literally taken away the tools moderators have used to shape their unique communities. The first big change I know of was in 2018 when Reddit redesigned their platform to make subreddits more visually homogeneous. The new API changes this month will revoke the ability for mods to utilize many tools (like bots and apps) that assist them with their free labor.
Reddit was good to moderators because moderators built and maintained the myriad communities that attracted users in the first place. Now the company is trying to squeeze its users for a buck, and didn’t seem to realize that some of its users have an ability to throw a wrench into those plans. Reddit moderators aren’t employees. They can’t be compelled to cooperate. They work because they want to. If mods aren’t feeling rewarded for their effort, they simply won’t make one. Or worse (for Reddit, hilarious to us), they’ll make a joke of the very system that makes Reddit a destination at all.
In its attempts to force mods’ complicity in the platform’s enshittification, Reddit is using fewer carrots. But the only stick at their disposal is threatening to fire mods from the jobs they aren’t even getting paid for. And (surprise surprise) it’s not going great.
2: Rise of The Moderatariat
I sometimes compare Wikipedia to Reddit because both systems only “work” when people who care strongly about the subject matter are willing to volunteer their time. Imagine how quickly Wikipedia would fall apart if Wikimedia Inc, started squeezing contributors for cash. Without a critical mass of people who care, Wikipedia would quickly become overwhelmed with spam and misinformation to the point of uselessness. And surely, in recent years we have seen Reddit’s overall usefulness decline thanks in part to the company’s laissez-faire approach to disinformation, political extremism, and corporate spam. Though (thanks to mods who prioritize authenticity) it’s not yet to a degree extreme enough to keep users away from the site en masse. In fact, Reddit’s decades-old archive of reasonably spam-free discussion threads is currently propping up Google’s increasingly enshittified search business.
Unlike Twitter, Reddit has no aristocracy class of “anchor” users that hold regular users to the platform. On Twitter, famous people stay for the attention and regular users stay for the famous people. That dance has kept Twitter relevant (though apparently also somehow not profitable?) despite the exodus of massive chunks of Twitter’s “cultural middle class” to the Mastodon network since Elon’s takeover last year.
There are celebrities on Reddit. But (outside of r/IAmA) they don’t get much attention, and they’re not why users go there. People go to Reddit for the content. Content made by users, and curated by mods. Some of you might be tempted to call mods the “aristocracy” in this comparison. The CEO himself recently called moderators “the landed gentry”. But I think this demonstrates a massive misunderstanding of who exactly is profiting3 from the moderators’ efforts, and of the motivations that inspire someone to volunteer their time to a for-profit4 company in the first place.
And yes, there are bad moderators. But most of them are dutiful (if idiosyncratic) curator-types who take pride in their efforts. And Reddit has always allowed anyone to create a new subreddit anyway, an escape-hatch for communities who’s moderators’ have become too out of sync with the users. Don’t like how a community is run? Start a new one with blackjack and hookers.
So what’s the escape hatch when Reddit itself finally gets too out of sync?
3: The Future of Mall-Based Conversation Technology
I predict that similarly to Twitter, Reddit’s movers and shakers —its “cultural middle class”— will eventually relocate to the independent “Fediverse” of decentralized social media. Connected websites running on Lemmy and Kbin (think- Mastodon but Reddit-style) have already seen an explosion in popularity despite not being nearly as polished.
Transitioning online discussions away from for-profit shopping malls into spaces designed for constructive conversation is a good thing not just for humanity’s ability to cooperatively solve problems, but for the oft-disregarded mental health of the individuals who’s content contributions power the platforms.
“Small communities that are interoperable” is basically what Reddit is now, and Mastodon’s growth serves as proof people don’t need a centralized CEO or a board of directors shaving pennies off of their users’ sanity to keep a social media network operational. A few people who care about making space for authentic communication is all it takes.
As far as Reddit’s fate is concerned I predict that what will happen to it is the same thing that is happening to Twitter and has already happened to Facebook and frankly, actual shopping malls. The business side of things will churn along divorced from the content which will become ever more generic and culturally irrelevant. The users who stay on Reddit will be of the unadventurous variety, not inclined to make waves or analyze their habits. I shudder to think what kind of spiritually bereft person would choose to moderate on this new Reddit, but I’m sure there’re people out there willing to take out the trash at Steve Huffman’s dying mall because he can’t afford janitors and they were taught that helping is good.
But communities can’t thrive on trash removal alone.
I think- I hope, where this will all end is a saner future wherein the people in charge of facilitating conversations are motivated by something greater than wealth.5 Places we can connect free of commercialism. We’ve just got to get up and go there. Now, who remembers where we parked the car?
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While Reddit officially no longer officially allows pedophilia or calls to violence, antisemitism is still quite rampant on the platform, though usually cloaked in dogwhistley language. I only bring this up to demonstrate the degree of freedom Reddit historically gives their moderators to attract users.
or not lol
but unprofitable lol
Seriously can somebody explain to me how a business can lose money for 18 years and still exist? is silicon valley even real?