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Reddit's Latest Controversy Perfectly Captures Reddit's Biggest Problem

Reddit's legion of unpaid moderators are its biggest asset -- and its biggest liability.

Eva Blue / Flickr

Startups like Uber have an independent contractor problem. Companies like Facebook have a user privacy problem. Twitter has a growth problem.

And Reddit — no surprise — has a moderator problem. And it’s a very loud and noisy one.

The social news service has thousands of loyal, unpaid moderators who produce and curate the lion’s share of content on the site. But a staff firing and the controversy that erupted thereafter yesterday has moderators of some of the most influential and important parts of the site closing off their sections in protest, posing a serious problem for Reddit’s future.

For a complete rundown of what happened, Gawker’s Ashley Feinberg has compiled a detailed and incisive look at full the series of events.

The gist of it is this: Reddit’s comms director Victoria Taylor, a key support staffer for many moderators, was let go for reasons that haven’t been made clear. Unpaid moderators (“subreddit” leaders who perform the drudgery of running some of the Internet’s most prolific forums) who worked closely with Taylor say this will make their jobs harder, because they’re stretched thin already.

Taylor’s key job was to coordinate the site’s highly popular “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) posts, bringing in and assisting celebrities and public figures through the AMA process. Many on Reddit speculate that Taylor lost her job because of Jesse Jackson’s disastrous AMA last week, though an r/IAmA (the subreddit designated specifically for these posts) moderator who claims to be familiar with the situation says that isn’t so.

In response to Taylor’s sacking, the moderators of various highly-trafficked subreddits — r/AskReddit, r/Movies, r/Music and so on — have set their subreddits to private, meaning anyone who shows up sees the equivalent of a 404 screen. This means some of the site’s key traffic draws are simply out of operation.

Reporting from last year indicates the company is still unprofitable, while investors probably remain patient because the site garners around 170 million of unique monthly visitors.

The conventional wisdom in tech is that profitability comes to those who can attract large audiences, not the other way around; in September, Re/code reported that the company was in the middle of raising at least $50 million at a $500 million valuation.

At its core, this latest controversy puts Reddit’s biggest vulnerability on display, perhaps moreso than last year’s celebrity nude photo hack or the service’s well-documented harassment and abuse problem.

Reddit is powered by the moderators, who aren’t paid or given much oversight for their work. In the case of r/IAmA, before Taylor was hired in 2013, mods appear to have done much of the work in making sure AMAs ran smoothly, which means AMAs often did not run smoothly. Woody Harrelson’s catastrophic AMA is a well-known example of this.

Regardless of the circumstances under which Taylor was let go, it’s clear that Reddit failed to be up front with the moderators she worked with about what happened. It’s obvious now, but pissing off moderators has severe consequences for Reddit.

When moderators feel disrespected by Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian or interim CEO Ellen Pao, they can voice their frustrations by effectively shutting down the website. Reddit doesn’t have much, if any, leverage, because they don’t actually employ moderators, which means it has no control over people who effectively run key, public-facing parts of the company.

Everything about which Reddit talks a big game — curbing abuse, protecting free speech, being the “front page of the Internet” — is directly tied to a model of content curation over which the company has little authority.

Onstage at the Code Conference in May, Pao affirmed for the audience that Reddit’s not just popular on the Internet, “Reddit is the Internet.”

Maybe so. But if that’s the case, it seems Reddit has just as much control over itself as it does the whole web.

Update: Speaking with The New York Times’ Mike Isaac, interim CEO Ellen Pao said, “We should have informed our community moderators about the transition and worked through it with them.” Reddit co-founder and executive chairman Alexis Ohanian added, “We definitely hear that we need to make changes when it comes to communicating.” No details were given about why Taylor was let go.

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