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As Reddit Burns, Some Hard-Earned Lessons on Building an Open Community

It’s almost impossible to create a place for the best of humanity without opening up a Pandora’s box of the worst.


Last week, Reddit, the user-submitted news site known as the “front page of the Internet,” was thrown into chaos after the firing of a popular administrator. In a sign of solidarity, Reddit’s unpaid moderators revolted, shutting off access to some of the sites most popular communities, many with millions of subscribers.

The Reddit protests brought back my own memories of running Ning, a community platform of 90 million people across 300,000 active communities. During my time in the CEO hot seat, I worked with an amazing team and thoughtful, dedicated community leaders. We learned through trial and error what worked — and what didn’t — in guiding, growing and supporting a massive community platform.

These lessons didn’t come easy, and they weren’t immediately obvious to us when we started. For anyone seeking to build vibrant communities at scale, I offer a few hard-won observations from the front lines.

Online community platforms attract the best and worst of humanity. Embracing this is job No. 1. Communities reflect society, in both beauty and ugliness. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to create a place for the best of humanity without opening up a Pandora’s box of the worst. To outsiders, it may look like the only reason people use Reddit is to hatemonger. However, there aren’t enough haters to make up 164 million unique visitors per month. Rather, the majority of people are attracted to Reddit for the support, kindness and sense of belonging it offers to those from all walks of life.

Behind the scenes, the people who build community platforms believe in the power of their networks to support, encourage and connect individuals around the world at scale. This is worth putting up with the toxic minority of horrible people doing horrible things behind the anonymity of a screen name, even if it is personally repulsive.

Every strategy and tactic I’ve learned in community building starts with embracing this reality. The goal is to shine a bright light on the good, while minimizing the bad.

Control is not an option. The unique strength of a massive, virally created platform is that moderators running communities do not work for the company. This is also its weakness. Imagine an army of Uber drivers, only they don’t get paid. Not exactly your grandfather’s capitalism here. The people who volunteer their time and energy for the fame and fulfillment of bringing together hundreds of thousands or millions of people to express themselves are motivated not by money, but by belonging to a tribe.

A company can influence and encourage what these powerful users do, but the magic of a community platform that reaches into every corner of the world is that it takes on a life and culture of its own. The only solution is to optimize for influence, and give up the idea of control.

So how do you influence a platform when direct control isn’t an option? In practice, a healthy relationship between a platform and its communities looks more like a democracy than a dictatorship. In my experience, there are three levers to pull. You can (1) update how the product works, (2) consistently enforce well-defined policies, and (3) ensure active, ongoing communication between the corporate team and community leaders. That’s about it.

Product is the answer to 90 percent of your community problems. Reddit’s karma points and upvoting and downvoting of comments make it special. These features have created a sense of belonging that keeps more than 100 million users coming back each month. Only a handful of services have achieved this. Yet, as last week’s protests demonstrate, no community platform can rest on the laurels of a decade-old product.

Product investment provides the most effective lever in building trust between a community and the company for two reasons. First, a platform can use product to provide smart yet subtle ways to highlight good behavior while minimizing bad. Take the “bozo” feature, which lets trolls continue to post without showing their vitriol to others. While the free-speech ethos of Reddit is built on the premise of being able to post (almost) anything, this doesn’t mean everyone needs to see it. Setting trolls and harassers to silent can be much more effective in changing the experience of members than confrontational policy changes, especially if you’re not staffed to enforce them consistently.

Second, updating the product frequently shows volunteer moderators that they matter to the company. Even with a decade-old monolithic infrastructure, investing your limited resources into features that make the lives of your army of volunteers easier speaks volumes. There’s little doubt that if Reddit had invested more in product, a lot of the current issues could have been avoided. Supportive product features are at the core of any relationship between a platform and its volunteers. Your priorities show in where you invest your time, team and money.

Platform leaders need to be visible and engaged to influence the community. The best community platform leaders act like elected officials. They organize meetups of volunteers, preside over user advisory councils, share the story of the service in public appearances and with the press and — most importantly — build direct relationships with users on the platform. They are visible, open and engaged. An open approach has long been the norm among vibrant communities, but now organizational behemoths from the military to the previously quiet Facebook and Twitter management teams are following suit.

Operating in public leads to an interesting question of how to handle team changes, especially those of visible leaders, like Reddit’s Victoria Taylor. I’d suggest that diversification is step number one. Relying on a single person who’s not the CEO or one of the founders to represent your corporate team to your community is a risky strategy. Rather, the entire team behind a community platform needs to be visible and well distributed, so the transition of one person doesn’t send 164 million others into a collective frenzy.

What if a key person has to go? Even in the most toxic interpersonal situations, there is still a way to present the transition as a unified front. This requires a level of maturity and an intermediary trusted by both sides. It’s not easy, but for the good of the platform, it’s worth it. Showing respect to those who have served the company and the community well is the price of leading a global platform, no matter how you feel about the person privately.

Your business model has to enhance — not fight — core community dynamics. A community platform doesn’t run or pay for itself. Reddit’s corporate role is to ensure that the service keeps the lights on. Even the site’s worst misogynists and bullies recognize this reality. The company needs to make money.

There are two conventional business models for a community platform. The direct-support model, a la Wikipedia, runs on volunteers and depends on contributions from supporters. The other model relies on commercial advertisers. This approach has worked well for Facebook, because of the network’s massive reach, insistence on using real identities and the increasing control it exerts over individuals’ feeds.

As Reddit chooses to follow in the footsteps of Facebook with brand advertising, I believe tensions will rise even further with their volunteers. For a platform built on the principles of free speech that brings together strangers to talk about obscure and controversial interests, only a limited and specific type of advertising will work: One that enables moderators to benefit from connections made between brands and sub-communities.

I believe the best business model for community platforms like Reddit are those that offer moderators and the platform revenue-sharing opportunities. This is a third path to supporting communities being pioneered by companies like Teespring, Eventbrite and even GitHub. These new models reinforce the core values of a community like Reddit, and put the moderators at the center of the money-making engine. It’s where they deserve to be.

Reddit’s leadership has spent the past few days taking action to rebuild bridges. I have confidence that they are sincere in using this as an opportunity to foster trust where little exists today. The process of building a volunteer-run community isn’t easy. Done right, however, the rewards are enormous. We’ll soon find out whether Reddit is capable of weathering this storm and emerging stronger. I’m not counting them out.

Gina Bianchini is the CEO and founder of Mightybell, a modern community platform for specialized professional networks. Prior to Mightybell, she was the co-founder and CEO of Ning, the largest platform for niche social networks, founded in 2004. Reach her @ginab.

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