I find online social networks a fascinating thing to observe and sometimes participate in. Twitter is the main one I’m a part of, and over my time using it I’ve been part of a number of different subcultures that make use of the site as a means of talking to one another about common interests, regardless of geographical location.
In this sense, social networks are a bit like real life; you tend to gravitate towards people with whom you have common interests, and you drift away from people you find objectionable or simply don’t mesh well with. It’s exactly the same online; I know exactly the sort of people I’m likely to get along with, and exactly the sort of people I want to avoid at all costs. The nice thing about online interactions is that you can — for the most part — take a lot more control over your experience than you can in reality. You can’t, for example, choose the people that you work alongside, so if you dislike, say, your manager or another member of your team, you can’t get away from them. You can, however, mute or block people you don’t gel with online; while there’s an argument that this can lead to an “echo chamber” effect in which people are unwilling to have their viewpoints and opinions truly challenged, for the most part I find this a good way of minimising the stress that social interactions (be they real or virtual) can sometimes cause me.
One social network that I’ve never quite managed to integrate myself into is Reddit, and that’s simply because Reddit as a whole is such a hugely sprawling entity that it’s difficult to know where to start. There are popular subreddits for pictures, jokes, games and all sorts of other things, as well as highly specialised subreddits for niche interests or simply running jokes. Effectively, each subreddit is like a forum with message threads and discussions that follow on from an original post, but there’s also a sort of “metagame” aspect to the site, where you earn points for posts and comments according to the community’s overall reaction to them. This metagame doubles as the site’s main means of automatic “curation” — high-rated content shifts to the top and becomes more visible, perhaps even hitting the front page of Reddit (which often describes itself as “The Front Page of the Internet”, though Facebook might like to believe differently) if it’s really popular and transcends its original context.
Reddit’s an interesting site to browse even if you don’t actively participate, though. It’s the birthplace of a number of now-commonplace Internet memes and jokes, and the community as a whole can usually be relied on for some highly entertaining, quick-witted responses as well as scathing takedowns of stupid, ignorant or bigoted people. Assuming the subreddit you’re in isn’t specifically designed for stupid, ignorant or bigoted people, of course.
Now, this latter aspect is where things have got a little bit interesting recently. Reddit has traditionally positioned itself as being a bastion of its interpretation of “free speech” online, trusting individual subreddit moderators to set the rules for their individual communities and enforce them accordingly, while at the same time ensuring that nothing actually outright illegal is posted, and if it is, that it is removed quickly. To date, it’s worked pretty well; while there are some subreddits that are the online equivalent of a notorious dark alley you probably wouldn’t wander into alone if you didn’t have a very good reason to be there, for the most part each individual community has kept itself to itself, content with its own little space of the Internet for its discussions, even when said discussions might not be welcome elsewhere on the Internet. (“Gamergate” subreddit “KotakuInAction” is a good example of this, and there are plenty of others along the same lines.)
But there have been Happenings recently. As someone who isn’t an active participant in Reddit, I haven’t really been following the whole drama, but so far as I can make out, Reddit brought on a new CEO recently known as Ellen Pao, and she has not been a popular “leader” for the site. The popular conspiracy theory is that she’s attempting to “clean up” Reddit prior to selling it off to the highest bidder — likely Facebook, who would doubtless very much like to get their hands on “the front page of the Internet” — and in the process is ruffling a whole lot of feathers of people who have traditionally found Reddit to be a good home for their discussions and activities.
Pao’s actions coupled with a widely-criticised lack of communication between the overall Reddit administrators (who run the site as a whole, and have the power to ban and “shadowban” users according to their behaviour) and the firing of a number of Reddit employees for seemingly questionable reasons have been causing rumblings of discontent for some time, but it seems that today, for whatever reason, was the tipping point; a number of popular subreddits, including front-page, “default” subreddits that are automatically included in a new Reddit user’s list of subreddits, have “gone dark” in protest against Pao’s management, the aforementioned lack of communication, a very inconsistent application of the “rules” for the site as a whole and, in some cases, a rather opaque sense of what the “rules” actually are. These subreddits have “gone dark” by setting themselves to “private” mode, meaning that only users who are already approved to post there (usually just subscribers to that particular subreddit) can see what is going on and being discussed; casual browsers, those who are not logged in or those who are not subscribed, meanwhile, are simply shown a default page explaining that the sub is private, and the reasons for it.
Over the course of the day, more and more subreddits have “gone dark” in protest, effectively crippling Reddit’s traffic as a result. It’s been absolutely fascinating to see, and while I don’t 100% understand the reasons for the protest at this time, I think it’s a potent reminder that when you create something as sprawling as a social network, as much as you’d like to think you can stay in complete control of it, ultimately the site it made or broken by its users. Without users, the site is completely useless, so if you piss off those users then you’re going to have a big problem.
It remains to be seen whether Reddit will pull through this debacle, or whether a young pretender like Reddit clone Voat is ready to pick up the baton and try not to make the same mistakes. (I mention Voat specifically because they have reported record amounts of traffic since the controversy really exploded today.) This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened, after all; Reddit originally grew to prominence thanks to the once-popular Digg fucking itself up beyond all recognition, so while it may seem dramatic to contemplate that this might be The Beginning of the End for Reddit, it’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.
Basically, the lesson from all this appears to be pretty simple: don’t think you know better than your users. Because you probably don’t.