Dev

Nov. 13, 2013 12:00 pm

Trolls a ‘function of the open platform': reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian

How to maintain reddit's relatively lackadaisical spirit while ensuring moderators don't do "whatever stupid thing they want," as cofounder Ohanian put it? The answer seems elusive.

Alexis Ohanian speaking at Exec TechBreakfast in November. Behind him on the screen: a screenshot of the earliest version of reddit.com.

Alexis Ohanian is, apparently, just as frustrated as some members of the r/Politics subreddit who protested the blanket ban of articles from such publications as Salon.com, ViceNational Review and Mother Jones.

Reddit, the social-sharing website Ohanian cofounded in 2005 and then sold to Conde Nast in 2006, drew ire when the moderators of the site’s politics subgroup decided to add a number of otherwise fairly mainstream publications to its list of “disallowed domains.” (Mother Jones, as of Nov. 4, has been removed from this list.) In defending their decision, the moderators said they were hoping to root out “blogspam,” “sensationalism” and “low-quality posts.”

Quickly the Internet erupted. How could the moderators of r/Politics do that?

“The moderators are there to do whatever smart thing or whatever stupid thing they want,” said Ohanian during an appearance at November’s Exec TechBreakfast in Mt. Washington.

But the banning of certain publications, intolerable as it might have been for some reddit users and the editors of the publications, was not nearly as dire a situation as it was made out to be.

  • While publications such as the Huffington Post were banned from the r/Politics subreddit, they weren’t banned from reddit itself.
  • A number, 3 million, was also bandied about, signifying the number of accounts subscribed to what has been an influential subreddit. What has been. For several months, r/Politics has been removed as a default subreddit, as the Daily Dot reported over the summer, meaning it no longer commands space in the drop-down menu of subreddits on the top, left-hand corner of reddit’s homepage — and, therefore, no longer enjoys the privilege of having new reddit accounts automatically subscribed to it.
  • And reddit, as the Daily Dot pointed out in late October, rarely issues an outright ban on websites, including publications, unless an account spams the site incessantly.

Still, as he said Nov. 5 during his presentation in Baltimore, Ohanian sympathizes with those publications affected by the r/Politics ban. In the website’s earliest days, he suggested, his team could have more closely monitored the activity of subreddits, or even possibly curated the listing of subreddits that appear on reddit’s homepage by having “done something like suggested tweets,” he said.

Doing so, however, would “remove the power that a subreddit like r/Politics has,” Ohanian said.

And therein lies the rub. Ohanian consistently pointed out that reddit is merely a platform, as it hosts no content. That means that moderators of subreddits have influence and power and will wield it. It also means that new subreddits focused on the same topics can effectively replace existing ones, which is what happened to the r/Marijuana subreddit (r/Trees is now the place to go). It might happen to the r/Politics subreddit now too. Already a r/Polit subreddit, advertised as “loosely” moderated, has been created. The community of redditors, in other words, is supposed to keep moderators honest.

But the openness of reddit’s platform — that ability for new subreddits to surface rather easily — also means that subreddits like r/Jailbait, which was shut down by reddit admins after it was used to distribute child porn, can re-surface.

So, how to maintain reddit’s relatively free Internet spirit while ensuring moderators don’t do “whatever stupid thing they want”? That struggle is at the fabric of the open web.

“It’s on us to make it a more efficient system for sure,” Ohanian said, lamenting that the worst offenders of web social norms represent such a small amount of traffic. “The unfortunate reality is trolls like Violentacrez [a former moderator of r/Jailbait] are a function of the open platform.”

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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