I keep most of my savings in index funds, as recommended by Warren Buffet and pretty much every financial advisor in the world. Given that interest rates on savings accounts have been practically zero for the past few years, this has worked out quite well for me, and I expect that to continue. And yet I can’t help but feel uneasy that my index funds – and therefore, me – partly owns and benefits from Royal Dutch Shell, British American Tobacco, and BP.
Living in a fully globalised economy means we make these trade-offs every day. You can’t send a single tweet about working conditions in China without someone accusing you of hypocrisy for using an iPhone. Much of the criticism of Twitter happens on Twitter itself; the same goes for Facebook. Technology has burdened us with a whole new category of original sins, neatly packaged in a pocket-size form.
Reddit is one of those sins. People have been complaining about its racist and sexist and hateful communities right from the beginning, and I can’t recall a time when Reddit wasn’t embroiled in some dreadful scandal. That didn’t stop me from registering in 2011, and it hasn’t stopped me from visiting it more and more over the years. It’s just too useful.
The strength of Reddit is the same as that of every other hegemonic tech platform: it’s free (VC-funded), convenient (VC money pays for great engineers and designers), and network effects mean that it becomes more useful the more people who join. Before long, everyone is there, so why bother joining another website?
On Reddit, anyone can create a new ‘subreddit’ community that any member can discover, subscribe to, and post to, with a single click. And since every subreddit has the same features and interface, it’s much faster and easier to use and navigate than the archipelago of web forums of our past, each needing its own login, each with its own quirks.
If I want to find out what people thought of the latest episode of Atlanta, I go to /r/AtlantaTV. If I want to know why a fighter plane just flew over my house in Edinburgh, I go to /r/Edinburgh. And if I want an in-depth analysis about how the Falcon Heavy measures up to NASA’s Space Launch System, I’ll check out /r/SpaceX. I know there are other forums and and Facebook groups out there for each of those topics, but they’re less convenient to find and follow.
So what’s my problem with Reddit – other than the racist, sexist, and hateful communities, which most Redditors will dismiss as being unfortunate exceptions, that is? I have three:
No moderation by default
Many subreddits are well-moderated by dedicated volunteers. They work hard to delete duplicate posts, keep discussions on track, ban abusive posters and repeated trolls, and generally try to make the community a pleasant, entertaining, and instructive place to be.
There is no requirement to have moderation on a subreddit, however. You can start one and then effectively abandon it, such that it becomes incredibly popular and yet completely unmanaged – or more likely, it can moderated haphazardly, with no consistency and rules. Is there any harm to this, though?
Yes. Poorly moderated subreddits are like the background radiation that lingers after a disaster. They damage people and communities imperceptibly as people test and then break boundaries. A stray hateful post or comment stays up for just a little longer than it should, showing that this behaviour is acceptable. It happens more often, and people are driven off, or they stay and are changed.
Reddit does have rules, even if they’re barely enforced. Not many, though: racism is permitted.
You’re subsidising hate
Reddit is an advertising-funded website, and by visiting the nice, well-moderated subreddits, you are helping fund their operations. It’s safe to say that hateful subreddits are not generally popular with online advertising, whereas the well-heeled visitors to /r/teslamotors and /r/apple are more in demand. In other words, even if you avoid visiting bad subreddits, in a small way, you’re still funding their continued existence.
Like my tobacco and oil-owning index funds, this might just be the cost of doing business on the internet today. But at the very least, you should be aware that there is a real cost.
You don’t own anything
It’s easy to set up a subreddit, and it’s just as easy for Reddit to take it away from you. You haven’t paid Reddit anything to host your community, and if they change their minds, it’s entirely within their rights to replace you as a moderator, or delete the subreddit entirely, or more likely, to make it really annoying to access the archives and contact the subscribers. Sure, people will protest, but there’s nothing you can do about it.
This is the deal you make with all platforms: faster growth in return for giving up control. Again, it might be a deal you’re willing to make, but you should understand the terms before you go in. Nothing lasts forever.
That’s why, as much as I use Reddit every day, I can’t celebrate its popularity and I can’t wait until we have something different.