Reddit was rocked this week by a spate of leaks of private chat logs involving the site’s top moderators and paid staff.
The most blockbuster revelation: power user karmanaut is the same person as ProbablyHittingOnYou. Both sit at the top of Redit’s comment karma ranking. More importantly, both moderated several of the site’s biggest subreddits.
This deception—at the top of the site’s most populous communities—has laid bare flaws in Reddit’s hierarchical structure, launching small but intense pockets of debate across the site all week.
One interesting response to the Sushileaks fiasco: Why should anyone care about the squabbles of Reddit moderators? They’re just a bunch of pseudonymous Internet strangers.
Reddit’s default subreddits—the 20 communities every person subscribes to automatically when they sign up—are huge. Each drive hundreds of thousands of unique visitors daily. That’s enough traffic to make each place a valuable online property in its own right.
Right now, a small group of users hold sway over the majority of these subreddits and, therefore, a control huge proportion of Reddit, Inc’s traffic.
Moderators are unpaid volunteers. A subreddit is theirs to alter, censor, or play with as they see fit. This isn’t usually a problem, because most are hard-working volunteers who really care about the community.
But as karmanaut’s multiple-personality proclivity shows, there is potential for abuse, and there is no check on that abuse. Only a combination of admin and moderator intervention saved r/IAmA last year when that subreddit’s founder, 32bites, decided to shut it down.
Subreddit subscriptions should function in a kind of free market—if you don’t like the way a community is run, you migrate to its competitor. That works when the competition involves Reddit’s smaller communities but not when it includes on of Reddit’s semi-official communities: the defaults.
If you want to make a competitor to, say, r/askreddit or r/science, you’ll be handicapped from the start: You won’t just be competing with an established subscriber base in the millions; you’ll be fighting against the explicit support and endorsement of Reddit HQ.
What’s the practical value of that support? An endless stream of new subscribers thanks to the community’s default status, and, as the Sushileaks show, preferential access to the site’s paid staff.
“Moderators,” the Reddit FAQ tells us, “have no special powers outside of the community they moderate, and are not appointed by reddit.”
That’s patently false.
Reddit’s default subscription system has created a privileged class of semi-official moderators. Most are hard working. Most clearly want to keep Reddit running smoothly and help the community flourish.
But the system that created them is broken.