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The inevitable fall of the Reddit moderator

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If you’d like to cultivate a skill that makes sense of how society is changing around us, allow me to make a suggestion: Learn to read a Terms of Service (ToS) agreement. You can practice on the newly revised User Agreement that social aggregation site Reddit first made public on Wednesday.

Believe me—I know how dull that sounds. Terms of Service agreements are important, though. More and more, they’re the rules that shape how we interact with friends, family, and coworkers. Revisions are often a preamble to changes in the way a service works, so parsing a newly released ToS for clues can be a valuable way of understanding the technology itself, as well as how its structure affects the communities to which it plays host.

If that doesn’t sell you, there’s this: A new ToS is almost always a glimpse into the future—and for the moderators of Reddit, who drive much of the site’s success, it doesn’t look pretty. 

For years now, Reddit’s administrators have written candidly about the need to revise their user agreement, calling the old version “legal boilerplate.” That version barely touched on the features that make the site unique; its replacement is much better crafted in that regard.

Still, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong has admitted that the site has yet to break even, and the last year has seen a string of new features (like revamped multireddits) and media initiatives (a Black Friday livestream). So it’s natural to ask whether the new ToS, long more rumor than reality, reiterates the values and relations typically assumed to define the site, or prefigures changes aimed at finally pushing Reddit into the black.

Reading the document itself suggests it’s probably a bit of both.

Much of the new agreement is devoted to formalizing conventions (like the prohibition on giving out another users’ personal information) that fell into place organically over the years. In doing so, the administrators have given legal coverage to some features that may ultimately help the site out of its financial hole, but also to others that trap users in less than ideal situations.

First, the good: There don’t appear to be any radical changes aimed at creating new lines of revenue. That much is consistent with cofounder Alexis Ohanian’s suggestion that premium subscriptions (called Reddit Gold) are the path to profitability. Yet, the new ToS does draw some sharper distinctions that seem likely to give greater definition to the company’s financial goals.

Some—like those mentioned §8 and 9, which declare that, “reddit isn’t intended as a marketplace”—limit the extent to which contributors can use the site for commercial and financial purposes. Similarly, two clauses insisting that accounts are for personal use (§6) and must remain in the creator’s control (§12) may be aimed at limiting Reddit’s own liability but have the side-effect of restricting how businesses (like news broadcaster Al-Jazeera) can use the site.

Indirectly, those restrictions may indicate a strategy of directing revenue away from the link-aggregating service, and toward other projects the company has developed. That might explain the decision to branch the ToS into two distinct agreements: one for the core site, and another for Redditgifts, which operates the site’s nonprofit Secret Santa project, but also its commercial Marketplace. With restrictions placed on what can be done with a Reddit account, it’s possible that users might one day take their peer-to-peer transactions to a Reddit-owned marketplace, where the company could claim some small share of each sale.

On the whole, that would seem to strike a solid balance between protecting individual users and providing legal cover for structures that help sustain the service financially. The one potential caveat comes under the heading “your content.” There, users tacitly agree to give Reddit a wide breadth of non-exclusive rights to use the content they submit to the site. Much of it is standard language for social media ToS, necessary to cover the platform’s basic service of displaying what the user submits, but the new agreement also gives Reddit permission to use your content “for any purpose, including commercial purposes, and to authorize others to do so.” Otherwise, the copyright is yours.

That raises a few potential hazards. When Facebook revised the Instagram ToS, there was every reason to believe that they planned to sell advertisers the right to use customer photos and account names in conjunction with display ads on Instagram. In theory, the language in Reddit’s new agreement would allow it to experiment with similar ad programs.

Not one to shy from the fray, Wong jumped into the comments on Wednesday to ease concerns and answer questions. With him was the lawyer who consulted on the new ToS, Lauren Gelman. Unsurprisingly, they emphasized sections that favored the rights of Reddit’s users, possibly even against other sites. Indeed, the trust of its users has traditionally been a major factor in how Reddit handles content. The site has mostly restricted itself to quoting users in onsite ads designed to raise the visibility of subreddits. At present, there’s no reason to think that it will alter that policy, but the new agreement opens a rather large loophole should Reddit change its mind.

Even if it were to do so, the scope of that content is relatively narrow at the moment. Technically, regular users can only submit text or links. Except for the images used by some moderators to change the look of their subreddit, nearly all of the pictures, videos, and audio we find through Reddit are actually hosted off-site, most frequently on Imgur or YouTube. The new user agreement is vague about what constitutes user content, but until the site starts hosting other formats on its own servers, it’s likely they’ll have to get explicit permission from creators if they want to use anything other than text.

At the same time, one circumstance made thoroughly clear by the new terms is the unequal plight of the site’s moderators. As §28 spells out, “moderating a subreddit is an unofficial, voluntary position”—a point that has not always been clear to the site’s users. It’s also one of the most critical and thankless roles any redditor can play, trapping them between the authority of the administrators and the outrage of their fellow users.

The new agreement canonizes that dilemma. While §5 explicitly absolves the administrators of any responsibility for monitoring what happens on the site, moderators are required to remove offending content whenever it’s brought to their attention. That could be far more complicated than in the past, since a rather flimsy provision (§25) seems to make a legal requirement of following the site’s informal and ever-changing etiquette. Under the new ToS, then, moderators actually end up being more responsible than administrators for the site’s content and for the behavior of other contributors.

The administrators aren’t even responsible for the moderators, according to §27, though they can demote them for failure to enforce the rules, or for any reason at all, really. The barely disguised message there is that, though they can be penalized for failing to enforce Reddit policy, moderators are on their own, legally speaking. Nor are they compensated for their efforts, and in case there was any question, Reddit has no plan to change that.

In fact, the new ToS explicitly bars moderators from seeking compensation from other sources, a provision meant to prevent bribery but one which would also stand in the way of schemes to use crowdfunding techniques to compensate moderators for their significant time and efforts.

What that amounts to is an unpaid workforce, beholden to the site’s standards and subject to an authority that’s allowed to be capricious. As I’ve argued before, that’s a situation that all but ensures that Reddit will undergo periodic crises.

The new user agreement offers little hope that will change anytime soon.

Illustration by Jason Reed