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Does Reddit’s front page ruin good communities?

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Perhaps the most damning sentence a Reddit administrator can pass down on a subreddit is death by default.

How do you kill a subreddit?

You could delete it, of course, or censor discussion. But for some, the most damning sentence a Reddit administrator can pass down on a subreddit is death by default.

Judging by the site’s checkered past, nothing can drown out good discussion and promote inane and repetitive posting quite like pushing a subreddit to join the ranks of front page defaults, subreddits to which thousands of new reddit accounts are subscribed to automatically.

To more critical redditors, the defaults—populated by the shallow, meme-loving masses—are where mediocrity thrives.

For many long-time redditors, the trick to getting the most out of the site is to unsubscribe from all defaults. The best communities on Reddit take some work to discover. 

Over the course of Reddit’s nine-year lifespan, default subreddits have often exhibited the worst of the site. Communities like r/atheism and r/politics had to become the the sorry punchlines of the entire Internet before administrators finally, mercifully removed them from the default list last year.

Earlier this week, site administrators diversified the front page by doubling the amount of subreddits new users are subscribed to by default. The number jumped from 24 to 50, curring out old ones like r/AdviceAnimals, the Internet’s capital of repetitive image-macro memes.

Reddit staff told subreddit moderators on Monday about the change that would take place by Wednesday.

The new move brings hundreds of thousands of new eyeballs to relatively smaller subreddits like the the obscure, music-promoting /r/ListenToThis and the female-friendly /r/TwoXChromosomes.

Many are concerned about what will happen next.

“People are worried that popularity will turn any medium into the lowest common denominator of unintellectual meme-based drivel,” /r/dataisbeautiful mod NonNonHeinous told the Daily Dot. He was more optimistic about the future, asking that the community reserve judgement for at least a few days.

Although moderators were told that the change was coming on Wednesday, they were asked to keep it a secret and given no warning about an exact time. That meant that normal users found out a half hour before mods that a change was made. 

Many users immediately assumed the worst, largely because they hadn’t been given the proper context. “That it’s a trial run,” NonNonHeinous explained, “that we’re making the rules more strict, and that we were adding mods.”

In r/TwoXChromosomes, a subreddit dedicated to providing a safe and thoughtful space to women on the site, the community is wondering if this spells the end of one of the only large female-dominated space on Reddit.

“We can all say goodbye to a safe place on reddit for women,” KaylaS wrote in response to the move.

“I know I won’t feel comfortable here anymore.”

The controversy over the defaulting was surely largest her. The concern isn’t exactly coming out of left field. Within minutes of the new default listings, the change in tone was obvious.

A woman looking for advice wrote on the subreddit that her short-term partner was taking nude pictures of her without permission. Predictably, the quickly upvoted responses went directly against everything the subreddit is supposed to be about.


 

The newly arrived trolls come from all corners of Reddit—including men’s rights and pick-up artist hub r/TheRedPill. It’s a subreddit saturated with anti-woman anger, and it should be no surprise that some of its users aren’t happy about the r/TwoXChromosomes bump. They’ve decried it as biased and unfair against men.

“Defaulting exposes us, heavily, to the cruel and worthless ones, who make their entertainment at the expense of others,” wrote TwoXChromosome community member Faydre.

In the hours after TwoXChromosomes was declared a default, the subreddit was showered with trolls and downvoters. Both sides—the women who didn’t want the spotlight and those who thought they didn’t deserve it—were profoundly unhappy with the new status quo.

“Welcome to default hell,” one redditor wrote. “It will only get worse and never better.”

None of this is unique to Reddit.

When online communities become more popular, they always encounter problems: Snobby regulars, clueless outsiders, cliques, stereotyping, and an increasing lack of personal connection has contributed to the decline and fall of many communities around the Internet long before a “default subreddit” even existed.

“There is always a tradeoff between variety/quantity of content and quality,” moderator NonNonHeinous said.

“The question is whether the size of the tradeoff is worthwhile.”

Active moderating is one solution to the problems that popularity brings. After all, not all default subreddits are bad. The treasure trove of /r/AskScience continues to provide brilliant reading material year after year exactly because the community’s moderators wield a quick and decisive delete and ban button. Better yet, the rules are explained clearly and order is maintained. 

“I saw the discussions in askscience as they switched in, out ,and back in to being a default,” NonNonHeinous explained. “Strict moderation and a helpful participating community is key.”

Even better, r/askscience has inspired an entire stable of strictly moderated Ask subreddits like r/AskHistorians and r/AskAnthropology. Many AskScience panelists are academics that help run other subreddits like the newly default-listed r/InternetIsBeautiful.

Moderating is not always that easy. Maintaining order in a community designed explicitly for well-sourced question and answer sessions is, well, relatively simple compared to keeping up quality in a less-well-defined subreddit designed for more subjective purposes—such as being funny (like r/funny) or letting women feel comfortable on Reddit.

Last year, Reddit dumped r/atheism and r/politics from the default list to add r/books.

The reaction in the rapidly growing subreddit over the last 10 months has been mixed. Just last week, a popular post with 6,500 upvotes wondered if the subreddit had turned into a middle school book club since the change. The moderators don’t think things are quite so dire.

“It has improved for the better,” r/books moderator DaedalusMinion told the Daily Dot.

“Since becoming a default, we’ve had a large increase in the number of users and as a direct result of that, we have more content.”

Another r/books moderator, Ky1e, does say that along with thousands of new good users came a whole lot of trolls. The solution? Bans and deletions.

Other newly defaulted subreddits should adapt well. Though some subscribers at r/ListenToThis are frightened of what could come next, an active moderation team should be able to delete every submission that doesn’t meet the subreddit’s standards: Popular music is out, new music is in. Simple—and the moderator team is willing to do the hard work to try to maintain their community’s high standards.

“We may as well hit this head on and wrestle the bear into submission,” /r/ListenToThis moderator evilknight wrote. “I suspect we’re going to end up as one of the least popular mod teams on the site. We have no qualms at all about programming removal filters that utterly eradicate behavior that goes against the subreddit’s goals.”

TwoXChromosomes’ moderators, who declined to comment for this article, have a much more difficult task in front of them, so it’s no surprise that a recent thread asking to be removed from the default listings gained thousands of votes in support. A subsequent poll, however, saw that 65 percent of voters were against the move. There’s no word yet on whether moderators or administrators are considering taking back the default listing.

Over at r/InternetIsBeautiful, another community favorite, moderators are calling their own controversial default listing “a trial run.”

“We have a few options if we see problems including dropping from default,” moderator NonNonHeinous wrote. “We’ll reevaluate after a few days.”

Personally, when it comes to the front page of the Internet, nothing would make me happier than seeing the best parts of Reddit grow up to become the biggest parts. 

Subreddits like /r/AskScience and /r/TwoXChromosomes aren’t just interesting time-wasters. They’re important. 

If  TwoXChromosomes survives and thrives in their new position of prominence, the men and women of Reddit stand to gain from newly amplified voices. Having a strong female-driven subreddit would go a long way to making the entire website—which, let’s be frank, has a history of being a boys’ club with some particularly ugly black marks—more welcoming toward women.

The defaulting has already exposed more men and women to TwoXChromosomes who want to take part in an thriving community. The top post today is from a teenage boy asking an honest and important question: What is feminism? Another popular post proves that the default listing has already brought new women into the fold.

“Maybe it was the backasswards way of expanding,” wrote ohanamore, “but I’m actually a little grateful that the community got enough exposure to get me peeking around and make me feel like Reddit isn’t the misogynistic sausage fest it seemed to be before.”

But just as the potential positives are big, so too are the potential negatives. There’s no shame in saying that the women of TwoXChromosomes might not want that huge spotlight. After all, a relatively small (well, 183,000 subscribers small) and comfortable group can be just as important as a big and powerful one.

Historically, being added to Reddit’s list of default communities has been, at best, something that is endured, not embraced. With few exceptions, most defaults see quality of discussion fall rapidly before an inevitable exodus of the core community members who made the subreddit good in the first place.

The good news is that the smart mods are all aware of the potential downfalls. If they tirelessly delete and ban poor-quality posting, some great communities might survive the spotlight after all.

Photo via Ian Muttoo/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.