When James Andrews posted a link to his new music venture on Reddit, the first thing he worried about was what would happen if it were too successful. What if the site crashed? What if there were too many downloads and his server couldn’t handle the load?
He didn’t have to worry about that. Reddit moderators screened his submission, labeled it self-promotion, and did whatever they could to block it from being seen by his fellow redditors. The mods were just doing their jobs. A firm no-self-promotion policy is one of Reddit’s oldest and most central rules.
Frustrated, he decided to take a virtual hammer to the rule that held him back. It created a giant, and likely permanent, crack in Reddit’s very culture.
The question at the heart of Andrews’s experience is one that rests at the crux of Reddit’s success in transforming from a niche community of self-proclaimed nerds trading Ron Paul memes and joking about narwhals into one of the most important and influential forces on the Internet. How does Reddit balance the desires of a growing community—which reflexively feels an intrinsic pull to support its own—with the need to prevent the site from becoming clogged with tedious advertisements masquerading as legitimate posts?
It’s a question that’s been bubbling just under Reddit’s surface for years. Andrews just had the gall to finally ask it.
• • •
After a lifetime of bouncing around the Pacific Northwest, Andrews settled in Seattle. Once he got there, he followed the lead of generations of bearded Seattle dudes before him and joined a band. The group, which played a dark, atmospheric brand of folk-rock, was called Hand in the Attic. Andrews played bass and banjo.
The band started gigging around the city and Andrews was shocked at the quality of the acts with whom he found himself sharing a stage. “I’d go find their Bandcamp pages and just be blown away by their music,” he recalled. “Then I’d see that they only had like five or six people have ever paid for their music. These albums were incredible, but there were no one listening.”
After a few years of banging his head against a wall trying to figure out how to break though the literal and figurative noise separating good bands from potential fans, Andrews had an idea. In recent years, a new phenomenon has popped up among creative types attempting to market their creations online—the humble bundle. Pioneered in the video game world, humble bundles are where a handful of different titles are collected together and sold as a single block at a price point that’s either absurdly low or entirely pay-what-you-want. It’s proved to be a great model for indie game makers and, for Andrews, one that just may be attractive enough to music fans to actually get them to pay money for it—no small feat in 2014.
Andrews looked around online and saw that there were a few people already doing humble bundles for music, but none of the ones he found looked particularly appealing. Either the user interface wasn’t intuitive, or the music was bad, or the whole enterprise just seemed a little fly-by-night. Andrews summoned some entrepreneurial gumption and decided to just do it himself. He gathered together albums by a few Pacific Northwest indie bands he really liked and created the Good Pack. He’d donate 30 percent of the proceeds to a local nonprofit providing services for Seattle’s homeless youth.
Having been an active redditor for nearly five years, Andrews knew that he wanted to make Reddit a big part of his marketing strategy. “The Front Page of the Internet” is an almost unimaginably massive traffic driver to pretty much anything that catches the attention of its infamous hive mind, and a slew of other humble bundles had reaped Reddit’s rewards. Reddit wasn’t Andrews’s only avenue for promoting the project—he also sent out press releases to dozens of online music publications with basically nothing to show for it—but it one he had the best feeling about.
Andrews knew Reddit’s rules: The site generally looks down on people promoting their own projects. There are some limited instances where self-promotion is allowed, but Reddit discourages people from posting their own stuff. That’s enfoced both officially, through direct communications between volunteer moderators and paid administrations and in its published code of conduct, as well as unofficially, through a user culture that loves to sniff out shills and downvote them into oblivion.
Nevertheless, Andrews wanted to try getting the Good Pack onto the r/music subreddit, a community of music-lovers with over 5 million participants. But, before he did that, he sent a message to r/music’s moderators asking for permission to use the forum for a self-promotional post. He had seen similar music bundles gain considerable traction from being posted to r/music in the past.
This was the response he got from a moderator:
Screengrab via YouTube
Andrews was unhappy, but he understood where the moderator was coming from. At the time, the Good Pack had a minimum $1 charge for each download. It was policy that Andrews had instituted out of concern about what would happen if his project blew up on Reddit and thousands upon thousands of people downloaded the bundle for free. He’d be hit with significant costs from the company hosting the website on its server and not actually be making any money to cover the associated expense.
After getting rejected, Andrews reconsidered. He got rid of the minimum donation and bought an ad, which had about the same amount of success as his emails to bloggers—only a faint trickle of traffic and not even a single download of the bundle.
Getting frustrated, he reached out to the r/music mods again, pointing out that websites with the exact same business model as his had been popular on the forum in the past. He saw it as evidence that redditors might actually be interested in the type of content he was peddling. Besides, famous people do Reddit AMAs, essentially question-and-answer sessions between the celebrity and the community at large, on a daily basis, and those don’t pretend to be anything other than publicity for an upcoming movie, album, or video game. When it means they get a chance to ask a question of Iron Man himself, redditors don’t bat an eye if Robert Downey Jr. is only there to sell something.
The second response the mods sent Andrews wasn’t any better:
Screengrab via YouTube
Naturally, Andrews grew even more frustrated. r/Music is Reddit’s largest community for new music discovery. Still, he had enough respect for the site’s rules not to pretend he was just some random guy who stumbled across the Good Pack and decided to share it.
“I could tell from the moderators’ responses that they weren’t even looking at my website,” Andrews complained. “They deal with so much of this kind of stuff, they just kind of brushed it aside. It was really easy to be dismissive and a little bit rude at the end.”
It was at this point that Andrew did something that may have a permanent effect on how Reddit operates. He sat down at his kitchen table, filled an oversize coffee mug with beer (the most Seattle thing he could do in that situation), and ranted directly into the camera.
“Has Reddit become a place where celebrities and big brands benefit from free advertising, where the average redditor who wants to share a personal project gets shooed away?” he asked. “The current status quo gives an advantage to established brands, while it tells the average redditor that they couldn’t possibly create something that other people would value.”
Andrews’s video instantly struck a nerve. It received well over 4,000 upvotes, generated nearly 3,000 comments and was given gold, an award paid for by other Reddit users and given to particularly insightful or funny content, 16 times—which is really, really rare. For a few hours, it was the second most popular piece of content on the entire site.
He got hundreds of direct messages from other redditors who had seen their posts removed for self-promotion. They thanked him for saying exactly what they had been thinking for years. “At one point on Sunday, I thought my girlfriend was going to kill me if I responded to one more message,” he said with a laugh.
Andrews said that he even was followed on Twitter by Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, who sent a handful of tweets about how his video brought up some important points about how difficult it is for moderators to filter out all the spammy self-promotion, without stifling the truly great content produced by actual redditors.
While Ohanian is no longer involved with Reddit’s day-to-day operations—he’s spending his time writing books, testifying before Congress, and just generally being tech’s unofficial politically minded young man about town—Reddit’s current management certainly took notice.
In the thread, a Reddit employee working in community management who goes by the handle krispykrackers insisted that the company is in the midst of formulating a new policy on the issue, and even appealed to the community for advice:
I (and my team) really do care. Unfortunately the solution isn’t apparent, and whatever we end up doing needs to be extremely fleshed out so we don’t get it wrong. We really, really don’t want to get this wrong. As always, please let me know if you have any ideas or thoughts, as this obviously directly affects you.
In an email to the Daily Dot, Reddit spokesperson Victoria Taylor said that “self-promotion on [R]eddit has been an internal topic of discussion for a while now, and we are trying to figure out the best course of action at this time.”
The difficulty for Reddit’s management in finding a happy medium on self-promotion isn’t just about keeping subreddits free of crappy posts. If it were that simple, the site’s system of letting users vote content up or down would naturally let the good stuff rise to the top and the bad sink to the bottom. It wouldn’t matter who was promoting something, Redditors could decide for themselves whether they liked it or not without direct intervention from moderators.
The issue is that largely prohibiting self-promotional posts encourages people with stuff to promote to buy advertising space. While Reddit has taken to likening itself to a government of late, the site is still a for-profit enterprise. If someone can get infinitely more traction by posting piece of their own content then by purchasing an ad, no one would have any reason to ever pay Reddit for anything and the site would lose its major revenue source. No revenue means no Reddit, which would mean redditors wouldn’t even have a forum to complain about Reddit not letting them self-promote for free.
In a comment on the video’s thread, u/PenguinKing, who is a moderator of the marijuana-enthusiast community r/trees, recounted how the subreddit used to have a very open policy towards self-promotion—letting users freely submit their own content, allowing the standard system of upvotes and downvotes separate the wheat from the chaff. “I remember when we allowed people to self-promote like this, we were told by an admin that we need to remove those posts because they are essentially stealing advertising from [R]eddit,” u/PenguinKing explained.
It’s a rule that r/trees has been following ever since. “I’m split on the issue,” the moderator told the Daily Dot. “On the one hand, Reddit can do what they want as a large majority of their revenue is from advertising and it is their site; on the other hand, Reddit is built around sharing things, and just because someone has a connection with it doesn’t make it any less worthy of being on the site.”
On the other hand, the mods of r/videos, a prominent subreddit with over 6 million subscribers, informed the Daily Dot that they’ve largely been left up to their own devices when it comes to dealing with self-promotional material—using bots to automatically filter out the most obvious spammers and urging people to adhere to the 10 percent rule, which instructs users to submit nine posts featuring other people’s content for every one of their own.
The 10 percent rule seems like a good solution. But it can be difficult for mods, especially on high-traffic subreddits, to keep track of the posting histories of every user that submits something that gives the whiff of self-promotion.
Mods of r/music didn’t particularly wanted to talk about this. Only one responded to a request for comment, and he or she did so by simply copying and pasting a link to Reddit’s self-promotion policy and then immediately deleting his or her account, so it was impossible to ask any follow-up questions.
The reason for this reluctance to talk isn’t complicated. Ever since Andrews posted his video, mods have been deluged with criticism for their anti-self-promotion policies. It’s a line of criticism that Andrews himself feels is unfair. On Reddit, where he goes by the handle jimmyslaysdragons, Andrews jumped into other threads where incensed redditors were criticizing the r/music mods and argued on their behalf.
Not every subreddit deals with the self-promotion issue in the same way. A user going by the handle Jinno, who moderates r/comedy, insists that the subreddit, which largely consists of comedy videos, exclusively focuses on the quality of a given video and not who made them.
There are certainly cases of self-promotion here, and for the most part, we encourage people to post their own content. If it’s funny and well made, it deserves the attention whether you made it or found it on a website. What we don’t condone, and what we’ve actually taken down a link for once, is vote gaming outside of the community. If you have an established fan base on other social media – don’t link your fans there to the subreddit and tell them to come here and upvote your content. It creates an unfair advantage of your content against others, and we will remove it when it’s brought to our attention.
“I made the video out of absolute frustration,” Andrews insisted. “I’ve been on Reddit for almost five years and Reddit loves to tout this image of community. …When I see a Redditor who has been around the site a long time and contributes more than their own stuff, I’m inclined to go out of my way to check out their project and support them.”
Andrews said that when he first started on Reddit, he was constantly seeing projects from other Redditors. Someone would be giving out their book for free and they’d see 1,600 downloads in a single day. It’s a tough thing to scale because, as the community built aorund the site grows by orders of magnitude, there’s infinitely more competition for everyone’s attention.
On Thursday, krispykrackers came back with a suggestion of how to proceed and asked community members for their input.
The idea would to be create a new type of account for content-creating redditors. Those accounts would be reviewed by Reddit admins ahead of time to ensure that the content they were submitting was stuff that didn’t suck. For a small fee, those accounts would be able to post self-promotional material that was labeled with an icon indicating it as such. This content would then be reviewed by a moderators of the subreddit in which it was submitted and manually approved before being allowed to be posted on the site. The system is complicated, and clearly adds to the workload of unpaid moderators, but it seems like it might actually achieve the goal of letting Redditors share quality stuff that they made while not flooding the site with spam or depriving Reddit of ad dollars.
The system has some problems. For example, what happens if mods of certain subreddits are slow in deciding if content is spam and it just ends up sitting in the queue for weeks and weeks? If a post is timesensitive, a long delay could render the entire exercise moot. Or what if a flurry of media brands see the system as an opportunity to make their hot takes go viral and dump every single story they wrote on the site? Mods are volunteers and the amount of material they’d suddenly have to approve could quickly approach the time commitment of a full-time job.
Even people who professionally spend all day thinking about how to make Reddit work better are flummoxed by the self-promotion question. It’s almost as if a bearded Seattle dude’s video about some of his friends’ rock bands pinpointed a fundamental contradiction resting at the very heart of capitalism—how does a society balance the oft-competing desires for profit on one hand and sincere, legitimate community on the other?
Andrews didn’t set out to cause all of this controvery. All he wanted was some publicity for his little music project. And, in that, he undoubtedly succeeded.
Photo by Garrett Charles/flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) / Remix by Jason Reed