Reddit and the Online Community Crisis - Pacific Standard

Reddit and the Online Community Crisis

Abuse is rampant on Reddit. Are invitation-only forums the solution?
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(Photo: Digital Storm/Shutterstock)

Reddit, perhaps the Web’s most iconic social community though not the biggest, is in a crisis moment. Under interim CEO Ellen Pao, who recently lost a bias lawsuit against her former venture capital firm employer, the website is cleaning house. Reddit has removed five hate or racism-driven forums like the very literal r/fatpeoplehate in order to ensure that its platform remains reasonably positive. “We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action,” an announcement by the company read.

It’s an attempt to fight back against the rampant harassment that has become a persistent problem across social media, though few major companies have done much to combat it. But Reddit’s users are rebelling, calling for Pao’s resignation in an online petition. The utopian ideal of social media is a space in which everyone is free to express themselves without offending other users. But is it possible to maintain a truly open online community while doing very necessary policing of abusers?

Strategies abound. Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr do aggressive monitoring of social groups and hashtags, banning or hiding controversial posts. Reddit relies on crowdsourced moderation. Another solution is emerging in an unexpected place, however. Product Hunt is a Reddit-like community that launched in 2014 as a place to find the latest and greatest tech goods—from new apps and gadgets to entire companies. What sets it apart is how it selects its core community.

“Product Hunt is in the start-up and tech world; naturally we see a lot more guys on Product Hunt,” Hoover says. “Many women prefer more visuals.”

“We don’t let anyone in the world comment or post on Product Hunt; it’s only by invite,” says Ryan Hoover, the site’s young co-founder. Anyone can view the site and get a powerful, undeniably useful feed of the latest popular products, but unlike on Reddit, only a select few can actually post or comment, though everyone can cast the “up-votes” that power the site’s hierarchy of posts. “That allows us to scale the community in a slow way and empower the community itself to choose who can be a part of it,” Hoover says. It’s the opposite approach of social networks trying to scale as fast as possible and achieve “hockey-stick growth.”

Product Hunt is purposefully expanding slowly. In only just launched a new topic area on its site, with a separate vertical for video game fans. “Games were a natural extension; they were being up-voted on Product Hunt,” Hoover says. “Longer term what we believe is creating a platform for discovery of all kinds of products—gaming, books, movies, podcasts.”

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While Product Hunt’s global community (half of its users come from inside the United States, and the other half from outside, with fan bases in India and Japan) might be more engaged and sustainable than those of competing platforms, the problem of community management has not quite been solved. While the site slowly branches out, it isn’t getting more diverse so much as learning to cater to its audience. While that’s likely a good business strategy, it could fall into the same traps as Reddit.

During our phone conversation, I repeatedly asked Hoover if he was concerned about diversity in a closed, invite-only system. Just as Ellen Pao found herself marginalized by the mostly white, male partners at her VC firm, gated communities tend to be self-reinforcing and not exactly given to critical introspection. While the co-founder expressed interest in increasing diversity through intentional invitations and physical outreach through events, his comments were also troubling.

Perhaps scale doesn’t matter as much in the post-Reddit era, but attitude should, and Hoover’s position displays an all-too-common disdain for the real social issues facing technology communities. Namely, that they remain too exclusive.

“Product Hunt is in the start-up and tech world; naturally we see a lot more guys on Product Hunt,” Hoover says. “Many women prefer more visuals.” The description seemed to hint at the larger, superficially more feminine image-heavy platform Pinterest. “We don’t want to artificially try to push people to use Product Hunt if it’s a product they don’t want to use.” Diversity is “something that we keep an eye on but there’s no reason why we should be ashamed that we have more males on Product Hunt because that’s where it started and that’s who the content is appealing to,” Hoover says.

Perhaps scale doesn’t matter as much in the post-Reddit era, but attitude should, and Hoover’s position displays an all-too-common disdain for the real social issues facing technology communities. Namely, that they remain too exclusive.

The challenge for online communities today is how to become something of a monoculture—keeping power-users engaged and dedicated—without being so monocultural that they can’t attract new, diverse users or fans. Sites like Reddit and Product Hunt don’t need or want everyone to use them. But they also might end up bending to a core group intolerant of outside opinion, thereby cultivating the same abuses that are creating the current crisis.

“Technology is where it’s starting, but you could apply it to almost anything in the world,” Hoover says of Product Hunt’s topical focuses and editorial structure. That one-size-fits-all entrepreneurial attitude is all too often a problem rather than a solution. Imposing a particular structure or demographic without accepting that shifts have to be made for different audiences or situations is not likely to lead to an organic, mutually respectful community—something the social Web still lacks.

Disruptions is Kyle Chayka’s weekly column for Pacific Standard about personal technology and the way it influences our daily lives.

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