Before spending 150 words excoriating his company’s user base for harassing its interim CEO with slurs and Hitler comparisons until she quit, Reddit board member Sam Altman wanted to express some excitement as he ended his announcement of the site’s new CEO, Steve Huffman.
And here’s what he was excited about: a company goal.“I’m particularly happy that Steve is so passionate about mobile,” he wrote. “I’m very excited to use reddit more on my phone.”
Reddit users had grown weary of interim CEO Ellen Pao for, they say, instituting unprecedented changes—firing the site’s popular community liaison for allegedly not making a popular site feature more inherently sellable and palatable to advertisers, and banning a handful of subreddits that subsisted solely on hate speech—then covering it all up with tech bubble talking points that came days too late.
But “passionate about mobile” is about as close to a line of corpohumanoid dialogue from Silicon Valley as a press release can get.
In hindsight, Reddit’s community of over 160 million people was once again told to sit in the corner for its role in allowing all of this hate speech to occur, then was immediately told the money it had made the company would go toward a new way to monetize the free labor of those same 160 million people.It was no different than how they’d been treated in the past, and no new tools or solutions—outside of still unmet promises—were proffered to counter the hate.In the heat of the moment, excited that Pao had been dispatched, the Reddit community skipped over it.But Huffman’s new CEO grace period ended on Tuesday.
“Neither [Reddit co-founder] Alexis [Ohanian] nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen,” Huffman wrote. He was announcing that a new “content policy” is in the works and ready to be unveiled this week.A Reddit user almost immediately pointed out that Ohanian had called Reddit exactly that—“a bastion for free speech”—three years ago in an interview with Forbes.The jig was up. It took five days.The community’s hit job to villainize Ellen Pao may have been one of the most reprehensible examples of public shaming in the Internet age—especially now that ex-Reddit CEO Yishan Wong accused Ohanian of setting Pao up as a fall guy.But it is now clear: The only way to save Reddit—not as a company, but as the idea, in its best moments, it has come to stand for—is to abandon it entirely.Its user base, after all, functionally thinks Reddit is that bastion for free speech, and why wouldn’t they?They believed they were giving a voice to the voiceless through the exponential nature of the viral web—and there were times they might have been right. In the same decade that money came to be constitutionally protected as speech in the United States, Reddit’s user base, in at least one case, was countering money in American politics with the influence of its enormous user base.Net neutrality, for example, was almost a certain goner, with telecommunications money pouring into a majority of congressional pockets over the last several years. But grassroots support to keep it alive thrived on Reddit, and the telecom lobby suffered an expensive defeat, in part due to the protests of a website with guts and vitriol and power.Reddit’s users had come to believe they had been working toward an ideal—in their more benevolent moments, they were influencing elections, providing a forum for Middle Eastern revolutions, or even free pizza for those who might go a night without a meal.But now they know what was always the truth: They were just increasing uniques and engagement numbers for, in part, one of the largest publishing companies in the world.This is the fundamental problem Reddit’s users now face: Once someone figures out they are a blip on the spreadsheet for Advance Publications’ largest web property (and this is a company that owns Conde Nast!), what happens next?“It was all going to go in that direction the second Sam Altman decided to hand them a massive check,” said a CEO of a venture-backed startup. (She chose to remain anonymous because she’s “equally terrified of the wrath of some Redditors and old, stodgy venture capitalists.”)“You obligate yourself into growth and monetization when you take large chunks of VCs’ cash,” she said. “It’s a deal with the devil. [Users’] utter inability to see the truism that if you aren’t paying for the service, you are the service, is almost amusing.”And she’s right: Reddit is—and always was—a for-profit company. Its founders never said otherwise. It is a partially owned subsidiary of Advance Publications, which also owns about a third of places like TLC and The Discovery Channel.Reddit is not a movement. It is not a public service. It is not a nonprofit.But maybe it should be.“There’s a problem when, as a company, you essentially have expectations and core philosophies that you have to move away from for one reason or another—when you’re faced with easing a lack of restriction,” said another executive at a similar community website, who also chose not to be named. “Whatever rule you make will feel arbitrary and not perfect.”And that’s the foundation of Reddit’s great anxiety: Moderators of subreddits carved out a tangible—if under-covered—influence on American media. (A sizable chunk of almost any legacy media company’s viral traffic is now somewhat reliant on a few of their stories gaining traction on the site every month, no matter how willing those companies are to admit that.)But within Reddit, user influence on company decisions is practically nonexistent. After the firing of popular community liaison Victoria Taylor two weeks ago, it may somehow be even worse off today.The anonymous community site executive believes that’s when the wheels fell off, anyway. And it’s not when Reddit users realized they were being bought and sold.“They’re not even so much mad that Reddit’s trying to make money on their labor,” he said. “[Reddit executives are] too focused on trying to make money to give them the tiny little thing they’re asking for.”But now that the community is starting to see the whole picture, there may be no going back.“Now there’s the real danger: When people believe they are essentially the ones doing the hard work to build the thing, they demand that whoever is running it be open, honest, and non-exploitative,” he said. “Look, nobody complains about Facebook for collecting all of their data. It’s when Facebook—the website—starts getting annoying to them that they starting speaking up about data collection stuff.”The success of Reddit has made this very clear: The Internet needs a town square, and this algorithm has provided the best technology for a town square yet.Reddit, after all, is the 10th-most popular website in the United States. It’s an incredible feat, considering its user base is made up almost entirely—nearly three-quarters of it—of young men.There is potential for Reddit, or a website like it, to be more open to the vast majority of the world that does not currently use it.But running it less like a City Hall and more like a Best Buy doesn’t appear to be the answer.“We get into the question of fiduciary duty here, and Sam [Altman] and the CEO have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders—which, ostensibly, is what certain members of the community are, but they are far too little and too late for any real power,” said that anonymous CEO. “I just don’t think it’s in the fundamental nature of any structure of a corporation or company to be answerable to anything that isn’t shareholders.”That includes, say, a community of moderators and users on a website.“These are some of the central topics of our time, and too many people are ill informed on the underlying capital structures that enable much of the sites we believe function as public utilities,” she said. “Which they are most patently not.”The Wikimedia Foundation is a 501(c)(3) charity. All board meeting minutes are public and published on the site. Of the charity’s 10 board seats, three are voted upon directly by the Wikipedia community itself.On Reddit—the Internet’s “front page” and de facto town square—the appointed contact between the people who run it and the people who use it was fired two weeks ago, and it’s possible no one will ever know why.If Reddit were a nonprofit—if she were voted in and then forced out over a disagreement—this would all be in the minutes.
Reddit isn’t a nonprofit. It can’t be. It is, and always was, a for-profit company.But something like it can be a nonprofit. All it takes is 160 million people with a big megaphone who are ready to leave.