Sunday, July 5, 2015

Reddit Revolt 2.0: Lessons learned about open discussion platforms

Digg's collapse

Years ago I was highly invested time and mindshare wise in a little website you might remember called digg. I was one of the very early users and spent a fair amount of time curating content on the site through 2005 into 2006. As digg became more popular I became more dissatisfied with the place. As the number of users increased I found the level of discourse decreasing and the insular nature increasing. Sometime after 2008 I had finally had enough and I had my digg account deleted.

I saw promise in digg and became intrigued with the idea of making digg or something like it work. How to have a successful large diverse platform for open discussion that doesn't devolve into stupidity and group think. I don't even remember how many blog posts I started between early 2006, when I started to see problems with digg, and it's eventual collapse in 2012. I never never finished let alone posted any of them. In the end what killed digg was not the things that annoyed me about it. People seemed to love it. Its users numbers increased dramatically long after I left. Digg version 4, a rather blunt attempt to monetize digg, caused a max exodus and after a couple of years digg was sold for almost nothing.

The problem wasn't just that digg v.4 was buggy but that it altered the way content got promoted on digg. It took power away from the users and pushed it toward high traffic sites that could benefit from being on digg. Digg was founded on and grew through the users controlling content. As Alexis Ohanian founder of digg competitor reddit said "this new version of digg reeks of VC meddling. It's cobbling together features from more popular sites and departing from the core of digg, which was to "give the power back to the people".

Reddit's Revolt

And that moves right onto reddit. Reddit similarly to what digg did, relies on its users to provide content for the site and upvote things to show they are important. Users also have the option to downvote things they don't like. Reddit puts even more demand on its users to keep the site successful. Anybody can make a discrete section of reddit called a subreddit. They then can add user moderates to help control that sub. This puts almost all the onus and all the power on the users.

Reddit faces the same problem digg did. How do they become profitable. All accounts are that reddit has never been In the black. I have thought that the subreddit concept has given reddit a slightly better chance of making money. The default subs which are the ones that show up if you are not logged in are controlled by reddit. They could manipulate that to push what content they want toward the masses. There is a mechanism by which non default stuff can make the front page but that could be manipulated to exclude undesirable results.

 As I type this reddit is experiencing yet another revolt. Revolts are not a new thing for reddit. This latest revolt is the end result of months of rather ham handed and contradictory actions by reddit co. Reddit announced that they would be dealing with harassment. They also announced they would be increasing transparency.  They have then gone about enforcing the policy randomly and in an obscure manner with no transparency whatsoever. On top of that, there has been a long simmering distrust that reddit no longer puts the users first.  This all came to a head when two admins were fired. Admins are reddit employees that sort of act like community managers for different aspects of the site. By all accounts these two admins really helped the communities they were involved with. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. For awhile now, a lot of the mods, who are volunteers, have felt a growing anger a the lack of help and interaction from official reddit employees. The users and mods are doing all the work. The mods fed up decided to flex their muscle with this little revolt.

Will reddit ever be profitable.  Will it collapse and die like digg?  Frankly I don't care. I see reddit as a useless place. It's either banal content or very unintelligent group think.  I challenge anybody to read comments in its politics section and not have a brain hemorrhage.

A few thoughts on making a successful online discussion platform

The above was a lot of words to get to what I really wanted to talk about.  Also a bit of clickbaiting to get on the hot topic of the moment. Heck there is an article in the New York Times about the reddit revolt. I have thought a lot about what would make an online community work successfully. I want an online community that fosters diverse intelligent discussion. I don't want the community to devolve into stupid content. A billion pictures of kittens, "this", and stupid pun threads dominate a good portion of reddit's popular areas. It needs to be a place were competing ideologies can be discussed without mocking. Or as in reddit's case just resorting to the down vote to silence things you don't agree with. There also needs to be some way to keep trolling to a minimum.

I have been a  part of s few very good online communities and they all had two main things in common.

Don't be about money

And with that statement most silicon valley people stopped reading this post. I know none of them are reading this anyway. The best communities I have been a part of were mostly run by volunteers, with server etc, paid for by donations or with a small amount of add revenue. Nobody was trying to get rich. Removing the profit motive removes any external pressures and can make things all about the community.

Keep it small and uniform?

The successful groups I have been a part of have all been fairly small and uniform. At the maximum, one of them might have been a thousand people. We also tended to discuss only one topic with general agreement. For example, the sports board might have argued over a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense but we were mostly Chicago Bears fans.

Obviously being uniform goes against my desire for a diverse discussion. But there might be something to keep the number of participants small. What I have noticed is once a communities discussions start going stupid the rate at which it devolves accelerates. Intelligent people tend to get frustrated and move on when the place is dominated by idiots.

I have one final important idea for fostering a good community. Though this may seem to go against my desire for openness.

Some cost and barriers to participation:

One of the big problems with reddit is the lack of cost to participate or interact.  You don't even need an email address to make an account. You can upvote and downvote to your hearts content and make all the silly comment you want. The comment karma system should work as a brake on bad content but it fails.  I had two main accounts during my time on reddit. One of them had over five thousand positive comment karma while the other had over three thousand negative karma. One of these was my troll  account and the other was my account were I tried to have serious discussions. Guess which was which. Yep the troll account had plus five thousand comment karma. The upvote/downvote mechanic on reddit is almost universally used to show disagreement with an opinion not as  a reflection of the quality of the content.

 A lot of online forums use certain barriers to try and improve the level of discourse. Some require you to have a certain number of comments on the site before you can submit content. Other employ a reddit like karma system but make you earn an amount of positive karma before you open up more access. I've seen this in heavily moderated site. The mods have to approve early submissions but once you have been approved enough you get automatic access.  Obviously this can be easily manipulated to only allow certain viewpoints to be expressed.  Some places require a minimum post length. This is to encourage well thought out contributions and to reduce quick troll comments.  Of course you can just post "F you!" and copy it a bunch of times.

I combine several of these efforts kernel of an idea. First off there would be no enclaves on my discussion forum.  There would be no conservative or liberal subsection. There would only be a sections to discuss with people who held different views. Each person would get a small number of mod points a day. There would be a limit to how far up or down something could be voted. Responses will need to be over a certain length and there would be a delay before someone could respond. I would also restrict the number of times a day a person could post.