Does Reddit’s Self-Policing Go Too Far?

The social news website explains why top publications and editors sometimes get banned

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Have you heard of Reddit? It describes itself as “a source for what’s new and popular on the Web [online].” Like earlier sites like Slashdot and Digg, it’s a way to share the best or most important or just plain interesting ideas of the day.

Wikipedia describes Reddit as “a social news website where the registered users submit content…. Other users then vote the submission up or down, which is used to rank the post and determine its position on the site’s pages.”

The site has some main pages and then many other pages, sometimes called “subreddits” or just “reddits,” devoted to specific topics. There are a bunch of little features intended to help raise the profile of the best stories. For example, regular users build karma points if voting shows that the stories they link to are worthy. And there are some other nice touches. For example, you can’t upvote a story if you haven’t clicked on it.

Reddit was in the news, and not in a good way, back in June, when it allegedly banned some high-profile and highly respected magazines and news sources.

A Reddit moderator posted that, quote, “Sometime in the last 24 hours, reddit admins enabled a new feature where links from domains on a secret list cannot be posted, even by moderators, even in their own reddits. Among the initial list are BusinessWeek.com, Phys.org, ScienceDaily.com, TheAtlantic.com.”

The problem may go back further. Over the past couple of years, individual journalists have been banned, apparently for posting too many links to their own stories or those of their friends. It’s happened to editors here at Spectrum, and it’s apparently even happened when the journalists are devoted Reddit users with tens of thousands of karma points.

The rules and reasons behind these bannings have not always been completely transparent, and so we asked Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager, to come on the show and talk about them—an invitation he graciously accepted. He joins us by phone.

Erik, welcome to the podcast.

Erik Martin: Hey, thanks. Glad to have a chance to talk.

Steven Cherry: Maybe you could start by describing Reddit in a little more detail and how it differs from the earlier social news websites like Slashdot and Digg.

Erik Martin: Sure, so I mean Reddit is a little hard to describe. It can be different things to different people, but we sort of think of it as a community of communities. So it’s a collection of different communities ranging from everything to kind of tech and news and programming, to sports, to kind of local topics. So there’s, of those subreddits or subcategories, users can create those. So unlike a lot of the other sort of social news sites, users can create a new category about a certain topic, they can use a rhetorical format, they can just be doing a certain topic differently than the way it’s been done before, a different moderation stance. So we have, gosh, probably about 30 000 different subreddits, and of those, maybe 3000 or 4000 are really active, so there’s a whole range of different subcommunities on Reddit.

Steven Cherry: Very good. So what happened with Businessweek and The Atlantic and the others? Is there a banned publications list?

Erik Martin: Yeah, so I mean, almost all of those that you mentioned are now cleared and freely able to have content submitted like any other domain. Yeah, we, I mean, I disagree a little bit with the statement that we were in the news in not a good way. I think it was a very good way, because I think it does send a signal that even extremely high quality content, we’re still treating them with the same rules as we treat anybody else.

So the reason behind those bans has to do with some different tactics that individuals or groups that some of these publishers were using in an attempt to kind of cheat the voting system and gain page views. And they’re all different, but some of these were pretty hardcore tactics. It’s not someone getting a little overzealous. These were pretty sophisticated sort of tactics to try to game our system, so we felt like we had to make a pretty strong action against it, and I think we did, and we worked with those publishers involved, and we’re glad they’re kind of all back in good standing.

Steven Cherry: So is it algorithmic based, or is it the admins just looking at activity, or is it some combination of those?

Erik Martin: It’s both. Yeah, it’s everything from sort of technical countermeasures to almost like detective work trying to figure out who’s connected to what. And also our users do a really good job of kind of trying to keep the site free of undue manipulation, so a lot of the things were brought to our attention by users who noticed certain patterns or got contacted by some of the sites and encouraged or asked to be a part of some of these tactics. Sometimes for money, sometimes not. So we had a variety of sources of evidence.

Steven Cherry: And what about individual journalists? I mentioned it happened here at Spectrum, one editor got his account banned or disabled, and he had to start over with a new account, and it’s happened to other tech journalists that I know. One editor at a tech website lost 50 000 karma points when she had to start over with a new account.

Erik Martin: Yeah, so I don’t know the particular cases in specific, but there’s with users—not with domains, but with users—there are some sort of automatic bans that have to do with a very high volume of submitting content, or reports from other users, or reports from moderators. And then there’s also ones that the staff at Reddit does as well. But, you know, with users it’s just, submitting your own stories is okay, but if that’s all you’re doing on Reddit, then that’s not really what Reddit’s for. So oftentimes those accounts do get banned.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I think that’s what happened in the Spectrum case. In the other case, I happen to know the editor, and she had this kind of, like, self-imposed rule that she would post three outside links for every one to her own site, but I guess also if you’re still also not commenting and participating in some other ways, then you can run afoul of this?

Erik Martin: Yeah, and you know it depends a lot on the particular case, it depends what subreddits you’re submitting it in. It depends how the volume—are you cross-posting it to a bunch of different reddits at once? So it definitely can be subjective in terms of what the rules are. So we realize that, appreciate it, and can certainly do a better job of helping to educate, especially publishers and journalists, of kind of what the rules are, and answering questions and things like that.

Steven Cherry: So in the case of a publication or a domain, I guess you’re able to work with them. Are you able to work with individual editors? Or is it just “start a new account and do better”?

Erik Martin: Yeah, I mean we try. Admittedly we don’t respond to every user that has had their account banned and is asking for the reasoning, or clarification, or a second chance, or sort of appealing. We try to get to as many of those as we can, but plenty fall through the cracks. But in general we are always willing to give people second chances that weren’t aware of what the rules were and the way the site worked.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I can see where it’s a tough balancing act. You want people to be active, but you don’t want a bunch of shameless self-promotion. Let me ask you, just to sort of switch topics a minute: It seems like sites like Reddit have some other challenges. Slashdot had its heyday. Digg was the hottest thing for a while but just recently got sold for a relative pittance. Now at one end you have large social networks like Facebook and Twitter that seem to be the key way a lot of people get their news, even tech news. And at the other end there’s more specialized sites like Hacker News and places like that. It seems like a tough space to be in—to be in the middle like that—and I’m just wondering what your thoughts are in general, and also if you have any thoughts about Digg specifically?

Erik Martin: Sure, so, yeah, it is tough in some regards to be in the middle, but it’s also nice in the sense that on Reddit, it’s still small enough that you can have an impact, or you can be a brand-new user, come to Reddit, and have a post go to the front page, or come to Reddit and tell your story and be on Good Morning America the next day. You don’t need a bunch of followers or build up a huge count. You don’t need to be a celebrity or well known in your field even. You can be a totally random new user and still have something rise to the top.

And now with Reddit being the size that it is and kind of being in the middle, it’s big enough where that can have a huge impact. So it’s small enough where you can very quickly still become an active member of the community or have your story get seen, but it’s big enough that it still has a pretty big reach. But I think the reason that, hopefully, if we’re able to continue and thrive, is because of the subreddit system. So because users can come in and create a new subreddit, it allows Reddit to fork right? If one area of content, one category, one subreddit is getting kind of stale, users can come in and say, “Hey, we want to go in a different direction, try new things, or have a little bit smaller community,” and it allows for a lot of trial and error and experimentation by the community, and it kind of allows Reddit to evolve over the months and years.

The other thing is that if you create a subreddit, you’re basically in complete control of that. So you can change the policies, you can change the CSS, so that you can change the look and the feel of it, so you can kind of control what you want that subreddit to be. So that’s allowed for all kinds of different subreddits that the founders of Reddit never would have imagined that people would be using this platform for, and it’s continuing to evolve. So as long as it keeps evolving and adding new facets, then I feel pretty optimistic about our ability to not only stick around but keep thriving.

Steven Cherry: So I hadn’t really appreciated that. That’s very interesting. So besides this kind of survival of the fittest of individual stories, the individual subreddits have that quality too.

Erik Martin: Absolutely, yeah.

Steven Cherry: So do you think that’s sort of what went wrong at Digg? That it just wasn’t flexible enough?

Erik Martin: Perhaps? I mean, I do think that for whatever reason, they sort of got away of the idea that now the users and the community are in control of what’s news, what’s important, it seems. And I do think some of the trying to integrate with Twitter and Facebook and these things, I don’t know. It sort of felt like it was getting muddy about what the purpose was. But I don’t know. It’s kind of sad that they’re gone now, so…

Steven Cherry: It is. Now Reddit was bought by Condé Nast back in 2006, and now you’re directly owned by Advance Publications, which is Condé Nast’s parent company. They own magazines like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Brides Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily. They have Wired too, but still, an aggregation website seems like a stretch for them. Is it a comfortable fit?

Erik Martin: So, yeah, well, just to clarify: Reddit is an independent corporation, an independent company, and Advance is the majority shareholder, so we are our own company, not a subsidiary. So it is a stretch in one sense, but on the other hand, Condé Nast has proven over decades that they’re very good at developing brands and letting the brands sort of figure out their own destiny. So I think they recognized Reddit almost as a brand and a unique thing rather than any of the particular details about where it fit in in the online ecosystem.

Steven Cherry: And are there any synergies between these two properties? And I should note that they own Ars Technica as well.

Erik Martin: Yeah, Ars Technica as well. Not really. I mean, we certainly talk to different brands that are inside Condé Nast and still do, even though now we’re not technically part of it. But we also talk to plenty of other brands and publishers outside of Condé Nast as well.

Steven Cherry: Do you foresee any big changes, or do you think it’s just going to evolve?

Erik Martin: Yeah, I think it’s going to evolve, and I think there are some really interesting things that, again, our users and our community are doing with Reddit’s API, and bringing other APIs inside of Reddit. So, for example, we always internally kind of assume that Reddit’s not really a place to discuss live events. Twitter and other things are much better than that, and Reddit’s a place to come and talk about it afterwards, or talk about it before. But it’s not really for talking about a sporting event while it’s going on.

During the Euro 2012 soccer tournament, some of the subreddit moderators figured out a way to pull in data live from FIFA, from, you know, the match officials for the soccer tournament. Combine that with user data and present it in a visual format and layout that was sort of optimized for live events, so now all of a sudden for things like the Olympics coming up or other major sports, there’s now this kind of new way to use a subreddit or a thread to really be a good experience for live events, which is something we never thought we would see. So I think there’s going to be a lot of big changes in the sense of people using Reddit for a new purpose.

Steven Cherry: Wow, that’s pretty interesting. So we’ll see maybe some Reddit-based live blogging of the Apple 5 announcement or something like that.

Erik Martin: Yeah, yeah, or live TV, news. There was a great thread post recently on Reddit, where someone was kind of using a Reddit post to aggregate all kinds of Twitter reactions and backstory to a shooting that took place up in Canada. So sort of crowdsourcing the fact finding and backstory to an event that took place using Twitter as a source of raw information.

[Note: Shortly after this interview was recorded, Reddit was a useful news source in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora, Colo., massacre. See, for example, “Reddit becomes real-time news source for Aurora shooting.”]

Steven Cherry: Very nice. Well, I look forward to that. And good luck walking that tightrope between enforcement and user freedom, and good luck in general with the site.

Erik Martin: Thank you. Thank you, I appreciate it.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Erik Martin, general manager at the social news site Reddit, about how the site aggressively polices itself to guard against spam and self-promotion.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 19 July 2012.
Segment producer: Barbara Finkelstein; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Read more “Techwise Conversations” or follow us on Twitter.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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