The big Reddit mistake from an organizational and management perspective

When Ellen Pao came in to Reddit I didn’t have a lot of hope for her in the position, but I thought maybe the hail Mary could work. I mean, Ford had a hundred years of dysfunction and toxicity, but Alan Mulally was still able to turn that ship and allow the employees to create something new and healthier, and Ford’s in great shape now. So maybe it could happen for Reddit, too. But then it turned out that Reddit didn’t know how to do anything but eat its young, and now Pao’s gone and it’s evident that the site itself is rotting from the inside out and if I were one of the investors I’d be calling my tax accountant now about taking a write-off.

Whoever gets to write this case study for business schools to use is getting a peach of a story. This is basically the worst-case scenario in a lot of ways, and that starts with the mistaken idea people had that Reddit was in any way a disruptor.

There was nothing new about Reddit. We wrote slam books in junior high back when it was still called junior high and not middle school. My high school friends used to run dial-up bulletin boards from modems in their bedrooms in 1989. I was all over Urban Baby when my first child was a baby and I felt alone and isolated and unhappy and needed the adrenaline hit of arguing with strangers on the internet about arcane details of baby care and NYC playground politics.

Reddit was just Urban Baby for 23-year-old white men. Instead of organic pacifiers, BPPs, and what-your-i-banker-husband-is-really-doing-when-he’s-working-late, it was details about FPSes, sports, and why-don’t-girls-want-to-fuck-me. And because people were anonymous, they said some horrible things (along with a lot of really, really funny things).

It gave you a place to say things you knew you were an asshole for saying.

But being an asshole and getting away with it only works when something’s underground. As soon as it starts to become legit, and starts getting money and infrastructure and non-developer paid staff, a decision has to be made. If you make the decision you have to create and enforce community standards, and if you don’t (or aren’t willing to) make the decision you’re legitimizing violence.

So. Reddit made a decision, which we now know about because of the comments Yishan Wong made after Pao was ousted, to go toward legitimacy. But they were going to do it in a stealth way from behind the scenes, deciding on and enforcing standards and basically using quantitative game theory to decide what to allow as a sacrifice in order to be able to save the good stuff. Interesting, right? And, like, an actual strategy. So far so good.

The problem is that they made another decision that may not have seemed as important, but that actually created the current problem that’s killed them: They let their unpaid, volunteer mods stay unpaid, volunteer mods. 

Anyone who’s ever worked with volunteers know that they’re the gift that eats. You can get so much done with them, they save your resources for other things, and they can get so good at doing their jobs that they need little supervision, but they can also get so embedded that if they decide to go off mission–or decide to enforce what they perceive the mission to be–your entire organization can implode. And they’re very hard to control, because you can’t ever discipline them, because they’re doing you a favor. And you either can’t or have decided not to pay people to do that work. So you’re stuck.

(The management at Reddit knew that awhile ago–at least Wong did–but the general public didn’t really figure that out until Victoria Taylor was fired and all the mods shut down the AMAs and everyone was clutching their pearls about it.)

From a management perspective, volunteer mods are bad, bad news. When they’re embedded in your product so deeply (and in some subreddits they basically ARE the product), this is the management equivalent of the big Cascadia tectonic plate earthquake we all wish we didn’t know was coming. 

This management problem is why I’m writing about Reddit, btw. I’m not on Reddit. (I have a couple of friends who are Redditors, and they’re normal, educated, intelligent, kind people  who aren’t particularly traumatized by what’s going on.) I did my time on Urban Baby and Baby Center and I ran a FB group for Ask Moxie that self-destructed (I left right around the time Wong left Reddit), and I don’t have any desire to go into the bowels of another venue for arguing with strangers.

But I am passionate about helping managers figure out what’s going on with their people and how they can help everyone do really great things. And I think that could have happened (inasmuch as arguing with strangers on the internet ever does really great things) with Reddit. Except for the volunteers.

The mods didn’t seem to know that there was any kind of strategy to allow certain things but not others. They were attracted to the site because it was basically a place where it was cool to be a neckbeard. And because they assumed the founders of the site were neckbeards, too, who wanted them to have a place that was safe to say the kinds of things that showed they weren’t fit to interact with people except on the internet.

ETA: One of my aforementioned Redditor friends pointed out to me after reading this piece that many of the mods–and all of the mods of the happy subreddits–are normal people, not angry neckbeard MRAs, and I’m lumping them in with those bros here. I don’t mean to, and I want to mention that there are a lot of great people on Reddit, including mods. There’s still a huge problem with those good mods being unpaid, though–they work so hard that it can’t help but become very personal for them and they take so much pride in their contributions (modding is REALLY hard) that it’s never going to be easy to make decisions that are product or user or business decisions without big hurt feelings. It’s utterly reasonable, which is exactly why volunteer labor is incredibly tricky and dangerous.

And those volunteers and commenters were embedded in the site, the way the paid staff weren’t. The paid staff could leave or be cut loose–Wong, Pao, Victoria Taylor are all gone. But those mods were still there, suspending the AMAs and flexing their power every day. So now the “community” really is in charge, and they’re upholding values that aren’t what the founders–or most adults–have any interest in. This is like that LL Cool J movie in which they’re studying the sharks in that underwater lab, and then the sharks take over and trap them. The mods and Redditors are the sharks.

So, what is there to do? Well, back when I was on an amazing team a few years ago we used to joke around that if the product failed we’d just go home, sleep for the weekend, and then come back and create a new product. I don’t think that’s the worst idea in the world: Shut off the Reddit servers and sell the URL to a porn site, then all the paid Reddit employees take a week off and then come back the next Monday to start up the next thing. But if they’re going to do that they have to figure out how to manage their company and manage their employees to maintain boundaries and not confuse the users and product, and not let the control get away from them.

Hint: Hire more parents. We’re practiced in this healthy boundary stuff.

And that’s my takeaway. Not the not-shocking not-news that a bunch of undateable whiteboys on the internet are threatened by a woman who can read, and not the demise of another bulletin board site that was misunderstood by the huge corporation that bought it before it was ready to be bought, and not the fact that moving all the employees on-site is antithetical to good management practice for the way humans work now. None of that. Instead, the takeaway is that boundaries and understanding where the risk and control rests are always the most important things for any company, and your front line on that is allowing your managers to actually manage well and with authority. Even if it means paying people.

One thought on “The big Reddit mistake from an organizational and management perspective”

  1. Very interesting perspective, and I take your point about volunteer labor being such a danger to good management. But here’s a question for you: why did Wikipedia thrive on what amounted to an entire volunteer workforce while Reddit failed? Wikipedia wouldn’t have even been possible without volunteers, and practically speaking, neither would Reddit. For me, the interesting question is this: In this age of crowd-sourcing, how do you manage free community-based labor?

    I suppose Saint-Exupery would have something to say here: "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

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