Reddit Rocked by Censorship Scandal, /r/Technology Usurped by Newcomers

By Published April 23, 2014 at 3:35 am

Almost all of you will be familiar with reddit.com, the self-proclaimed "front-page of the internet" and one of the web's largest aggregate networks. We regularly work with redditors to collect interview questions (see: Star Citizen interview with Chris Roberts), answer GPU or SSD questions, and generally get in the trenches with hardware and games.

The website attracts nearly 115 million unique visitors each month, with a significant portion of the demographic expressing interest in technology and gaming; for this reason, subreddits -- effectively user-managed sub-forums for individual topics -- arise to serve as a central hub for topic-specific news. For hardware and technology enthusiasts, the go-to subreddit for such information has been /r/Technology, largely for its accessible name; in fact, it was one of the first subreddits, and as a result was anointed a "default" subreddit by admins (official employees of Reddit). Default subreddits have their most popular submissions appear on the home page of Reddit, even if the site's visitors aren't logged in and haven't manually subscribed to the section.

/r/Technology has more than 5 million subscribers and, up until just recently, was growing at a rate of roughly 6,000 users per day. Now it's losing just as many each day and has lost default status. A recent censorship scandal rocked the subreddit, where readers discovered posts pertaining to Tesla motors, ISPs, net neutrality, SOPA, and other technology-bent topics were being automatically removed upon submission. Comments that questioned these actions were removed or moderated without explanation.

The subreddit is now in disarray as an exodus sends readers looking for new sources of unfiltered information.

This, we've been told by experienced moderators, is the aftermath of a systemic communications failure between an incumbent, expired moderation team.

Managing 5 Million Users Isn't Easy - The Basics of Moderation 

Reddit exists solely because its userbase submits content for consumption by visitors. It is an aggregate network in the truest sense -- interesting and unique content gets upvoted for visibility while duplicate, spam, and undesirable content theoretically gets downvoted out of sight. Because the website has grown to such tremendous size, it must now actively battle in-content advertising, affiliate links, bribes, and exploitation promoting content outside of its rules. Thus far, the website as a whole has seen success in implementing countermeasures, though subreddits still act largely as independent entities -- meaning they set their own rules for allowed submissions.

Each subreddit is owned by its creator, who then appoints moderators to assist in the task of managing submissions. As with any community, moderators generally must be recruited as a particular subreddit grows too much for its original creator(s) to realistically sustain. Moderators are ranked by seniority (think: tenure), so new moderators can't remove old moderators; incumbent, long-time moderators are effectively invulnerable against newcomers, protecting the subreddit from mutinous tendencies or other mean-spirited acts.

Larger subreddits are more than just communities, though -- they're a significant asset to Reddit and majority owner Conde Nast Media. Like any other freely-accessed website on the web (nice to meet you), Reddit is funded by advertising and private investment. When a subreddit like /r/Technology draws 5 million subscribers, it's important to ensure those subscribers have somewhere to go in the event of a collapse. Keep this in mind for a few minutes while we work our way through the story.

Because "Reddit proper" wants to enable growth and maintenance of its assets, the admins provide a set of tools to moderators for handling undesirable submissions in an automated fashion. Automod is the most noteworthy. Moderators can provide a set of parameters and actions to a bot that will passively locate and remove, flag, or report submissions that use specified key phrases. This is useful in stopping the posting of adult content, spam, affiliate links, and illegal items (like torrents) when it is undesired in a particular subreddit.

It can be configured in any way the moderators wish, though, and can be misused as a result.

This all sounds like an awful lot of work, so what do you actually get from being a moderator? Well, in theory, a functional community that has an impact on what readers are exposed to each day -- a place for discussion of a particular topic. I often visit /r/MTB for my questions about mountain bike components, good trails, and to meet other riders; the moderators help keep things ship-shape so we can all have a bit of fun with like-minded individuals. Simple stuff, really.

Recap: The Downfall of /r/Technology is Rooted in Accountability & Censorship 

But /r/Technology is in the process of collapsing under its own weight. Whether the subreddit will survive its scandal is to be seen, but for the time being, it's on shaky ground.

The devolution of Reddit's most popular community arguably began when content pertaining to Tesla motors was automatically removed. Tesla has made some of the most defining technological advancements in the automotive industry in recent years, so the fit with /r/Technology only seems natural. The moderators, however, decided otherwise - and disallowed all Tesla content, then banned users who questioned the choice.

Internally, discussion between the subreddit's moderators kicked off questions of the filtration list; attempts to vote on changes were called, but incumbent moderators /u/qgyh2, /u/maxwellhill, and /u/anutensil blocked any changes to the rules and, confusingly, blocked the recruitment of new moderators to handle the growing community. Digging a bit deeper, it seems that most of the incumbent mods responsible for disallowing change are connected in a sort-of "old guard" gang from other communities.

/u/qgyh2 is one of Reddit's oldest members and holds ownership of several generically-named subreddits: Technology, hardware, worldnews, and more. In recent years, the moderator has effectively been absent from all of his claimed communities, leaving appointed moderators to work out growth pains amongst themselves. Because there's no way to call a mutiny on /u/qgyh2 and evict him, the existing moderation team attempted to work one-man-down as the Technology subreddit grew in size. This road to incumbency is an artifact of Reddit's early days and, perhaps, is due for an overhaul.

As in-fighting and internal drama between volunteer staff spiraled behind the scenes, the underlying technology community continued to struggle against censorship and filters imposed by over-zealous mods. It was exposed in recent days that nearly 50 words were present on the now-scrubbed filtration list, meaning any user-submitted content containing these items would be immediately deleted. That list included key items in the technology world: Comcast, Time Warner, Snowden, Assange, EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation -- often fights ISPs), Net Neutrality, SOPA, CISPA, and odd ones, like FBI and CIA.

If I felt like getting my tin foil hat out, I'd say the ban on mention of ISPs, the EFF, and bills like SOPA and CISPA is questionable at best.

Shortly after this list was made public by /u/creq, Reddit official 'cupcake1713' removed /r/Technology from the default cluster of subreddits. In her statement, cupcake noted that "petty squabbles" and poor communication are what led to the decision by Reddit's administration staff.

This change has left Reddit longing for some sort of technology-centric subreddit on the front page of the site.

What Now? And Subreddit to Watch 

For those of you looking for the same, the up-and-comers right now are /r/futurology, /r/tech, /r/asktechnology, and /r/hardware.

Reddit's admins recently provided the moderators of /r/tech with a free week of advertising on the dysfunctional /r/technology subreddit, showing the company's desire to keep tech news on the front page. As a result, /r/tech was announced the fastest-growing non-default subreddit for the day, producing a chart that looks like this:

reddit-tech

As for what happens to 'q,' other moderators, and /r/technology, well, I think it's simple: The subreddit will decay slowly as users unsubscribe and new users fail to find it, the mod team will be left to rule over a vacating community, and admins will remain uninvolved with /r/technology. The admins may get involved elsewhere -- like /r/tech's ads -- but this should be expected from the business side of operating an ad-driven website.

Go check out the four up-and-comers listed if you'd like to keep up-to-date on hardware and technology news. Of course, we've got some cool stuff, too.

- Steve "Lelldorianx" Burke.

 

Steve Burke

Steve started GamersNexus back when it was just a cool name, and now it's grown into an expansive website with an overwhelming amount of features. He recalls his first difficult decision with GN's direction: "I didn't know whether or not I wanted 'Gamers' to have a possessive apostrophe -- I mean, grammatically it should, but I didn't like it in the name. It was ugly. I also had people who were typing apostrophes into the address bar - sigh. It made sense to just leave it as 'Gamers.'"

First world problems, Steve. First world problems.

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