Reddit controversy is a lesson in working with volunteers

redditReddit is a very high-profile online community that has been in the news a lot lately. It’s in the style of an old-fashioned online bulletin board – a very popular, simple, low-graphics platform on the early days of the Internet that I miss very much. On Reddit, members can submit content, such as text posts or direct links, and can vote submissions up or down – voting determines the position of posts on the site’s pages. Content entries are organized by areas of interest called subreddits.

The community membership has created a strong, outspoken, high-intelligent culture that can be, at times, aggressive regarding its belief in free speech, and there are very few rules about the types of content that may be posted. This has led to the creation of several subreddits that have been perceived as offensive, including forums dedicated to jailbait (since banned) and pictures of dead bodies. On the other hand, the Reddit community’s philanthropic efforts are some of my favorites to highlight in my workshops.

Reddit employee Victoria Taylor helped organize citizen-led interviews on Reddit with famous people on the very popular “Ask me Anything” (AMA) subreddit, including interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch (sigh), USA President Obama, Bill Nye, Madonna, and Eric Idle –  and these sessions often ended up landing on the news for some especially funny or outlandish answer given. She was very popular with the volunteer online moderators. But recently, Taylor was fired. Reddit moderators have said they were “blindsided” by Taylor’s firing and that she was “an essential lifeline” for them and Reddit employees. Many Reddit users have demanded answers from Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao regarding why Taylor was dismissed. In protest of her dismissal, moderators on several of the site’s largest subreddits locked users out. Pao is now scrambling to calm hostilities, and says it’s all just a result of miscommunication.

This mutiny by the online moderators is actually an all-too-common problem for organizations that involve large numbers of very dedicated volunteers, online or onsite. Reddit forgot that its volunteers aren’t just free labor; they feel personally invested in this organization, they feel ownership, and while those characteristics make them excellent moderators, it also means that, if they feel taken advantage of or that they aren’t being listened to, they will rebel, very publicly.

Reddit leadership needs to immediately read America Online volunteers : Lessons from an early co-production community, by Hector Postigo, in the International Journal of Cultural Studies 2009. This article analyzes the case of America Online (AOL) volunteers, specifically when company changes resulted in the rise of a labor consciousness among many volunteers, which in turn made the “free distributed workforce” impossible to sustain – and invited intervention by the US Department of Labor. They also need to each buy a copy of The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and READ IT. And maybe hire Susan Ellis and I to help them fix this mess…

Update, July 7: the Wall Street Journal has also blogged about this issue from a volunteer management perspective. I’ve added a comment on it.

4 thoughts on “Reddit controversy is a lesson in working with volunteers

  1. Meghan

    As a volunteer coordinator and Reddit mod, somewhere in the middle of this debacle I really wondered what you would think of Reddit’s volunteer management (or lack thereof). Please contact admins and let them know that there are resources to help them work with online volunteers!

    Reply
  2. jcravens Post author

    “Please contact admins and let them know that there are resources to help them work with online volunteers!” How would I do that, Meghan? I’ve no idea.

    Thanks so much for commenting! Would love to hear all about your Reddit mod duties over coffee sometime… (if you’re my Fo Gro Meghan)

    Reply
    1. Meghan

      If you have a reddit account, you can send a message either to /r/reddit (that would go to all admins) or to /u/krispykrackers (that’s the admin who seems to have been assigned the role of mod-admin go between in Victoria’s absence). Communication is a serious issue, so I have no idea if they will actually get the message, literally or figuratively, but they seem to be trying to do better lately since this most recent blow up so maybe they would be receptive.

      I doubt anyone on staff has any training in volunteer management or knowledge of best practices/resources despite how dependent the site is on volunteers.

      Reply
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