Reddit's former product chief says he made the world 'a worse place' in his pursuit of growth at all costs

TEDx/YouTubeDan McComas delivering a TEDx talk in 2013.
  • Former Reddit head of product Dan McComas told New York magazine that he believes his time at the internet forum “made the world a worse place.”
  • McComas said a relentless pursuit of growth has led to user safety and wellbeing being sacrificed.
  • He also criticised Twitter and Discord, and has “no hope” that these platforms can ever be free from abuse.

Former Reddit product head Dan McComas gave New York magazine a bracingly honest account of his time at the internet forum.

McComas said growth trumped everything in Reddit board meetings, even if it was harmful for Reddit’s community, which now sits at 330 monthly active users.

“The incentive structure is simply growth at all costs,” said McComas, who worked at Reddit from 2009 to 2015, nine of months which were spent as head of product.

“There was never, in any board meeting that I have ever attended, a conversation about the users, about things that were going on that were bad, about potential dangers, about decisions that might affect potential dangers.”

He added: “I fundamentally believe that my time at Reddit made the world a worse place. And that sucks, and it sucks to have to say that about myself.”

When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Reddit told Business Insider, “Dan McComas has not been employed at Reddit in over three years. In that time, cofounder Steve Huffman returned as CEO, established a new leadership team, grew the company from 60 to over 400 employees and pursued a product and policy roadmap dedicated to helping people find community and belonging on Reddit.”

A memo from a Facebook executive expressing similar sentiments about growth drew fire this year after it was leaked to BuzzFeed. Vice President Andrew “Boz” Bosworth wrote that any growth on Facebook is “de facto good,” even if it meant people get hurt or killed.

McComas told the magazine it was Reddit’s dogged pursuit of growth which forced his departure in 2015. According to the former product chief, the attitude from executives and investors led to abusive cultures forming on the platform. As a consequence, he believes the site is beyond saving.

“I think that if you ask pretty much anybody about Reddit, they’re either not going to know what Reddit is, which is the large majority of people, or they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, it’s that place where there’s jailbait or something like that.’ I don’t think that they’re going to be able to turn these things around,” he said.

Nasty subreddits that posed problems

McComas said a few particularly nasty subreddits posed a consistent problem. In particular, he identified the “FatPeopleHate” and a group of animal cruelty subreddits, “specifically with a sexual nature,” which management refused to deal with. “FatPeopleHate” was ultimately banned in 2015 after its users were deemed to have been engaged in harassment. Reddit’s content policies were also updated to ban channels that glorify the abuse of animals.

“The arguments were usually, ‘We don’t want to touch this because these are our most volatile users and they will just make things a nightmare,” he said, adding that decisions weren’t reached unless forced by pressure from the press.

“We would deal with the immediate impact, which was painful, would last a week or two, and then it would go away. For the most part, unfortunately, I see them still following this pattern.”

Similarly, he said the same toxicity that he saw proliferate on Reddit can be seen on Twitter and Discord, a chat app designed primarily for gamers.

“By focusing on growth and growth only and ignoring the problems, they amassed a large set of cultural norms on their platforms. Their cultural norms are different for every community, but they tend to stem from harassment or abuse or bad behaviour, and they have worked themselves into a position where they’re completely defensive and they can just never catch up on the problem.”

Jack dorsey twitter ceo squareDrew Angerer/Getty ImagesTwitter CEO Jack Dorsey.

Although Twitter has made efforts to keep its platform free from abuse, McComas is sceptical. “I really don’t believe it’s possible for either of them to catch up on the problem,” he said, adding: “I don’t see any way that it’s going to improve. I have no hope for either of those platforms. “

McComas also said he talked to Discord CEO Jason Citron about the problem of white supremacy on his platform.

“He said, ‘I don’t want to invade their privacy by going into their channels and reading what they’re doing.’ And I said, ‘They’re gonna cause deaths because you’re not doing that.’ And he said, ‘You really think so?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And sure enough they didn’t do anything, and sure enough deaths were caused because of the shit going on in their channels.”

Discord was subpoenaed in August after white supremacists used its app to organise the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally, where counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed when James Alex Fields drove a car into the crowd. Fields faces charges of first-degree murder and hate crime.

After leaving Reddit McComas set up Imzy, a social media site designed to be more compassionate. Imzy shut down in 2017, and he thinks VCs weren’t ready for a different kind of social network.

“I think that the venture capitalists need to kind of reframe their thinking on how these companies look as they start up and grow. I know firsthand that at least the investors that I worked with at Imzy are not ready to undertake that path. Imzy shut down, we still had $US8 million in the bank, and we had raised $US11 million.”

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