Reddit is in utter chaos as hundreds of its most popular communities have gone dark

Baltimore riotsREUTERS/Shannon StapletonHow Reddit feels right now.

Reddit is in the midst of one of the most turbulent upheavals since its inception, with hundreds of the site’s biggest communities going private in response to the sudden departure of one of the company’s most popular employees.

Victoria Taylor, a staff member responsible for the extremely popular “Ask Me Anything” Q&A community r/IAmA often frequented by celebrities, was allegedly dismissed. Simultaneously, r/IAmA was set as private, preventing ordinary Reddit users from viewing or commenting on discussions, and Taylor indicated her termination came as a surprise — saying she was “dazed” by the news.

This seemingly innocuous personnel change has sparked an immediate — and extremely forceful — response from the community, with at least 265 of the site’s most popular communities closing their doors in solidarity.

Reddit has an unconventional community management structure

To understand what’s going on, you need to understand how Reddit polices its communities. The site acts as a social network, news aggregate, and niche interest messageboard, all rolled into one. Absolutely anyone can start a community, or subreddit, on almost any subject, which is given a unique URL. r/AskScience is dedicated to questions about science, for example, and r/GameOfThrones is a discussion board about the popular HBO fantasy show.

These subreddits are then managed by community moderators, with almost zero input from Reddit’s paid admin staff, provided that they don’t violate a few global rules or post illegal content. As such, while Reddit admins have no formal business relationship with the moderators, they are nonetheless totally reliant on them to maintain the site’s communities, some of which have many millions of members. It gives moderators — who are not accountable to users, cannot be voted out, and can alter or delete their communities at any time — a huge amount of power.

“We all had the rug ripped out from under us and feel betrayed”

One staff member who was more hands on was Victoria, as she is universally known by Reddit users. Reddit’s director of communications, she helped manage the AMAs (Ask Me Anythings) that Reddit has become famous for — Q&A sessions between the community and particularly famous or interesting people. She would verify AMA subjects were who they say they were, as well as help them make sense of Reddit and transcribe answers when required.

Reddit iama privateRedditHere’s what visitors to r/IAmA currently see.

Yesterday, however, r/IAmA, the subreddit for AMAs, went private. In a thread, reacting to the news, prominent moderator Karmanaut explained why: “We learned that Victoria was unexpectedly let go from her position with Reddt. We all had the rug ripped out from under us and feel betrayed.” The moderators were “left high and dry” by the sudden departure, forcing them to take the subreddit private “to figure out the situation.”

Karmanaut went on: “The admins didn’t realise how much we rely on Victoria. Part of it is proof, of course: we know it’s legitimate when she’s sitting right there next to the person and can make them provide proof. We’ve had situations where agents or others have tried to do an AMA as their client, and Victoria shut that shit down immediately. We can’t do that anymore.” (Full statement below.)

The community is furious

In the immediate aftermath, around a dozen of the site’s most popular communities went private in solidarity, including r/history, r/gaming, and r/movies. Since then, that number has ballooned — at least 265 big communities have gone private in response to Victoria’s departure, according to a community-maintained list. These include r/Art, with more than 3 million subscribers, r/AskReddit, with almost 9 million, r/Books, with 5 million, and r/LifeProTips, with 4 million.

It’s important to note that this list only includes subreddits with more than 5,000 subscribers — meaning the total number of communities going dark is going to be far, far higher.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has also attracted the ire of Reddit users. After writing in a thread that “it’s a shame that the mods that turned the [r/IAmA] community private, but so it goes,” he was asked “what did you think they were going to do?” Ohanian responded simply “Popcorn tastes good” — a reference to a meme about how it’s fun to sit back, watch drama unfold, and eat popcorn — prompting his comment to be downvoted almost 1,500 times.

In a post explaining why r/AskScience did not go private, moderator MockDeath said that the team “has chosen to keep the subreddit open for our readers” — but still wanted to state “our disapproval of how events have been handled currently as well as the past.”

“This is an issue that has been chronically inadequate for moderators of large subreddits reaching out to the admins over the years. Reddit is a great site with an even more amazing community, however it is frustrating to volunteer time to run a large subreddit and have questions go unacknowledged by the people running the site.”

So what actually happened?

There’s a number of competing theories as to why Taylor was forced to leave Reddit so suddenly. Gawker lays out one possibility — that she was let go after a fairly disastrous AMA with Jesse Jackson, in which the minister and civil rights activist gave rambling and irrelevant responses to questions. Another is that it is to do with Reddit’s decision a few months back to force employees to relocate to San Francisco (Taylor lives in New York) — although that doesn’t explain why she would be “dazed” by the news.

A likelier explanation comes from a now-deleted post from Marc Bodnick, who leads Q&A site Quora’s business and community teams. Bodnick wrote that “someone close to Reddit” told him that management was “pushing Victoria to do a bunch of highly commercial things around AMAs, but Victoria wasn’t comfortable with these ideas because she didn’t feel they were good for the Reddit community,” and that “given Victoria’s resistance to management ideas, they decided to abruptly let her go.”

He adds: “This had nothing to do with the bad Jesse Jackson AMA.”

Here’s the full post, via screengrab:

Tensions are already running high

This revolt didn’t come out of nowhere: Tensions have been running high between the community and the staff for weeks now. In June, Reddit took the unusual step of banning r/FatPeopleHate, a community dedicated to hating fat people, and four other controversial subreddits. This caused a firestorm of debate, with Ellen Pao — Reddit’s interim CEO — becoming a focal point of users’ fury.

This may seem like an overreaction until you remember just how hands-off Reddit’s admin staff have traditionally been. When r/Jailbait, a community for sharing photos of girls who look (or are) under the age of consent, was banned in 2011, many in the community were outraged. Similarly, when intimate photos of dozens of female celebrities were leaked last year, a subreddit dedicated to sharing links to the images stayed live for an entire week and accrued a quarter of a billion page views before finally being shuttered. Then-CEO Yishan Wong wrote that the site “does not ban subreddits for being morally bad.”

The banning of r/FatPeopleHate, then, was seen as an unprecedented direct meddling by the staff, and a violation of its aggressively free speech position.

Here’s how r/all, an automatic aggregator of the current top posts on Reddit, looked at the time:

The ban of r/FatPeopleHate provoked many Reddit users to decamp to Voat, a Reddit clone with no anti-harassment restrictions, Breitbart reported at the time. Voat since had its servers closed down due to the content hosted on them, but Taylor’s departure is sure to further inflame calls for a full-scale Reddit exodus.

Here’s Kamanaut’s full post explaining Victoria’s departure:

Today, we learned that Victoria was unexpectedly let go from her position with Reddt. We all had the rug ripped out from under us and feel betrayed.

Before doing that, the admins really should have at least talked to us (and all the other subs that host AMAs, like/r/Books, /r/Science, /r/Music, etc.) (Edit: not to suggest that we expect to know about Reddit’s inner workings. Just that there should have been a transition in place or something worked out to ensure that Victoria’s duties would be adequately handled, which they are not) We had a number of AMAs scheduled for today that Victoria was supposed to help with, and they are all left absolutely high and dry (hence taking IAMA private to figure out the situation) She was still willing to help them today (before the sub was shut down, of course) even without being paid or required to do so. Just a sign of how much she is committed to what she does.

The admins didn’t realise how much we rely on Victoria. Part of it is proof, of course: we know it’s legitimate when she’s sitting right there next to the person and can make them provide proof. We’ve had situations where agents or others have tried to do an AMA as their client, and Victoria shut that shit down immediately. We can’t do that anymore.

Part of it is also that Victoria is an essential lifeline of communication. When something goes wrong in an AMA, we can call and get it fixed immediately. Otherwise, we have to resort to desperately try messaging the person via Reddit (and they may not know to check their messages or even to look for these notifications). Sometimes we have to resort to shit like this (now with a screenshot because I can’t link to that anymore for you) where we have to nuke an entire submission just so that the person is aware of the problem.

Part of it is also organisation. The vast majority of scheduling requests go through her and she ensures that we have all of the standard information that we need ahead of time (date, time, proof, description, etc.) and makes it easier for the teams that set up AMAs on both ends. She ensures that things will go well and that the person understands what /r/IAMA is and what is expected of them. Without her filling this role, we will be utterly overwhelmed. We might need to scrap the calendar altogether, or somehow limit AMAs from those that would need help with the process.

We have been really blindsided by all of this. As a result, we will need to go through our processes and see what can be done without her.

Tl;dr: for /r/IAMA to work the way it currently does, we need Victoria. Without her, we need to figure out a different way for it to work.

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