The moderator problem: How Reddit and related news sites decline

Online communities often grow from a small, enthusiastic, intelligent niche group that is relatively self-policing to a larger, amorphous group that becomes stupider at a rate that’s an exponent of the number of users (the linked book is excellent on this topic). Initial moderators are usually enthusiasts and small groups are more like communities than cities. Later moderators, though, are usually adversely selected: What kind of person would voluntarily spend lots of time and energy policing a community for no money? Consequently, online community decline is often exacerbated by the moderator or moderators who eventually take over or seek power.

The psychology of someone who is willing to moderate a Reddit subsection—or any similar site, like many mailing lists—is not good. This sort of person is willing to spend a time at a thankless task that is hard to do well and rarely if ever remunerative.

Those who start at that task do so optimistically but often quit as their lives change or the task becomes more onerous. Who gets left? People with axes to grind; people with no sense of perspective; petty tyrants; and so on. I don’t use Reddit much for many reasons, but low moderator quality is one. I rarely bother messaging them because doing so is largely a waste of time.

The problem with moderators is not dissimilar from the problem of users: People who regularly have something interesting to say and the means to say it well get blogs, as I wrote in “Social news sites and forums should encourage users to blog.” Those who don’t stay on Reddit. The average Reddit contributor has little stake in long-term reputation—unlike bloggers, journalists, and academics who use real names—and that shows in the quality and quantity of posts. That may not hurt the site—the popularity of bad TV shows over many years demonstrates lowest-common denominator issues—but it should hurt in terms of high-quality users.

A form of Gresham’s Law applies to social sites and to moderators: bad commentary pushes out the good, and smart people flee stupid comments. One could alternately call this a tragedy of the commons, in which communal spaces become overrun with spam or commentary so stupid that it might as well be spam.

Reddit and similar sites can have an orthogonal problem, however, as they become so afraid of self-interested commentary or posts that they forbid it—thus causing smart people to go elsewhere with their thoughts, and leaving the dregs unwilling or able to create standalone communities or blogs.

This may be part of the reason why Reddit—even on the “good” subsections—tend to be better for beginners: anyone who gets past the beginning stages needs more expert advice than Redditors can provide. The same is happening to Hacker News, too, or it has already happened, though not as severely: Hacker News has an advantage in that its survival and the intelligent commentary on it is tied to a business that is in turn tied to ideas. Its moderators have a stronger incentive to get it right, since they’re not driven primarily by ego or overwhelming fear of “spam.”

That being said, anyone who has seen an unmoderated forum is aware of the fact that unmoderated forums are unusable. So getting rid of moderators is not a solution. In general the mechanisms of exit, voice, and loyalty, as described by Hirshman at the link, apply on the level of online communities. But constantly shifting for newer communities where smart people congregate is at best difficult and at worst a waste of time in and of itself. Reddit has to some extent worked on this problem through the sub-Reddit system, which is a better-than-nothing solution but not a great one.

Maybe there is no good solution to this from the perspective of smart users other than withdrawal. Better blogs written by smart individuals or groups are better than virtually any online, Reddit-like community I’ve found. Which is too bad. But I doubt most people in latter-day moderator positions are even willing or able to read this post, and, if they are, I don’t think they’ll understand it, and, if they do, I don’t think they’ll accept any of it.

13 responses

  1. I don’t see the aversion to rewarding moderators. Why is there such an expectation in social networking culture of “something for nothing?”

    Quality goes down for the reasons you stated, but if you switch the model to put your money where your mouth is, quality would increase and good moderators would have more reason to stay. One of the features built into is the ability to reward moderators (and all users too) for spam identification and removal, number and quality of posts and comments, etc. Of course, quantity will go down with such a model – after all, $0.01 > $0.00. The social networks want quantity over quality because of advertising. They show more ads and more ads get clicked. That’s the business model that encourages quantity over quality.

    Give users, including moderators, the ability to gain financial rewards for their engagement. The quality will improve and, as a bonus, the reliance on advertising will go down (and, along with it, privacy issues).


    • There’s a simple problem there.

      Offering “some” compensation is pointless, at least as it pertains to this topic. You need to offer an amount such that you don’t simply reward the current batch of misfits, but actually attract desirables who otherwise would not be willing to work on your site. However, the desirables -the sort of people capable of behaving responsibly and in an emotionally detached fashion- are generally not going to be the same sorts who are going to suddenly come running for what, even at the high end, is going to likely amount to pennies per post or action.


      • Ultimately, it’s up to a community owner to decide the standards for judging a moderator for his community. One of the key challenges is not getting rid of the “misfits” (to use your term) but, instead, motivating the good ones to perform the role and stay as Jake indicates. Getting rid of unworthy moderators is easy. Finding and keeping good moderators is hard.

        So you have to offer real incentives. It doesn’t have to be pennies (I used that example as that’s how much one karma equals on, but it has to be more than a “feel-good” trophy on your profile page. The community owner should determine how much to offer based on the value the moderators provide. And if you look at something like, you can see that if karma was really worth something, those pennies would add up very quickly. Together, I’d bet the top contributors alone could earn well over $1 million… all from lots and lots of pennies for doing all the same things they already do.

        As an aside, the other benefit of tying money to karma/engagement/actions is that it will immediately reduce a huge amount of spam. After all, one of the reasons spam is so prevalent on reddit is because there isn’t any cost to do it. And then you have to play all sorts of games with shadow-bans and manipulating real vote counts. That breeds negativity.


      • I think the author alludes to one option – I agree that the complete contempt for self-promotion on reddit is foolish. If mods were simply allowed to promote their own (blogs, etsy stores, affiliate links, etc) it could be enough incentive to put in the work, especially on larger forums like reddit.


  2. I have always felt a “voted off the island” approach to all communities. Be it a game, or forum.
    If the community doesn’t like you, why stay, If you the community feels someone is toxic, why keep them. I always wished video games forums for EQ, WOW and other high population games where anything gets trolled heavily would have some method like that that… You get tagged with 10 counts of trolling, you are forbidden to post again, after a trial period, you can petition for reinstatement, if you do it a 11th time, perm ban from the channel.

    Going back to IRC days, mods had no problem perm banning jackhats from their chat rooms. We are at a point where generation of posts exceeds ability to read the posts. Relying on the readers to police their community is the best approach. Either by marking for escalation to mod, or outright having the ability to flag a message, when message reaches x flags, its disabled and set to a mod for review or some other automated task, if the user in question reaches a set amount of flags, they are disabled and some method to allow them back is presented or mod is needed to reinstated, then do it again, auto ban etc.


  3. I know from some interactions and from speaking with others, that what happened at the reddit serial forum is a bit more nefarious than just lazy or poor moderators.

    There was an intentional effort on that site, by the moderator known as wtfsherlock, to secretly silence many of the voices which didn’t agree with the Adnan is guilty narrative. Besides the attacks on Susan Simpson and Rabia, he also banned many posters who were critical of his opinion without explanation, and it is likely that he has some connections to some of the parties involved, perhaps either Jay or Urick. I think he also coordinated some of this effort with some of the other more strongly biased posters, such as Seamus Duncan.

    So I think the overall theme of this article is correct, and in this case, parties involved could be willingly manipulating the system.


  4. Great opinion piece that, sadly, also applies all to well with large academic conferences (I’m looking at you, CHI), which have grown so large that finding high-quality moderation for the tracks is nigh impossible. It’s a mess.


  5. This post made me realize that I haven’t been on Reddit since last year. I don’t miss it at all either. The flow of (mostly junk) content is way too fast. This blog (among a few), and lots of books, are my safe haven.

    I find it to be obvious now that slow, careful reading and deliberation is much more satisfying than, say, the frazzled, stimulating experience of reading through Reddit, scrolling through Facebook or walking down the street with music blasting through your earphones.

    The sheer amount of people on Reddit also ruined it for me. Taleb gets at this in Antifragile: when you’re dealing with other people on a large scale, they turn into abstract items. As you increase the amount of people in an entity, its properties are transformed.


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