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Reddit Mods Go Full 'Malicious Compliance'
Somehow, Reddit is now even more engulfed in flames
We’ve talked several times about the Reddit Blackout already, but the situation has accelerated even faster towards anarchy since last week. Steve Huffman gave an incendiary set of interviews where he compared Reddit’s volunteer moderators to landed gentry, said he was a fan of how Elon Musk was running Twitter, and said that the moderators protesting were not representing the wishes of their communities. He called for ‘more democracy’ and vowed the company was not backing down from scheduled API changes.
At this point, the majority of subreddits that initially blacked out have opened up. But there was a strong minority of thousands of subreddits remaining closed down, still angry about the policy changes and Huffman’s insults. Reddit traffic was down and advertisers were pausing spend. In response, Reddit began to openly threaten various mod teams with removal if they didn’t re-open.
This was not an empty threat - there’s evidence that moderators have been removed or de-permissioned in very large subreddits like /r/aww, /r/tumblr, /r/Music, /r/AdviceAnimals, /r/SanAntonio and /r/unexpected.1 Reddit moderators who wanted to continue protesting were stuck between unappealing options - fold to the admins and reopen, or remain closed and be removed from their communities. Most are choosing to re-open, but doing so in a way that continues the protest.
Have you ever had a client who insists the project should be designed in a very stupid way that will break everything? Have you ever had a manager make a ‘no exceptions of any kind’ rule that was unreasonable? Enter malicious compliance. You design the client’s project exactly and precisely as specified - if it breaks, you warned them. Your manager told you under no circumstances were you to leave your station, so you let that spill fifteen feet away contaminate thousands of dollars worth of goods because you can’t leave your station. Oh well! Malicious compliance and work-to-rule have been a common form of labor protest against unreasonable management for generations.2 You follow the letter of the law or exact instructions while still attempting to make a point.
Subscribe to Infinite Scroll, but maliciously, not because I told you to
Reddit has the ability to remove any protesting mod team instantly, but also needs mod teams to keep the site running. Mod teams have responded to the company’s threats to remove them by re-opening, but in ways that ruin the point of re-opening. They’re also reacting with gusto to Huffman’s challenge for ‘more democracy’, with dozens of subreddits holding public user votes on what they should do. Below is a shortened list of subreddits engaging in malicious compliance:3
Subreddits Only Allowing John Oliver
Subreddits Voting for Partial Re-Opening
/r/MinecraftChampionship will be only open on weekends.
Subreddits Deciding Not To Moderate
/r/TIHI (Thanks, I Hate It) turned off their anti-spam bots, stopped enforcing rules, and was quickly overrun with cartoon porn.
/r/videos - in addition to John Oliver mode - is removing their current ruleset and allowing NSFW and any other content
The Subreddits That Became Very Literal
/r/Steam was dedicated to the Steam gaming service. The users are now spamming pictures of literal steam.
Subreddits Where Users Hated The Change
The other side of this situation is that many users were angry at their subreddits closing, and the protests are not universally supported. A few examples of prominent subreddits where protests were not well-received:
Other Assorted Malicious Compliance
/r/history is only allowing posts about protests or revolts.
/r/HardwareSwap is taking their actual community to Discord and leaving the subreddit open as a community meme page.
/r/shitposting is removing all comments that contain the letter B.
/r/RPGhorrorstories is marking every submission NSFW. This seems to be a tactic specifically designed to hurt advertising, as it’s harder to sell ads next to NSFW labeled content.
It’s incredibly interesting to me the sheer number of ways Reddit’s mod teams have decided to maliciously comply with orders to re-open their subs. In a previous post I discussed how Reddit mods have an unusual degree of power over the functionality of the site, and that puts the site admins in a strange situation. Discussing admin options a week ago:
They could remove the /r/videos moderators and install other volunteer moderators - but ones who appear friendly and want to reopen the subreddit. Scabs, essentially. This would be more scalable, but would still carry risks. The scab moderator team for any subreddit like this would be intensely unpopular with users, potentially killing the subreddit in a different way. It might depress new subreddit creation if users know that their subreddits can be taken from them if they protest the site. And there’s nothing to stop a new scab moderation team from eventually turning against Reddit like the original moderators did.
It’s not possible to hire enough admins to centrally moderate the subreddits. Reddit also apparently was not willing to wait out the protests and wants the site’s subreddits open immediately. So their only real option is replacement volunteers, which is the route they’re trying. But what they (and I!) didn’t anticipate is how widespread malicious re-opening would be.
One might wonder “Why not just make a rule that subreddits can’t be about John Oliver, or must re-open in certain ways?”. That’s the thing about malicious compliance - adding more rules doesn’t necessarily help. There’s always going to be a way to follow the rules to the letter while still breaking things.
Reddit mods could re-open but restrict submissions so they must be 'approved' manually by mods before they appear. They could restrict only approved users as allowed to make new posts or comments. They can set incredibly harsh standards for source quality, or submission length. You can have exacting standards for what is allowed that almost all submissions will fail in the name of quality. They can change the purpose of the sub to be about something else. You can change their subreddit design to be off-putting, or put in bots that spam nonsense. They can close on certain days of the week. They can have stringent commenting rules that change every week. The amount of flexible control mods have over their subreddits is massive, and there’s an endless number of ways to subtly screw things up.
Who wins in the end?
I tend to think that “Which party is the good guys and which is the bad guys?” is usually the least interesting part of social media squabbles. It’s a theme on this blog. To use a recent example: I’m not interested in whether Matty Healy is The Worst Person. I’m interested in why the internet reacted so hysterically when he started dating Taylor Swift but not when he was dating Halsey or FKA Twigs, and how his combative response fits into larger trends.
Likewise, “Is the CEO a villain or are the moderators entitled jerks?” is the least interesting debate to have about what’s happening at Reddit. Instead, focus on the underlying systems and what they can tell us. Here’s what I can see:
Reddit isn’t going to be able to quickly or easily plan away these conflicts with moderators. This will drag out for a while. There are too many creative ways for mod teams to undermine them. And frankly, the amount of effort it would take to continuously monitor thousands of subreddits is not something Reddit wants to be involved in. The structure of the site and how much power is placed in the hands of moderators simply does not allow for any kind of fast resolution.
Ultimately, the moderators can’t win either. Reddit can and will do anything they want with their site. Most subreddits are already back open, and more will open with time. Users will eventually get bored with protesting and want their subreddits back. Network effects are far too strong and Reddit has no real competitors of any kind. There’s just no way for the mods to actually capture any kind of long term victory. And frankly, if Reddit allows itself to be bullied by users into reversing necessary business decisions… their future as a business is just toast. They won’t back down and the mods will eventually lose.
Reddit’s handled this entire situation terribly. Every time Steve Huffman opens his mouth he inflames tensions and makes Redditors angrier. Their PR strategy here has been abysmal. The best way to handle this would have been to announce the API changes and then do and say nothing. No disastrous Steve Huffman AMA. No insulting press tour, no threats to mod teams. Radio silence. A fire only burns when it has fuel continuously fed to it, so stop giving them fuel. The online mob has an incredibly short attention span. Some new controversy will pop up in a week and everyone will move on if you let them.
Reddit’s threats to mod teams has permanently degraded the relationship between the site and its volunteers. Reddit will survive, but in a lessened state and with far less trust between the two pillars that keep the site standing. If I was running Reddit, this would be my long term worry - that I’m harming what makes Reddit a wonderful place with interesting and valuable communities. There’s a real risk that Reddit will degrade the site in a small but permanent way with their actions here. Social contracts are hard to define and hard to place a value on, but breaking them still has consequences.
For the sake of my sanity, I’m restricting examples to those with 100K+ users. There are huge numbers of small subreddits who probably also have similar things going on.
Ironically, one of the best sources for examples of malicious compliance on the internet is the subreddit /r/MaliciousCompliance. Even more ironically, they are not engaging in malicious compliance like other subreddits.
If you started surveying subreddits under 100K users, you could create a much, much longer list.