How to Save Reddit (Yes, From Itself)

Now that my startup has a pulse, my PR people say it’s not a good idea to write posts like this one. Wherein, I give unsolicited advice to another startup, often times with more revenue, that is in crisis… or at least, many feel is in crisis. My PR fellows feel that it isn’t in my compelling business interest. And, like many great leaders, I have listened to their opinions… and decided not to follow them.

Reddit is in trouble. Their CEO was ousted in a community-wide crisis. Since then, action on the crisis has stagnated (at least publicly), but the crisis remains.

I’m going to propose restructuring Reddit. Frankly, I do not see Reddit surviving, in the face of new competitors, if it continues on its current course.

A Case In Point

For one day, I decided to return to Reddit. My first post in over a year, is a perfect example of what is wrong with Reddit today.

I did a Google search, for a topic that I wanted to post on. I found the subreddit (community), /r/animenews – No other Reddit communities even appeared on Google, because whoever set up this subreddit had the exact key words I was looking for.

So, I made the following post:

Ironically, I took this screenshot right after posting it – not realizing it would spark me to write this article. So ignore the vote count…

It was an instant hit with the community, trending to the top of /r/animenews in both popularity and controversy. In other words, a strong majority ranked my post at the top of the subreddit, but many were also downvoting it too.

It stayed there all day, until one person deleted it. That single individual person had the power, as a founder of the subreddit… and in one click of a button, trumped the opinions and votes of hundreds, if not thousands of people.

But Chris, You Can Always Make Your Own Subreddit

(And Why That’s Simply Not True)

I’m posting the reply before I state the problem. The problem is that the founders of several hundred very early subreddits… control what is discussed, and what is not discussed on Reddit. They aren’t representative of Reddit, or of the viewership.

They simply had the luck to be the first people to set up Reddits that match SEO-friendly names.

The reply to that argument is what I posted in the header – that this is not a problem, because you can always create your own subreddit on the same topic. You then have the control to appoint your own moderators, and run the (subreddit) community as you see fit. That if someone acts as a bad subreddit administrator, that others will migrate to the new/rival subreddit, and that will then become the more popular one.

SERPs Kill The Deal

Unfortunately, this logic is flawed. Search engines favor longer-standing, more keyword-affiliated results, and typically only give a Top-Level Domain (TLD, such as one ranking position in their result page.

In other words, you can have a better subreddit, with more activity… and the older/possibly-corrupt subreddit leadership still wins out via SEO. They get more traffic via the search engines, and trump your newer subreddit – to the point it stands little chance of appearing on top level SEO searches.

(And yes, I said corrupt… hang tight, more on that concerning part in a bit).

Hence, if you create a new subreddit, it is unlikely to get traffic from the rest of the Internet – and the original subreddit, with perfectly matching SEO keywords, will continue to control discussion on a particular topic… along with the unaccountable individuals that made it.

As a result, a few hundred people – that are neither controlled by Reddit’s shareholders, nor represent the democratic wishes of the community, have an iron grip on Reddit.

Yes, moderators can be removed. Yes, Reddit does give community controls here. The problem with this system is twofold – it favors keeping subreddit creators in strong control, to the point they remain de-facto administrators (at least, as long as they maintain active presence on the subreddit – most top-ranking subreddits this strongly the case). Two, there is no transparency. Reddit employees have the interest of the shareholders – they get paid by Reddit. The community is a democracy, which has the power to regulate itself (though at times, imperfectly). The subreddit creators and moderators sit in the middle, with the worst ethical and moral hazards of both worlds.

Explosive Examples

There have been two, recent, crisis-level examples of this power. First, was when /r/Science subreddit moderators banned so-called “climate change deniers” – implementing an infirm, and frankly, unclear set of rules that are arbitrary in nature to decide what articles are considered valid discussion of climate change, and which topics are banned.

The next is when CEO Ellen Pao proposed reforms to this problem, and dismissed (fired) a popular community manager. Many of these subreddit administrators reacted by using their (unique) power, and took down their subreddits completely from public view. They used their founder control over some of the oldest, single-world (and thus, most popular) subreddits, to stage a strike.

This created the impact of shutting down, instantaneously, most of the traffic on Reddit.

The former situation caused media uproar – arguably to Reddit’s benefit. The latter situation also caused uproar (sans the upshot to Reddit), and had the added effect of terminating Reddit’s CEO – in exchange, these few unpaid, unaccountable moderators won their head to mount on the wall… and removed the strike, opening back up most of Reddit traffic to the public.

The standoff remains to this day. Reddit has not acted to take control of these subreddits. The subreddit administrators still have no accountability. Reddit is hemorrhaging readers to communities like StackExchange, which guarantee accountability.

A Real Antitrust Risk

This problem is actually worse than many people realize. Let’s say you were in charge of community opinion management for the Keybrick XY pipeline. You know that Reddit is one of the top 20 communities on the Internet. It would not be hard to find the moderators of relevant subreddits, and bribe them into censoring and shaping certain community conversations. Everything from deleting posts as “redundant”, to kicking off users opposing the pipeline… at an insidiously throttled rate. All the while, encouraging them to impose “pro green” policies, like banning “plastic bag deniers” to appear as if you were acting in the opposite interest.

Now, I need to make clear, in no way am I accusing any one individual of actually doing this. I merely proposed a hypothetical, rooted in a recent real-world Reddit controversy (there is no Keybrick XY pipeline, by the way). But, if the hair started to stand on your head… you realize the problem. As Reddit, like Wikipedia, now practically guarantees, the first keyword-matching subreddit with even a modicum of traction – front page SEO/SERP status for relevant Internet search topics – it is now a golden goose for abusive, and yes, antitrust situations to develop.

I can go down many branching paths from here… none of which are really good for Reddit. Use your imagination.

Reddit only gained this problem, through its success. Before it had titanic weight in Search Engine Ranking Positions (SERPs) this was not a moral hazard, so it wasn’t a concern. But now, today, I would argue it’s impossible to avoid the hazard without restructuring Reddit.

Wikipedia resolves this problem by handing ultimate moderation control to the community – with a hierarchy of controls and powers that ultimately leave no one person with final control… but rather, the consensus of the community, to decide in all cases. StackExchange pays its administrators to be loyal to its shareholders, and delegate moderation based on reviewing their actions (and, overriding them when it makes sense to do so). Reddit lacks the power to do either.

So let’s talk ways for Reddit’s owners to get that power back… without killing Reddit in the process.

Option A – Democracy Above All

Option A is pretty simple. All subreddits would switch to democracy taking control. This is of course controversial, but all fixes for Reddit’s moral hazards will have controversy.

I propose that Reddit resolve this by allowing subreddits to be managed by voting. Voting for deletes and voting for community structure. Vote all the things.

Boundaries can be algorithmic, based on the activity of the unique subreddit. This would encourage more activity on fewer subreddits, as the need to fork subreddits based on moderator disagreement would decrease. In fact, it would ensure more genuinely distinct subreddits are created – as if there is true long-term disagreement, it will make more sense for the two groups to run their own separate subreddits.

Option B – Central Management

Option B is more costly and complicated, but may be better for Reddit. Reddit works on an 80/20 principle. Most of Reddit traffic viewership-wise, occurs on an extreme minority of subreddits. I propose that Reddit (in this option), enact a full hostile takeover of subreddits that are powerful enough for Reddit’s strength to be compromised. Moderator nomination and placement would be autocratic, but nominated by the community.

This “guided hand” approach is the one that resulted in the Ellen Pao Strike. But, if not aborted, and implemented properly, would be successful in my view.

Reddit needs to research its own community. It needs community managers based on topic – people that know the topics and people that can manage them well. That means hiring some of the subreddit founders, and paying them to better manage the community. By putting them on Reddit’s payroll, they then become part of the system – rather than a weak link in the chain that is easy to compromise, and abuse.

This of course is costly. It’s not done at all today. Managing moderators often have little contact with Reddit management. If you aren’t going to implement a pure democracy, then central management and direct oversight is the only thing that can ensure the reputation.

Option C – Do Nothing

This approach I fear could kill Reddit. By only providing outreach, and not restructuring to reflect Reddit’s position in the community, Reddit risks becoming the next DMOZ – A site that held epic authority, but failed to react to its largess… and ultimately, may have become a feared honeypot of the search engines. How many episodes of a popular subreddit moderator being outed as being on the take of a major interest – would it take for a search engine like Google to blacklist completely? One? Two? More? Perhaps more. Perhaps not. Does Reddit want to take the risk? Reddit today has no reply to that crisis except for “well, you can always make your own subreddit.”

Under the rules of the search engines, fraud is quite valid for blacklisting a TLD. If the situation were intense enough (Lois Lerner-grade), they may have no choice. The loss of revenue from even a temporary, go-reform-restructure-and-come-back situation, could be a crushing blow for Reddit in its current financial state. We don’t know everything about Reddit’s budget, but the fact that CEOs are being terminated over (vocally being unable to achieve) key targets, means it isn’t very good.

Option C has one more hazard, and that is that the Internet community will continue to move away from Reddit. That will resolve the antitrust risk, but at the cost of Reddit no longer being relevant (see DMOZ). Ellen Pao strongly indicated in her parting letter that this was a growing concern with Reddit management.


I’ve laid out a lot of stuff that has been discussed in the halls of Reddit, on Reddit itself, and on countless other blogs. None of it on its own, is new. But I hope by laying the crisis bare on the table – that more action will be taken. I see little from Reddit today that indicates that there is any resolution about to be implemented… and I hope that apathy does not get upvoted here.

In sum, I don’t want to say what is right for Reddit, except one thing: Act. Act soon. Act boldly. And be decisive with the restructure. Own it and let it work for at least six months. Then reassess.

Because at some point, the paychecks stop if the viewership keeps sliding.

A copy of this editorial has been sent to Steve Huffman, co-founder and returning CEO. I hope his secretary actually reads it. I’ll know he or she did if I’m invited for coffee.