Reddit’s Decline in Democracy

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Ever since Kevin Rose stood on television talking about his new site, social news aggregation sites have been about trying to be as democratic as possible in allowing users to determine what content would be in their sites and be promoted to their popular sections.

Sites like Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon calculate their users votes to determine the popularity and visibility of content that is submitted into their sites.

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Historical Democratic Issues in Social News:

Digg came under criticism first when they tried to remove a HD-DVD decryption code that was submitted by a digger and became popular with well over 10,000 diggs. Users revolted submitting hundreds of articles revolving around the HD-DVD code and voting them to the popular section on the front page of Due to the large amount of submissions and activity during this revolt, Digg was taken offline.

When the site finally came back on line, it did so with a personal apology and post from Kevin Rose on the Digg blog.

Another issue that exists on Digg in regards to democracy is the “burying of articles.” This action will ensure that an article will never reach the homepage of the popular site. Many people felt that there were Digg moderators who could remove submissions and also an autobury list that would automatically bury any submissions from a specific domain or user.

These concerns and frustrations with Digg’s lack of transparency is what led many users to move to other sites like Mixx and Reddit, who had a clear and transparent up and down vote system.

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Reddit – A Solution to the Democratic Ails of Social Sites?

Reddit, a site very similar to Digg, practiced a more hands off approach, holding to the concept that if people like the content then it will make the front page and if they don’t, they will vote it down and out of sight.

Without a real friends system or promotion algorithm, the users seemed to finally have the control over whether content was popular or not, with Reddit only removing or blocking content that clearly broke their TOS, or Reddiquette.

Unfortunately, that transparency and democracy didn’t last at Reddit, who has gone from being one of the most democratic sites, where users determined the quality of content shown on the front page, to a site that is heavily moderated, using a handful of people and algorithm layers to censor and remove content that in many cases has never even broken the Reddit TOS.

Even Reddit’s top user Qgyh2 admits to the LA Times that much of the so called ‘junk’ is not taken care of automatically.

“I switched over to supporting Reddit from Digg thinking that Reddit was purely democratic news. After awhile on the site I’m starting to see how it’s not that democratic. Subreddit owners pull stories whenever they feel like and people are getting banned left and right with no explanation. I’d sure hate to see Reddit go the way of Digg.” — Jordan Kasteler

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Trouble on the Horizon:

The real downfall began with the introduction of Subreddits, which were user created communities.

The program launched in a closed Beta, in which a handful of top users where given the first access to create their own subreddits. Reddit, obviously never thinking the program through, didn’t bother to reserve the basic universal categories such as WorldNews, Video, Funny, Technology, WTF, and others, which the Beta users quickly grabbed up as their own.

Unlike the Reddit controlled community, users who made their own communities became the admin and could control who was able to vote, submit content, or even view the submissions in their section. The Reddit site TOS did not apply for the subreddits, and each admin ran their section how they saw fit, banning users and removing content at will.

It was hardly an issue at the time, since the subreddits where just for users to create and enjoy, but the problem with subreddits was that no one wanted to use them. They were not included in the main community or on the front page of the site, so there was little point in submitting content to them. Users didn’t want to come to Reddit, just to make their own side community, especially when it did not interact with the main one, so they just ignored them for the most part.

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The Downfall of Democracy on Reddit:

It was not until Reddit launched their redesign that the subreddits became more popular. The front page of reddit was transformed to be more of a dashboard for all the communities you had joined and if you are not logged in, it will show the top 10 most popular at the time.

Here is where the democracy on Reddit began to die. Remember that most subreddits are user created and not run by Reddit staff. The creator of the subreddit acts as the admin and they appoint the moderators they want and run the community not by the Reddit TOS, but as they see fit.

This got worse when Reddit automatically subscribed all registered users to the top 10 most popular subreddits, which were categories that most users would want to subscribe to anyhow. These were also many of the subreddits that the beta testers grabbed when they had early access to form the communities.

In addition to the initial userbase being subscribed to the top 10, all new users were also automatically subscribed to whichever 10 subreddits were the most popular at signup.

At the time of this new system being released, the top groups were; Politics,, Pics, Programming, Funny, Science, WorldNews, Technology, Business, and Entertainment. (WTF was the 11th at the time)

Of those 10 subreddits, Reddit staff are admins for half of them;, Politics, Programming, Science, and Entertainment. The other half were created (and moderated) by users, and don’t have to adhere to the Reddit TOS.

EDIT: Jedberg, a Reddit employee, was kind enough to post the link to the blog post announcing the Subreddit program and the dates of the actual subreddit creation:

We launched user reddits on January 22, 2008. Here are the creation times of the top 10 reddits.

reddit       creation date
--------     -------------   2006-01-17 15:45:05.966754-07:00
pics         2008-01-24 17:31:09.512629-07:00
politics     2007-08-05 22:16:39.810572-07:00
WTF          2008-01-25 06:44:19.121690-07:00
funny        2008-01-24 23:35:56.264281-07:00
programming  2006-02-28 11:19:29.538097-07:00
science      2006-10-18 06:54:26.858715-07:00
AskReddit    2008-01-24 20:52:15.108408-07:00
worldnews    2008-01-24 20:18:39.836187-07:00
atheism      2008-01-24 23:15:11.441710-07:00

Note the statement in the first part of the post, “Before we let anyone make their own, we’re going to spend a week or so in a closed beta. We will invite a handful of users to play around with the new feature so we can see how things work before we open it up to everyone.”

You can see from the dates of the popular subreddits above, they were all created during this week in which the program was in a closed beta.

So as a new user on Reddit, you are forced into subscribing to the top 10 subreddits and then provided the option to subscribe to numerous more subreddits, without knowing that they are not controlled in some way by Reddit staff or that they do not have follow any TOS to remain democratic and fair. Most users do not even realize that the subreddits are not typical categories like most social sites provide.

So what if a user does have a problem in a subreddit they have joined? What if you are banned an no longer allowed to submit articles or your submissions randomly get deleted? Well your are pretty much on your own.

Not only do subreddit admins not have to follow the any sort of TOS, Reddit staff refuse to interact or override an Admin in any subreddit. When I myself had issues and messaged one of the co-founders, I was informed that they would not get involved in any issues with subreddits and that I had to handle it with the admin myself, who refused to communicate with me.

As an admin in many top communities, I receive messages all the time asking me why content was removed from other subreddits or why some users submissions where not showing up in Reddit, only to have to reply and say they subreddit admins don’t actually work at Reddit so we don’t know why.

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The standard response from Reddit staff is “that if you are not happy in a specific subreddit, then you should go and start your own”, even though you were automatically subscribed to these subreddits as a new user.

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In the end, the current Reddit is but a shadow of the popular social community it was 6 months ago.

Now popular content is automatically removed, regardless of the quality, by robot scripts and  subreddit admin and moderators, who only have a subreddit that is included on the front page because they were given special treatment in the first place.

Reddit has given the control of its site to a handful of people and scripts to moderate and run the front page as they see fit, and it is nothing even close to transparent or democratic… It is just sad.

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What Reddit Can Do to Fix This Problem:

Some aspects, like the popularity and allowing some of the most common subreddit to be taken, are harder to change. Everyone wants to be in the main subreddits because they want to be a part of a community. However, there are some aspects that could help keep Reddit from continuing to decline.

1. Better define the way Reddit works for new users and allow them to pick from the subreddits they want to subscribe to without automatically subscribing them to the top 10. This way the communities truly have to prove they are popular on their own and not just popular by default.

2. Force subreddit admins to accept some level of oversight for their subreddit to be included into the popularity ranking system and on the front page of for logged out users.


3. Force subreddit admins to agree to follow the Reddiquette when moderating, unless the subreddit is made private.

4. Take back Reddit staff control on the base level categories. None of the current subreddits are popular through any admin influence as it is, so let the current admins either continue to moderate or create their own private subreddit.

5. Stop removing content based on scripts and bots determining user patterns. Allow the userbase to determine what is quality or not through their votes, and only remove content if it violates the Reddiquette.

Reddit needs to really consider what it has done to its site and its community. Without some immediate change to stop the unchecked moderation, Reddit is likely to start seeing the same mass exodus of loyal users that Digg once saw.


19 Responses to “Reddit’s Decline in Democracy”

  1. Jeff Flowers on May 13th, 2009 6:18 pm

    Good post. It's pretty ridiculous to see something completely disappear, just because the admin of the group doesn't like the source or submitter. It completely goes against the point of reddit.

  2. brentcsutoras on May 13th, 2009 6:20 pm

    I agree… It is the number one complaint I would get from people when I would talk to them about Reddit.

  3. Russ on May 13th, 2009 6:39 pm

    It's ironic to me that SEOs would complain about social media sites being democratic or not when behind closed doors, many of them are getting paid big dollars to make it anything but a natural democracy. Self-interest dictates that votes in their favor (not democracy) is what they want, and those complaints don't stem from a lack of fairness, but a lack of them getting what they want they way they used to have it.

    Reddit isn't a democracy, and the complainers know it. Reddit is a power game.

  4. NYC.Is on May 13th, 2009 6:45 pm

    Good post, but I think there is something to be said for giving control and responsibility to certain members of a voting community. That is another big part of democracy. They just have to strike a balance between top down and bottom up governance!

  5. brentcsutoras on May 13th, 2009 6:58 pm

    I don't know if I completely agree, and if you do give power to moderators, then they should be required to follow the sites TOS and not ban or remove content based on their own personal feelings. They should also be required to respond to emails and concerns of the users in their groups.

    I totally get your point but this was not a case where they added some hand selected moderators. This is where people are controlling the content seen in the top reddits unchecked and without control.

  6. fiftystudio on May 13th, 2009 7:25 pm

    I don't think social media marketing is cheating the system, but I find it ironic that Reddit users complain about the lack of democracy in a system they don't really benefit from if true democracy exists. Self interest is a powerful thing. I'm a marketer myself, this is just one of those things I've always thought needed an opposing view.

    "However, a site that promotes itself and brags of being a completely democratic site where users determine if content is seen or not, then turns around and allows a handful of people to moderate at their own discretion and then run robots to auto remove content. Well that is hypocritical at best. "

    Agree 100 percent, and I applaud your willingness to bring it to attention. It's obvious that something fishy is happening at these voting sites anytime there's an issue (especially a political one) that someone or some bot wants to get or not get attention.

  7. JD_Rucker on May 13th, 2009 8:10 pm

    It makes me laugh sometimes when people talk about "too much power" given to the "power users" at Digg.

    The only power that top users at Digg have is their skill at networking (i.e. making friends, being active, Digging often), their ability to recognize quality content, and the art of crafting a proper headline and description.

    User-Moderators at powerful subreddits have the power of social media life or death. They can (and often do) destroy a submission with a click regardless of quality or effort.

    Don't get me wrong – I still enjoy many aspects of Reddit over Digg, but that one major flaw is the a killer.

  8. brentcsutoras on May 13th, 2009 6:53 pm

    Sure some people are paid and make money from spamming, and maybe you see social media marketing as cheating the system in some way. However, that does not mean all social media marketers look only to game and cheat at social sites for success.

    Many marketers take the time to learn about their target audience and the medium upon which they can reach the visibility they desire. Identifying what Redditors would be interested in and then making that content for them is not gaming the system.

    Reddit, contrary to belief has always been known as one of the non-gameable sites. This is based on the fact that for success on Reddit you have to reach the front page and stay there for many hours, which you cannot do if you are forcing spam or crap content in their system.

    This is also why Reddit and StumbleUpon have always welcomed all types of content, because they know their userbase has proven the ability to defeat spam and low quality content.

    However, a site that promotes itself and brags of being a completely democratic site where users determine if content is seen or not, then turns around and allows a handful of people to moderate at their own discretion and then run robots to auto remove content. Well that is hypocritical at best.

    For the record though, I have never had a problem reaching the front page of Reddit with quality content and I am still an admin in many top subreddits. This post spawns not on actions that have occurred to me but to the average user and due to the direction Reddit has decided to take.

  9. Fat Lester on May 14th, 2009 8:43 am

    Lets be real here for a moment. It's never been about the content at Reddit. People and/or robots cruise the 'new stories' section down-voting new submissions almost immediately, often times new submissions show a 0 or -1 ten-to-fifteen seconds after being submitted — far less time than it would take a person to actually read a typical submission. This appears to be the case in the main site as well as most popular subreddits.

    At Reddit, it is and always has been about the politicking for votes that occur between the site's power-users.

    In any case, Mixx is a far better social media experience, not to mention the only major site of its kind that actually IS democratic in nature. I've seen stories go front page at Mixx that weren't even submitted by users, but rather by readers who clicked the Mixx button at CNN's website. In these instances, there is solid proof that the user submitting the content had no impact on the story's popularity. High-quality submissions can make it to the front page at Mixx regardless of who submits them, how long they've been using the site, how many friends/followers the submitter has or how "good" that person is at playing the social media game.

    I know of no other social news site about which this can be said.

    Mixx has its own user-created communities that are moderated by the user that created a given community and whoever else that person appoints. However, Mixx is different in that the people that use the site are far more open-minded and tolerant of dissenting opinions than any of the others. From my experience, content is not removed from these communities unless its clearly spam, and even then there are communities that allow for just that, and they're easy to find (if that's what you're in to).

    Bottom line, others that echo your sentiment may be overdue for a visit to Mixx. There's just no other site that's on the same level as Mixx in terms of the site structure, usability, administration and especially community.

  10. Sheri Harper on May 15th, 2009 11:39 pm

    Good post, I keep running into heavily used sites where its hard to get anywhere. I expect the sites need to have some rules for eliminating content.

  11. Brett Borders on May 16th, 2009 3:17 pm

    The "democracy" at Reddit that exists is democracy of the worst kind. the site has been taken over by reactionary political types who down vote everything that doesn't confirm their fear and paranoia.

  12. Nick Garner on May 20th, 2009 9:38 pm

    Being a follower of reddit (nearly ex-follower) I totally agree with your comments Brent. It's very disappointing how the site owners have messed up the dynamic of the site. I guees they don't care, which is understandable since I assume the site generates very little revenue… And of course its owned by wired, so why would a magazine own a social bookmarking site?! looks like a bad commercial decision turning into apathy

  13. ace on July 6th, 2009 10:56 am

    I've heard too many bad things about reddit lately. And I have noticed in the past when I would submit something to reddit, that a day later, it would mysteriously disappear.

  14. Rajj on July 30th, 2009 7:23 am

    heard too many bad things about reddit lately and experiencing tooo..
    Even if my karma is above 200 my stories doesn't show up in Upcoming stories… I m really pissed from reddit.

  15. measure76 on August 8th, 2009 11:46 pm

    I recently had an experience where I was banned from a small subreddit, with a single moderator. The moderator told me specifically I was banned for "Having the wrong opinion" (I am formerly mormon and was posting opinions against mormonism in the /r/lds subreddit)

    There is no other moderator to appeal to, and reading this article, it looks like the site admins would ignore me. Bah.

  16. simple on September 13th, 2009 5:51 am

    i guess reddit should be dead now…..

  17. brentcsutoras on November 19th, 2011 5:01 pm
  18. brentcsutoras on November 19th, 2011 5:01 pm
  19. Measure76 on November 19th, 2011 6:58 pm

    Wow. What a difference 118 weeks makes. Since I got banned from /r/lds, I created /r/exmormon, and now it is far, far larger than /r/lds. heh.

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