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Ever since Kevin Rose stood on television talking about his new site Digg.com, 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 Digg.com. 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, Reddit.com, 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; Reddit.com, 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
--------     -------------
reddit.com   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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Conclusion:

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 Reddit.com for logged out users.

OR

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.