As a reddit user for the past four years and someone who follows tech companies religiously as a hobby, I thought it might be time to weigh in on the most recent dustups on Reddit and what I would describe as a case study on terrible user base relations. This is both an open letter to Reddit the Company, as well as Reddit the Users.
Reddit users are too young to remember when the internet message board world was slow, fragmented, and made it hard to discover new content. When I was first going online in 1999 in Oklahoma I was looking for two things, Neopets and Message Boards. Heck, Google was barely a thing in 1999 and Internet Explorer 6 wouldn’t even come out for another two years. For the next ten years community message boards on the internet were essentially stagnant. Niche message boards were often set up by individuals and almost impossible to monetize to pay for expensive hosting. It was not uncommon to have images be hidden from guest visitors to save on bandwidth, which saw the rise of photo hosting sites like Photobucket.
Reddit really came in and revolutionized online message boards around 2008. Reddit was free, fast, and easily had the best curated content on the internet at the time due to its elegantly simple voting system. While it did this for free for the users, Reddit the Company itself still needed to keep the lights on. To its investors this means monetization, which the users don’t seem to understand. Venture capitalist investors in Reddit loved its explosive growth in users, but at some point investment capital will dry up, which means Reddit needed to become ad supported. It was this shift to advertising support that saw the number of changes that have taken place at Reddit.
As a Reddit the Company executive, you get rid of the troll boards because advertisers don’t want to buy ads on a website that has large negative audiences. Yet part of what allowed Reddit to grow so much and so quickly was its censorship-free nature. I don’t think Reddit the Company understands how to relate to Reddit the Community very well. The banning of “Fatpeoplehate” was justified strangely as “creating a safe space” instead of “Look, we need ad revenue to keep the lights on and the site free and companies won’t buy ads if there are these extreme negative hate subreddits.” The PR nightmares that Reddit the Company has had to deal with I would only reserve for my worst enemies. Reddit the Company has had to deal with everything from user revolts, illegal activity, and a huge portion of the site that is for adult entertainment. All these make attracting big ticket advertisers to the site very difficult, which is astounding given how desperate brands are to get in front of the 18-29 year old demographic that makes up the majority of Reddit users. Reddit executives have become increasingly desperate, and it shows.
The most recent revolt hinged on the firing of an executive employee that users considered a lifeline to Reddit the Company. This is significant in that Reddit has fewer than 100 employees. Now-famous Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s apology letter furthered the revolt, as it was full of corporate buzzwords and genuinely seemed to not understand the issues the users have with Reddit the Company, or good user relations at all.
The unpreparedness of Reddit the Company to handle the revolt shows a lot about how poorly run the company is. Now this is not an excuse for the behavior of many Redditors, but Twitter and Facebook have been far more successful at handling negative user situations than Reddit the Company, and that is ultimately the issue for investors. The ultimate reason Ellen Pao stepped down (or, probably, was forced to do so) is that she was a bad executive doing a poor job at user base relations, as seen in this Google Trends chart.