I’ve been a part of online communities for around 3 decades. Before I got onto the Internet, I was on BBSes (kind of mini, proto internets where typically 2 computers would talk to one another at a time). Discussion forums have been around since these olden times, from messages forums on BBSes, to Usenet, to Slashdot and Kuro5hin, to Reddit and 4chan, and they continue to be plagued by the same problems.
The drama on BBSes would be very familiar to modern Redditors. Emboldened by anonymity, many users are rude to one another – often provoking one another back and forth until the behavior becomes totally ridiculous. The old maxim was “don’t feed the trolls”, but with doxxing and cancel culture sometimes disputes boil over into real world harm. Online disputes have escalated to assault, rape and murder.
Anonymity is certainly a part of the issue, but another issue is general confusion about the nature of the online space. Redditors like to talk about free speech, without the slightest awareness that they’re on private servers owned by a company – free speech is protection from the GOVERNMENT and has nothing to do with the community rules on a private website. Mostly the people who like to talk about free speech seem to expect that they can say whatever they want and people have to listen to them and like it. The bizarre contradiction is often the same people will shut down or lash out at people who disagree with them.
If we rule out discussion forums as “public spaces”, the next metaphor that suggests itself is that they’re private “living rooms” – privately owned spaces that strangers and friends might visit. Many bloggers will use this idea and the idea that users are their guest who can be expelled if they don’t behave. /r/funny has just under 44 million users at the time of writing, which is hard to imagine as a living room. Additionally, moderators like to treat subreddits as if they own it, but it’s more like Redditors are meeting in rooms that the owner rarely visits. The living room idea works for smaller communities but breaks down with larger sizes.
As communities get larger, approaching the size of /r/funny, necessarily the participation rate of any individual decreases and the rules governing the behaviour increase. This can leads to confusion and frustration when a new user joins a community, thinking it’s like a cocktail party but it turns out to be a football game instead. Slashdot went through extreme growth of its userbase, but kept a fairly steady number of news items posted each day. This mathematically implies that any random user is less likely to be successful having their post accepted or their comment rise to prominence. The same is true in many subreddits.
This is an element of the modern frustration of discussion forums. Users feel like they’re participants, but they’re actually more like audience members. When they attempt to participate and have moderators remove their posts, this gulf between expectation and reality can upset them.
While posting is constrained, often comments are completely unregulated and users are given enormous latitude before comments are deleted. Often comments at the level of death threats are taken down, while ordinary rudeness is ignored by anyone who isn’t its target. With the enormous number of users, a single mentally ill user with anger issues can spend hours ruining the day of individual people by taking offence at some perceived slight and lashing out at them. It’s a bold new world for anti-social behavior. What might have gotten you fired or shunned offline can continue endlessly online.
Moderator behavior makes sense. Often they’re proud of being moderators of a large community but are overwhelmed by the (often unpaid and thankless) work. Quickly removing things, even if they haven’t examined it too closely, makes perfect sense. False negatives annoy one person, false positives may annoy millions.
Users want to view moderators as small business owners or politicians, but they’re more like harried bureaucrats.
This also explains the jeers users get when they announce that they’re leaving a community for specific grievances. The users matter in the aggregate, but are irrelevant individually. Even a member who has contributed worthwhile content to the community in the past isn’t worth the drama involved when they get into a dispute with a moderator or another member: the next would-be contributor in line is likely to be almost as interesting and might be far less trouble. It would be disturbing to many people if they were explicitly told that they’re welcome in an online community if they just provide another set of eyes, but their participation isn’t wanted.
There’s a growing trend of moderators of subreddits and Facebook groups selling access to their community. This then makes peace a valuable commodities and makes it even easier to justify removing someone disruptive.
I think the first part of the solution to this is to understand what’s happening – for large subreddits, a living room is entirely the wrong metaphor. The second part is that rather than growth at all cost, there’s value to smaller communities where you have repeated interactions with the same person instead of bigger always being better. A third tweak, rather than a sweeping change, would be better tools for managing a community. Reddit offers nothing by up and down votes for individual members and it’s a common refrain that Redditors don’t even use them properly – they were intended to indicate on or off topic, but instead are used to indicate agreement or disagreement.