Reddit’s Technical Debt

Reddit is having some serious problems. Freedom of speech vs hate groups vs plain old jerks vs making some money. The (former as of last week) CEO, Ellen Pao, had a tough challenge ahead of her when she joined, and I respect her for trying to do difficult things.

The final straw for many redditors (aka: Reddit users/volunteer moderators) was when a Reddit employee was let go. This particular Reddit employee was well-liked, and many redditors felt it was the breaking point. They shut down some of the most popular parts of the site and ended up grabbing a lot of press.

It’s worth pointing out that that there was already an unhealthy relationship between the executives in charge of Reddit (the corporate structure) and the volunteer moderators who ran the site for love, not money.

To be fair, before this strained relationship, Reddit originally provided a good place for a community to form. Facebook is the face of “social media” today, but there are an enormous number of different online communities, and there always have been.

Communications technology has always been about the idea of making content available to others and providing mechanisms for people to discuss that content. Before Facebook and Friendster, there were forums, and before that there were BBSs.

There are a few things needed for a good electronic community. Let’s use Facebook as an example.

One component is the core team — Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and the thousands of people at Facebook. Another component is the visitors to the community — you, me, and the +1 billion people that show up every month. Finally, there is the platform itself. There is an enormous amount of infrastructure that combines to make the thing we call “Facebook” work.

This infrastructure part (both hardware and software) isn’t always discussed. I think part of it has to do with the fact that it is hugely complicated. The plumbing required to manage the data for a billion people each month is quite literally beyond the scope of any one person’s ability to understand it.

(I think there’s a good argument that the infrastructure of Facebook is as complex as a human body, DNA and psychology included. If you think that’s exaggerated, I suggest you consider that a lot of the added difficulty we have with bodies comes from us having to reverse engineer the blueprints, where with Facebook, the blueprints are all there, recently created by people, using language that many of us understand.)

Again, this stuff isn’t frequently discussed. 9 out of 10 conversations about Facebook aren’t about their code or their servers, but they’re an essential part of that conversation.

Reddit has a big infrastructure too, but much like Facebook, nearly all conversations about Reddit aren’t about their code or their servers. Reddit was started back in 2005, and if we make some reasonable assumptions about coding practices, we can assume that there is a serious chunk of technical debt after a decade of work.

Part of Reddit’s infrastructure that (presumably) contains technical debt are community moderation tools. These features are what make it easier for a small number of moderators to manage a large number of visitors. One example is an auto-moderator bot that moderators can train to enforce community policies.

During the recent dust up at Reddit, Ellen Pao posted about the relationship with moderators, which I’ve screenshotted below.

Ellen Pao on Reddit's Technical Debt

There were several other comments in other threads about problems with the auto-moderator, where it was enforcing rules at undesirable moments, giving the illusion that the core executive team and moderators were abusing their power to control content on the site. Even though it may have been automatic systems inadvertently changing content with no human intervention — the humans were blamed.

Given Ellen’s comments about a monolithic infrastructure, it is reasonable to assume that there was so much technical debt that they were unable to fix some of these infrastructure problems in a timeframe that would keep the community happy.

Would Reddit be a Garden of Eden if it weren’t for technical debt? Probably not. There were genuine hate groups on the site posting offensive material. There were some awful examples of behavior — people who would drop in on mental health communities and encourage people to kill themselves. There were people who would find high-profile media celebrities and share personal information. The world has jerks, and some parts of Reddit were a home for these jerks.

Still, it’s worth wondering — what if there were better tools for finding hateful material and hiding it? What if there were better tools for banning abusive users from the community? What if the system had been easy enough to change to keep up with the way people were using it?

As they say, the medium is the message. What happens when the medium is a flawed system?