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Reddit is at war with itself: Is it a community or a business?

July 6, 2015, 5:04 PM UTC

For those unfamiliar with Reddit, the recent controversy that shut down dozens of popular forums on the site probably seemed like much ado about nothing: A well-liked staffer who handled Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” interviews was let go, for reasons that were largely unclear. In other words, the kind of thing that happens at websites everywhere without it turning into a four-alarm fire. But in Reddit’s case, the firing of Victoria Taylor has laid bare a tension that lurks at the heart of the online community.

If you read through even a few of the thousands of posts and Twitter comments and related outcry about Taylor’s departure, and the subsequent shut-down of popular threads or “sub-Reddits” like r/movies and r/music, it becomes obvious that for many of the site’s users, the issue is about more than just the firing of one employee.

The incident appears to have triggered a lot of anger and resentment about the direction Reddit has taken over the past year, and in particular the movement towards making it more of a self-sustaining business rather than just an online community. Much of that criticism has been focused on CEO Ellen Pao, but some has even spilled over onto one of the site’s co-founders, Alexis Ohanian, who returned to the company as chairman last year, after the departure of former CEO Yishan Wong.

As Harvard’s David Weinberger pointed out in a recent post, Reddit has always been a semi-autonomous community, one that operates with only a very loose set of rules about behavior. Instead of being paid staff, the moderators of the site’s various sub-Reddits are self-appointed, and they have (or used to have) a lot of freedom when it came to running their sub-communities.

More recently, however, that freedom has run headlong into Reddit’s desire to be a business — a desire that took on even more urgency after the company raised a $50-million financing round from VCs such as Andreessen Horowitz, who were no doubt attracted by the site’s 170 million or so unique visitors a month. In one recent sign that the old laissez-faire approach to offensive behavior is a thing of the past, the site banned several offensive sub-Reddits.

For some users, the departure of Taylor seemed to sum up a lot of these changes: Poor communication from the site’s management, a move that seemed to indicate a lack of respect for the work that moderators and other users do, and suggestions that her firing might have been triggered by her refusal to do certain things that would make the Ask Me Anything feature more commercial.

Reddit CEO Pao has said that she regrets the way the departure was handled and that the site is working on improving the moderator system, and Ohanian has also talked about trying to encourage better communication with the site’s users around such decisions (Pao has also posted an apology to Reddit). The sub-Reddits that were taken offline have been restored to full access, but some of the site’s members appear to be unconvinced that all of these moves are going to be for the better.

If Reddit continues to make changes to the community that irritate its die-hard users, could an alternative arise that would take its place? That might seem like a long shot, but the possibility was raised by Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson, in a recent post: Wilson said it’s possible a totally decentralized community could be constructed using the Bitcoin “block-chain” (he also notes that Twitter could have taken a decentralized approach but chose not to).

Such a site would be almost impossible to manage in the traditional sense. It would be more akin to the way that “peer-to-peer” networks like BitTorrent function, by allowing users to connect with each other without requiring any kind of centralized authority. Such a site might not ever become a business, Wilson says, but it could become a very powerful form of online community.

Not everyone is convinced that this would work, however. A number of critics within the programmer community Hacker News argue that it wouldn’t be feasible for a variety of reasons. But in an interesting twist, a developer who was hired by Reddit to work on the idea of a “crypto-currency” — a form of Bitcoin that users could receive in exchange for contributing content, or as a way of distributing some of the shares that were issued in the site’s fundraising round — said in a post on Medium that he was working on a plan to de-centralize Reddit in just this way before he was let go.

“The way a decentralized reddit works is like this. Each user has an app, the reddit app, which connects to the reddit p2p network. For most users, the app is a normal web app. Each user funds their own app with a small amount of bitcoin. In order to download content, the user pays a very, very small amount of bitcoin to the peers on the network. This incentivizes people to keep the app open so as to keep servicing the other users.”

There have been a number of attempts to construct Reddit-style communities that reward users with Bitcoin or other virtual currencies, including services like Voat. But it’s unclear whether using that kind of structure would distort the way that such communities function, or result in too much gaming of the system. Reddit and other sites such as Slashdot have a system where users can be rewarded with “karma” points, but they have been largely ceremonial rather than involving actual usable currency.

Whether it involves Bitcoin or not, it seems entirely possible that if Reddit continues to go down the road towards becoming a business-oriented company, hard-core members of the community could start looking for alternatives — or possibly even get together to build one of their own. What that does to Reddit’s ongoing value as a business remains to be seen.