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Understanding the Great Reddit Uprising—and Why It Ultimately Flamed Out

Revolution made headlines but burnt out in hours. Just another day in the web's most tangled corner.

The world was turned upside down, but how many noticed?

 

On Friday, a reckoning came for Reddit. The masses turned on their corporate masters, took up the flag of revolution, and rolled the guillotines into the streets to dispense the people’s justice once and for all.

Come Sunday, eh, maybe everyone could get around to some light revoluting. If they had the time.

For a few hours it really did look like the beginning of the end. Victoria Taylor, liason to the site’s team of volunteer moderators and the woman behind the incredibly popular Ask Me Anything threads, was handed her walking papers for still unknown reasons. In protest, moderators on hundreds of the most popular forums locked their virtual doors and turned off all the lights, so many that the company couldn't discipline them all any more than it could swat an entire swarm of bees. The rebel subreddits ranged from r/science to r/massivecocks. So it’s fair to say a diverse range of personalities and interests were reflected.

The embattled bourgeois, realizing the danger, sent hasty, capitulatory messages from the windows of their Ivory Tower. “We haven’t helped our moderators after many years of promising,” wrote CEO Ellen Pao. “We’re going to fix that.” And a scrappy Redditor by the name of abravelittletoaster spoke up in defiance:

“Do you guys understand that this isn't just the moderators? Users are very unhappy with the path this site is heading down. Do you actually care, or do you just see [us] as replaceable pageviews you can use to make money?”

CEO Pao’s apology was voted down to a score of -6,259, while the courageous toaster’s boosters piled on the love with 1,922 points. The battle lines were drawn; the first shots had been fired; we were singing the music of a people who would not be slaves again.

And then it was all over. The moderators themselves found CEO Pao’s message more compelling than that of the heroic toaster--or maybe they’d just never planned to take it beyond a cursory show of power in the first place. By Sunday night, almost every affected forum was back online, and the mods were doing their jobs. This left the proletarian rabble rousers down in the trenches, those worried about the (perceived) move toward a more business-friendly, mainstream Reddit, with plenty of rabbling and rousing to do but no real way to make it stick.

Attempts to recruit moderators for another blackout planned for July 10 are being met with a chorus of “Thanks, I gave at the office.” In response, individual users are now being encouraged to “burn the bridge” and delete their accounts entirely on that day, themselves being virtually the only thing individual users have power over. Response has been lukewarm. “Why should I delete my account? I was here first [before Pao],” writes one typically reluctant rebel.

What happened? Just another of Reddit’s built-in contradictions. It’s the 10th most popular site in the United States and 33 worldwide, but its basic identity is about niche, non-mainstream appeal. It was founded as an expression of computer anarchist punk disenfranchisement but was almost instantly consumed by one of the world’s largest media companies. It’s run by a legion of moderators who have tremendous leverage over an enterprise sometimes valued at half a million dollars but who are not even employees. If you don’t want to go among mad people, don’t tarry with Redditors.

To say that nothing changed because of the Independence Day weekend action wouldn’t be strictly accurate. The burdens put on the company’s main office by the basic nature of the site were laid painfully bare in front of the entire world, and for the first time the anger of the individual Redditor was front page news. It’s clear that Reddit can't take their volunteer force for granted or loosen the non-employees' grip on the site’s basic levers of power--after all, they didn’t this time.

But at the end of the day, it was business as usual. The uprising was neither new nor revolutionary, just the most extreme manifestation of the site’s status quo, the kind of thing that was probably always going to happen sooner or later and just happened to go down now. The Redditors may rage, and the Wild West nature of the site may give them more tools to throw in the face of the establishment than on any normal site, but at the end of the day Reddit remains just like every other frontier in the world: a shrinking one, hemmed in and most influential only within its own boundaries.

 

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Email Adam L. Brinklow at tamlinearthly@gmail.com
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