What can enterprise communities learn from Reddit's meltdowns?

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed July 10, 2015
Reddit is going through a wave of PR nightmares. But for enterprise communities, Reddit's struggles are a instructive source of how-not-to insights.

Most of my enterprise peeps don't give much thought to Reddit, but I've found the site highly instructive - even moreso given its recent struggles, which I'm sure Reddit's management would like to write off as growing pains (I'm not so sure, see: MySpace, Digg, etc.)

Given that enterprise communities are becoming more strategically important, what lessons can we take from Reddit's days of reckoning that can be usefully applied?

The troubles began on June 10, when Reddit removed five controversial "subreddits", leading to user allegations of censorship and an alleged "mass exodus" to Voat.co (though I'm guessing the "exodus" did not have a major impact on Reddit's traffic numbers).

The lingering unrest from those moves served as kindling for the latest brouhaha, where a popular Reddit community manager, Victoria Taylor, responsible for the immensely popular AMA (Ask Me Anything) series was fired, causing temporary protests by other moderators and sending shock waves through the community. Then a series of events:

The drama continues at presstime, but it' s not too soon to derive some lessons. Community Roundtable co-founder Rachel Happe (who has contributed to diginomica) gets the ball rolling with The Parable of Reddit or How Traditional Business Models Fail Communities. Happe's key point? Those who blame "community mismanagement" for Reddit's current woes have lost the plot. As Happe sees it, it's the business model that has let the Reddit community down:

I think most of the commentary on Reddit is missing that point. The moderator community did not revolt because of poor community management - they revolted because good community management was taken away.

Happe goes on to say:

If Reddit management had a better grasp of community-centric business models they would not have been trying to extract more and more margin from their community - they would have been investing in it and sharing the value it generated back to the community in a substantive way.

The AMA moderators who penned the New York Times piece, Courtnie Swearengen and Bryan Lynch, seem to confirm Happe's views on moderator under-investment:

Dismissing Victoria Taylor was part of a long pattern of insisting the community and the moderators do more with less. Miscommunication implies there was any communication at all or any kind of real planning in place to compensate for the loss, when in reality the moderators and A.M.A. guests were left stranded. Though company leaders have apologized publicly, they still have not fully explained the decision.

Happe's analysis of under-investment in moderation/volunteer management rings true to me, but where I diverge is around the notion that Reddit is a profitable business unwilling to share margin with moderators. Like most wannabe-Facebooks posing as free community sites, Reddit has struggled mightily with monetization. Despite leveraging the wonderful intentions of overworked volunteer moderators, Reddit actually doesn't have a sustainable business model yet.

As recently as 2013, published reports quoted Reddit executives acknowledging that despite its massive page views (70 million page views a month in 2013), the site was "still in the red." Reddit's struggles for monetization are particularly intense, given that Reddit's ground-up community is exceptionally hostile to banner ads and other intrusive forms of monetization (see Allergic To Change And Profit, Reddit Risks Eating Itself for more analysis on this).

Fortunately for enterprise communities, the focus on profitability is less intense. Enterprise communities don't need to be profitable as stand-alone entities. Practitioners like Happe are experts in strategically aligning communities with broader business objectives, which in turn affords a better chance to nurture communities properly. But any business community that thrives on volunteer work is going to struggle at times with how to integrate, or acknowledge, its overall commercial intent.

With that in mind, here's some immediate lessons that come to mind:

1. Enterprise communities should be as transparent as possible about how they are funded and how the community's success is measured, financially and otherwise. A huge part of Reddit's predicament is that it operated on a "build a community first, worry about monetization later" approach. Now every move to monetize seems like a violation, a moving of the goal posts to borrow a bromide. It's better to acknowledge from the beginning how a community will be financially supported, and work with community leaders to develop reasonable ways of integrating visibility of sponsors, event promotions and so forth. Communities are not allergic to commercial aspects, as long as they are agreed upon, explained clearly, and visibly labelled.

2. Censorship should be handled with extreme care, based on clear rules of engagement that make clear to the community what is acceptable and what is not. Such moves should be explained transparently and applied equally, including the vendors/sponsors own employees. (A big part of Reddit's "censorship" woes come down to perceptions that such enforcement is both unprecedented and selectively enforced).

3. Community moderators should not be given ultimate control over their subdomains. Rules of who ultimately controls the site should be clearly established. Moderators and participants should be free to express their full range of opinions, but should not be given the ability to shut down (or make private) entire sections of the community. Reddit is in a dangerous position because moderators of subreddits have the power to make their communities private, essentially pulling them off the map. Taking that power away is a step Reddit executives may have to consider, but either way, it's either a mess or a business risk.

4. Apologies are worthless without follow through. If you make a mistake, own up to it, and keep working with the community until it is fixed.  When you read posts such as Reddit Fired the Woman Trying to Save It, you get the sense of a irrevocable loss of a huge asset and perhaps the only viable link between executives and the moderator community. If I'm Reddit, I look to rehire Taylor and give her even more power and authority. Unorthodox? Yes. But nothing would put the community back on track with management than that. Either way, apologies and tone deaf responses are falling short. So you keep going - in public - until you get it right.

5. Don't turn free speech into a safe haven for trolls, stalkers, and attackers. Here, from what I understand, Reddit did attempt to do the right thing - they were going after hateful actions and harassing behaviors, not speech itself. But again, their community is so staunchly centered around free speech, it was always going to be difficult to change or enfore those terms. Enterprise communities should make clear which behaviors are unacceptable. From the first day a community opens, such terms should be openly discussed - not awkwardly added later after a crisis. When terms of engagement do need to change, it should be driven by the volunteers/community leaders.

Final thoughts - and views from a seasoned community leader

At presstime, I received a draft of a post by Mark Finnern of Playful Enterprise, an enterprise community expert who has resolved enough community flareups to earn himself a fireworks permit.

As a teaser for Finnern's post, I'll share his five bullet recommendations:

  • Treat your community managers well, especially if your business is based on community.
  • Put resources behind your moderation tools.
  • As an executive, you have to be part of the community.
  • Be as transparent as you can be, but it is also OK to say: Sorry this is not something we want to discuss publicly.
  • Be proactive when changing community process or removing a community moderator.

One area where Finnern offers a corrective involves transparency. Parsing our views, I'll agree and say that sometimes you can limit transparency - as long as you engage openly on why you are withholding certain things.

In his post, Finnern also makes a terrific point that undermines Reddit management's flawed view that the revolt involve a vocal minority. Yes, it's a vocal minority - but it's also the same folks powering your site. The same is often true in enterprise communities - therefore, beware of banishing "troublemakers" that have clear traction with the community at large. Win them over instead. Finnern has more to say - I'll link to his post here when it goes live, and we'll continue this dialogue.

Postscript: It seems the pressure from what was happening at Reddit became too much and CEO Ellen Pao, famous for her failed gender inequality lawsuit against a previous employer, resigned shortly after this story was published.

Image credit:  Man in Black Suit Speaking Using Megaphone © vlorzor