The Parable of Reddit or How Traditional Business Models Fail Communities
If you work in the community or digital space, it's been impossible not to follow the turmoil at Reddit over the last week. It's been cause for a lot of anxiety because until this turmoil hit, Reddit was viewed as community success story - growing geometrically over the years. If Reddit can't make community work, than who can?
If you haven't been following, here's a summary of what happened:
- Victoria Taylor, who was the primary interface between Reddit and an army of volunteer moderators, was fired
- It was not communicated well
- The moderators of the popular 'Ask Me Anything' forum shut the forum down
- Many other moderators also shut down their sub-Reddits (communities)
- A PR disaster ensued
A lot of the commentary that I've seen around this is that you can't control a community - you stop listening to the community at your peril. It demonstrates poor community management and it's the result of poor community governance - as summed up in this TechCrunch piece titled Reddit's Community: Can't Win With 'Em, Can't Win Without 'Em.
If I were someone unfamiliar with communities and community management (i.e. most executive stakeholders) it would give me great pause when considering my support of a community initiative - I definitely wouldn't want to invest in a path that results in a customer or employee revolt. Because of this, the attention to the Reddit story should concern every community professional because this type of crisis is not inevitable - or even common. It's the result of a predictable point of failure; using a traditional media business model that treats communities like content generators instead of a network of relationships.
Mush of the commentary around the Reddit break down is missing that point. The moderator community didn't revolt because of poor community management - they revolted because good community management was taken away. They revolted because Reddit was building a lucrative business on the backs of volunteer moderators and simultaneously reducing the staff it had in place to provide tools and support for those users. They revolted because management, in their eyes, didn't value and invest in supporting the moderators - the very people who generated business value by building relationships with their communities. Management seems to have valued the communities as content and to have taken the moderators for granted, seeing them as largely interchangeable - even though their participation was at the heart of the business model.
The community revolted because the business management of Reddit didn't understand how communities generate value and the investments required for that value generation to continue.
If Reddit management had a better grasp of community-centric business models they wouldn't 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 (not necessarily by paying moderators but by providing the consistent support they needed to be successful and get what they valued in return for their time). If they'd been doing so, there wouldn't have been a revolt because it wouldn't have been in the best interests of the moderator community, and their overall business would continue to grow because moderators would have a vested interest in its success.
The business model is what's failing.
Not the community.
Not the community management.
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