For anybody who thinks of themselves as an internet aficionado, Reddit is a cornerstone in their everyday activities. A throwback on old school bulletin boards of the internet’s glorious past, Reddit has been one of the most influential and exciting communities where registered users can suggest noteworthy information online that gets curated through up and down votes, with more popular, relevant and interesting information garnering more attention. Sustained through a massive volunteer base of users who help in crowd-curating information through several sub-threads and communities of interest, Reddit has been heralded as the “front page of the internet”.
Last month, Victoria Taylor, a former Reddit communications director was suddenly dismissed from the site. Taylor has been coordinating the site’s extremely popular Ask Me Anything (AMAs) series where celebrities answer questions submitted by the regular users. As a response to her sudden dismissal, the volunteer moderators who do the lion’s share of managing Reddit, staged the “Reddit Revolt” by temporarily shutting down the site’s science, history, gaming and cinema subforums to bring into focus the hidden power dynamics and decision-making processes of communities like Reddit that depend on volunteer labour but do not consult them in the larger decisions of the platform.
Many of the moderators responsible for the shut-down, wrote in an editorial that Taylor was their back bone, and the support she provided was crucial to their everyday activities. They were protesting against the administrator’s decision to dismiss Taylor without consulting the community of free workers who Taylor supported. The reasons behind Taylor’s termination and the stories around it are still evolving. However, the shutdown of Reditt, even temporarily, and the frustration of the moderators who have “stake” but no power, who have responsibilities but no decision-making roles, is something that needs thinking about.
One of the strongest movements that the Web 2.0 explosion sustains itself on is the free labour that millions of people have put into the production of content and information online. From sites like IMDB where you can be sure to get reviews and ratings of the most esoteric world cinema, to the making of sites like Wikipedia which has become the defacto global reference site of knowledge; from the countless hours of cute cat and baby videos on YouTube to social media networks like Facebook which depend upon the users to produce the material that they then sell; user-generated content is the basic infrastructure of the web as we know it.
While information production is often celebrated as labour of love, as new forms of communities of knowledge-making, as the democratisation of information societies, what is often hidden underneath are the processes of exploitation and disintermediation that surround these practices.
There is already a strong protest against how private platforms are using free labour, free data and content to generate profits that are never returned to the users who are the free workers of these information economies. It is easier to fight when unpaid work by some gets capitalised by others, because the effort and its profits can be measured and an argument can be made for equity.
However, in communities like Reddit or Wikipedia, where the information is for the public commons, there is a huge anxiety about how this labour builds power and profits for a select few whereas the actual workers remain disenfranchised from their work and the working environments.
The Reddit Revolt is not just about the platform and the dismissal of Taylor but about rethinking how we build equity and appreciation for the almost endless work that everyday internet users put in sustaining our new information ecosystems. It is a clear sign that if we do not find new models of acknowledging their work and giving them more ownership, then the information growth that we celebrate will either stop or be owned only by people who seek to make money and careers out of it. To ensure that the public space that we have built cyberspace to be is sustained in the future, we will have to think ways by which the public work gets recognised and rewarded.
Nishant Shah is professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore