This whole reddit thing is interesting. Not just what happened on reddit, but all the analysis of it. For the most part, people are focusing on what reddit did wrong in 2015. Not many are talking about what they did wrong in 2005 or 2006.

Whatever you think reddit’s issues are or have been, know that they are foundational in nature. The culture of reddit is deeply engrained. How reddit responds to change now is a direct result of choices reddit leadership made early on. They wanted to create a particular type of environment, and they succeeded.

But the reddit situation really doesn’t offer us any new lessons. All of this is really old community business, handed down to us by the ancients.

It’s Not an Anonymous Community Thing

This really doesn’t have to do with anonymous communities, i.e. communities where you choose your username and how much you share about yourself.

There are large, anonymous communities that don’t have any issue with moderator communication. That aren’t massive repositories of racism, misogyny and whatever you might define as worse. Where the top level staff participates in the community actively. Where monetization works fine. These aren’t rare gems or oddities. Whatever issue you think reddit has, there are plenty of large, anonymous communities that don’t have that issue because they dealt with it in a different way.

Some would debate if reddit is a community at all. I would say yes, at least in a general sense. reddit is a platform for communities, and each subreddit is an independent community. But layered over that is the larger community of reddit users, who are impacted by any changes made to the platform.

The Lessons

If you want to look at the reddit situation and say there are lessons we can learn – yes, that’s true. But the lessons are due to choices reddit leadership made in the first few years, more so than the last few.

It’s very difficult to fundamentally change the expectations that you set for your members during that initial period of growth. When you embrace a general philosophy of freedom of speech at all costs, and you accept all that entails (including financial gain, in this case), you will be met with fierce opposition when you try to restrict that speech.

When people talk about reddit eliminating hate speech, one thing you have to remember is to eliminate hate speech is to go against the ideals of reddit, which are inclusive of that speech. While a large percentage of the community would approve of it (49% upvoted the recent, controversial announcement about removing harassing subreddits), a large and very vocal portion would protest. They would essentially have to blow up reddit to get rid of hate speech.

They would lose not only the people that most other online communities don’t want, but also a good percentage of reasonable people who participate in a civil manner but believe in the “free speech” ideals of reddit.

reddit Does Censor

If you think reddit management doesn’t censor content, they do. That bridge was crossed long ago. The term censorship isn’t one that you can selectively apply only to types of speech that you feel should be allowed. Once you remove something, you are censoring. reddit does have things they don’t allow.

Usually, when reddit takes a high profile stance against a particular subreddit, it isn’t based on principle as much as it is based on media coverage. They do it because they feel they have to – for survival. New CEO Steve Huffman underscored this when he was asked about a particularly racist subreddit and whether or not it would be banned.

“I think our approach to subreddits like that will be different,” he wrote. “The content [in that subreddit] is reprehensible, as I’m sure any reasonable person would agree, but if it were appropriately quarantined, it would not have a negative impact on other specific individuals in the same way [FatPeopleHate] does.

“I want to hear more discussion on the topic. I’m open to other arguments.

“I want to be very clear: I don’t want to ever ban content. Sometimes, however, I feel we have no choice because we want to protect reddit itself.”

Note: FatPeopleHate was a fat shaming subreddit, and the emphasis above was Huffman’s, not mine. When Huffman talks about quarantining, he’s probably talking about how FatPeopleHate was reputed to not just be talking about people, but directly threatening and harassing those people. Apparently, the other subreddits referenced haven’t engaged in that type of behavior or, at least, not to a point where reddit would take action.

That’s the story here. “I’m open to other arguments, [except] I don’t want to ever ban content.” So all arguments revolve around “how can we keep this?” or, better yet, “how long can we afford to keep this?” For better or worse, that’s reddit.

Using the Lessons

If you look at reddit, and it’s what you want your community to become, then you have an example you can follow. But if it isn’t, you shouldn’t be looking at the recent controversy and asking yourself, “what do I do if I reach this point?” Instead, ask yourself, “how do I never reach this point?”

The answer is all about foundation and about setting the tone early, having policies that are consistently applied and maintaining those standards as you grow, using both people and technology to help you do so. That’s it. Hard work, but simple enough. You may face challenges related to scale, but you’ll come up with solutions in the moment, if you care enough about the issues and the community.

I’m on day 5,167 with one of my communities and who we are now is pretty much who we aspired to be on day 1. It’s who we work to be, every single day.