Can Reddit—the Internet’s Greatest Authenticity Machine—Survive Its Own IPO?

Can Reddit—the Internet’s Greatest Authenticity Machine—Survive Its Own IPO?

Alyssa Videlock was 11 years old when she started searching for people like her on the internet. What she found, back in the early 2000s, was not at all what she’d hoped for. “Being trans online was not really a thing,” she says. “There was fetish stuff for it, and there were stories about transformation. But it was either porn or … porn.”

So Videlock was especially grateful, about a decade later, when she started exploring Reddit. She was still closeted to her family and friends, and finding a place where she could speak with other trans people kept her sane, she says. On Reddit, trans people had strength in numbers and power against the aggravation of trolls. Through an elaborate system of volunteer moderators, Reddit allows its communities—called subreddits or subs—to cultivate their own rules, cultures, and protections. The subs that Videlock frequented, such as r/asktransgender and r/MtF, were particularly good at fencing out harassment. “It felt like I could make myself known there,” she says.

For Videlock, lurking on Reddit became a prelude to posting every now and then—which ultimately became a prelude to making herself known in the real world, and in 2017 she started to transition. A couple of years later, she tuned in to a video of a trans woman playing piano on Reddit’s live­streaming service, r/pan, and was moved to watch as moderators shot down one vicious comment after another. The spectacle inspired her to become a moderator herself.

The 33-year-old software developer, who lives in New York, went on to volunteer about five hours a day, seven days a week—exorcising spam, breaking up fights, and removing hateful slurs on a handful of subreddits, including r/lgbt, one of Reddit’s larger subs. She joined the ranks of more than 60,000 mods who manage subreddits ranging from the creative (r/nosleep, a community of people who write first-person horror fiction) and the supportive (r/REDDITORSINRECOVERY) to the predictably crass (r/ratemypoo) and the unpredictably disgusting (r/FiftyFifty, a 2.2 million–member community for sharing blind links, where about half lead to something stomach-turning).

For good and for ill, Reddit has long been an island of authenticity in an increasingly artificial world: a place where real people, hiding behind the privacy of fake names, share their rabid enthusiasms, expertise, and morbid thoughts; where viral memes and movements bubble up from a primordial soup of upvotes and chatter; where a million users each donate $1 to a stranger just to make a millionaire for the fun of it; and where people with drinking problems, parenting crises, crushing debt loads, or gender confusion can find one another and compare notes on the struggle. (Reddit, by the estimate of an adult industry expert, also has more porn than PornHub—an assertion Reddit disputes.)

After years as a relatively quiet user, Videlock gained a whole new appreciation for Reddit as a volunteer. She had also moderated on Discord, but there was no comparison: Reddit mods shared tools and tricks that empowered them to be far more preemptive and strategic. Sometimes, for example, trolls post vicious comments and then quickly delete their account or the comment itself—a drive-by tactic that helps them evade detection and penalties. As a Reddit mod, Videlock had a free third-party app at her disposal that allowed her to hunt down those deleted comments retroactively.

Whenever Reddit staff asked for feedback from mods, Alyssa Videlock stepped up.

Being a Reddit mod also, Videlock realized, gave her the ear of a major social media company. For a website with 73 million daily users and more than 100,000 subreddits, Reddit’s paid staff is remarkably small—about 2,000 employees and a few hundred contractors in San Francisco, New York, and a handful of cities outside the US. Whenever staff asked moderators for feedback, Videlock stepped up: She got on phone calls, took surveys, answered repeated questions about her experience. What keeps you here? How do you identify bad apples? When Reddit rolled out new features, Videlock always offered to give them a try.

And so it was that in early June 2023, a staffer on Reddit’s community management team—the part of the company that deals most directly with moderators—asked Videlock and a few other volunteer leaders to join a video call with Reddit cofounder and CEO Steve Huffman. The executive wanted to smooth over fast-spreading concerns about a recently announced policy change. For the first time, the company would charge for access to its application programming interface, or API, the system by which software developers from outside the company had been pulling content from Reddit for nearly 15 years.


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