Back in mid-2015, which sometimes seems like a long time ago, the nascent presidential campaigns were chugging along, and on Reddit, Bernie Sanders was king. Partially to counter the powerful r/SandersForPresident, a volunteer moderator created Reddit.com/r/The_Donald.
The Donald Trump-supporting message board on Reddit--the company created in 2005 by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian to be a "Front Page of the Internet" within Y Combinator's first batch of startups--wasn't much at first. It was just some supporters of Donald J. Trump's candidacy posting links to news articles on a pretty typical topic page, or subreddit. Since then, of course, Trump has shocked the world by winning the presidency, and The_Donald has transformed into a virile community that's proven to be one of the most active and influential in Reddit's history. (More on that in a moment.)
Today, Reddit is taking a new step to rein it in.
Huffman, the company's chief executive, posted an announcement on Reddit saying the company would take a more aggressive stance against trollish behavior on The_Donald, as well as halt the capability of one of the community's favored virality tactics. Specifically, it will limit the power of moderators to select which posts become super-popular by "sticky"-ing them to the top of The_Donald. Posts that have been stickied by moderators will not be able to appear on one of the site's homepages. Reddit has also pledged to work harder to censure "hundreds of the most toxic users" on The_Donald.
At issue: In recent months, the tone of The_Donald has shifted--and its community has been called out for going on the attack outside its subreddit. A moderator of r/Politics, the main board for political discussions of all stripes, has called The_Donald "toxic." It has become known for veiled racism, sexism, and Islamophobia, and has developed its own insider dialect that makes it tough for outsiders to comprehend.
It also has become a force on Reddit and beyond, thanks to its dozens of moderators and far-flung network of supporters' mastery of the site's algorithm--and because of their sheer intensity and engagement. Posts from The_Donald regularly rise to the top of r/All--which loyal redditors use as an alternative homepage. The_Donald, in the words of Huffman, aims to "dominate the conversation." One way moderators of The_Donald communicate to the community to jump on upvoting a post is to sticky it--something most other moderators throughout Reddit use to denote simple announcements. Now, stickied posts are banned from r/All.
The_Donald subreddit has gained about 10,000 subscribers in the past two weeks; there are now more than 300,000 subscribers. That number itself is not what makes The_Donald so impressive, but rather it's the degree to which those subscribers are focused and engaged. Huffman told me at a conference in Brooklyn two weeks ago that subscribers to The_Donald are six times more active than typical redditors, meaning they upvote or comment or post far more often than is typical. They are, in The_Donald speak, "high-energy."
The_Donald made it a goal, and something of a game, to spread posts further than its narrow reach. On Reddit, posts with a massive amount of quick activity are picked up as popular and rise to the top of r/All. There, they reach a larger audience. (The_Donald has also developed a strong defensive streak when it comes to accusations of racism, sexism, or Islamophobia. Its rules explicitly state "no racism/anti-semitism." Recently, a The_Donald moderator posted, "Reddit admins have reached out to us and accused us of "fostering," and "encouraging," harassment. BULLSHIT." So.)
That The_Donald's denizens got so good at spreading its posts was one reason behind Reddit's earlier decision to tweak its algorithm to make it harder for any subreddit to vault its posts to the top of r/All. Huffman wrote this summer that while the change was not targeted at The_Donald, he "cannot deny their behavior hastened its deployment." The subreddit's behavior, he wrote, "undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it."
The_Donald has been targeting Huffman ever since. It has called for his resignation, in a post two months ago that received more than 4,000 upvotes. It has called him "butthurt" and "top cuck" in post subject lines. Oh, and a "pedophile enablist" (sic).
Huffman hasn't reacted calmly. He admitted last week to trolling back, replacing his username, "spez," with that of The_Donald mods for about an hour. "As much as we try to maintain a good relationship with you all, it does get old getting called a pedophile constantly. As the CEO, I shouldn't play such games, and it's all fixed now," he wrote, noting that the posts he'd edited had been restored to their previous CEO-bashing state.
One could consider Huffman's moves terrible publicity, and bad for Reddit's attempt to mature as a site and as a business. But as one of the site's founders, it's not out of character for him to be the ur-troll--and perhaps he endeared himself to others frustrated with The_Donald.
This week, one The_Donald moderator posted: "In light of Spez's antics, it has become abundantly clear that we are not welcome here. GOOD" and "We will stay here and shitpost our hearts out" until "they MAKE us go somewhere." (For the uninitiated: "shitposting" is, at base, a shitty post or comment. For a more thorough explanation, dive in here or here or here.)
Policing the The_Donald community as it has evolved into a shitposting haven has been a particular challenge, in part because many of its discussions are shrouded in insider vernacular that has evolved to the point where the meaning is hard to discern. Still, according to a Reddit staffer, more individual posters and comments are removed from The_Donald than any other part of Reddit.
In Huffman's Wednesday post, he noted that: "Historically, we have relied on our relationship with moderators to curb bad behaviors. While some of the moderators have been helpful, this has not been wholly effective, and we are now taking a more proactive approach to policing behavior that is detrimental to Reddit."
The issue with The_Donald and other troublesome communities on the site is that the line between what's a problem and what's not is subjective. It's slippery and subtle. One person's spam is another person's lunch. One person's harassment is another person's lighthearted jab. Historically, Reddit has tried to come down (mostly) on the side of favoring free speech, or allowing users to drive the discussions. This is why, say, pedophilia is banned on the site, but discussions about the concept of treatment for or recovery from pedophilia are not.
The future of Reddit--because of its ambitions for massive user and ad revenue growth--just might hang on such fine distinctions.
Gizmodo in a recent article proposes that another possible reason Reddit isn't banning The_Donald is financial. Ads appear alongside The_Donald's content, as they do elsewhere on the site--but traffic on that subreddit is nothing compared with, say, r/trees, the popular subreddit surrounding cannabis culture.
Huffman says he won't ban The_Donald. In fact, he writes, rather earnestly: "More than anything, I want Reddit to heal, and I want our country to heal, and although many of you have asked us to ban the r/the_donald outright, it is with this spirit of healing that I have resisted doing so."
Whether the company is up for targeting more than a couple hundred users remains unclear. Gizmodo estimates that there could be more than 40,000 of those sorts of troublemaking accounts. But, it notes, ban too many people, and the site could revolt: "After the ban of r/FatPeopleHate Reddit became near-unusable. The displaced users, with nothing left to lose, stirred up as much trouble as they could, and likely the Reddit admins fear a repeat."
Reddit has weathered more significant user revolts than this. But watch for Reddit to start monitoring, and banning, members of other fringe groups--especially those with their own coded speech, unique community-defying behaviors, and power in numbers. Advertisers, especially huge ones like Coke, do worry about the environment they're in.
Then again, as of this morning, a gif of a fluffy orange-and-white cat appearing very confused about falling snowflakes had thousands more votes than anything at the top of The_Donald. Yes, The_Donald is unusually influential--especially for an ultra-insider club that speaks its own impenetrable language. But it is not Reddit.