A funny thing happened on the way to Reddit
I have an upvote/downvote relationship with Reddit. I began posting there around 2012 – this is a foggy memory, so forgive me if that’s slightly off – and picked a username that, apparently, was also the name of an adult film star. Thus my introduction to the platform was waking up the next morning to a series of gifs in my inbox, most of which implied certain sexual proclivities, and/or an intense craving for hotdogs.
So it’s weird for me to write here, six years later, arguing that Reddit might end up being a discussion platform for good, rather than the morally hazardous terrain of, to name a few examples, Facebook and Twitter.
My position is biased. After a new username, I began posting in a subreddit called Change My View (“CMV”). The purpose of the subreddit is to facilitate civil online conversation. It does so by inviting users who think they might want to reconsider a view they hold to post that view and solicit new perspectives and challenges from other redditors. After a couple of years as a regular poster, I was invited to moderate the subreddit. Ever since, I have had an intimate view into how rules, guidelines, and community ethos shape peoples’ behavior and a subreddit’s, well, subculture.
What I didn’t anticipate was the role design could play in this.
As someone who has to keep a pulse on regulations for emerging technologies, I have been paying close attention to the critiques targeted at discussion and social media platforms: they monopolize our attention, sell our eyeballs, make it difficult to concentrate, encroach on personal privacy, enable disinformation campaigns, and lack operational transparency.
Silicon Valley, despite its problem-solving spirit, has been slow to acknowledge, let alone resolve these issues. However, many recovering Silicon Valley-types have been quick to proffer new opportunities for engaging user experiences. I was expecting an emphasis on content and community management. Instead, I was surprised to see that one impactful solution is design.
The purpose of this post is to take a bird’s eye view of the research that has gone into software and website design as a means to encourage or discourage behavior. I was spurred as a moderator of a discussion-based community that is, like similarly-situated Reddit communitites, concerned about Reddit’s redesign and how it will change the CMV experience. I write here representing my personal opinion, but know that many moderators share this concern.
Site adminstrators reached out for feedback on the site redesign. Bearing in mind that limited exposure, I am concerned – reasonably, I think – that the design team has made an explicit trade-off between quick, responsive user experience (“UX”) that prioritizes “selling eyeballs” over discussion. This will diminish the ability of discussion-based subreddits to provide a good UX to subscribers and have an adverse impact on the quality of conversation which, as noted above, is an explicit goal of CMV et al.
This isn’t an admonishment on Reddit as a business. I wholeheartedly recognize that the site needs to flourish in order to continue. Stylistically, I like what I’ve seen and think everyone involved deserves a pat on the back for what was clearly a lot of hard work and deliberation. That said, our position is that Reddit should consider design solutions that will allow the site to balance its desire to facilitate quick experiences with engaging users and cultivating “time well spent.”
“Time well spent,” first coined by Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology, works in conjunction with, not opposed to, Reddit’s business model for a few reasons. The first is that it provides a varied user experience, and one that will be the rare supply for now-demanded time well spent. Instead of operating on a swift dopamine hit, it leaves users feeling good about the lengthy period spent on Reddit rather than unfulfilled. Users return, stay, and share, rather than operating as a bulk “product” with quick turnover.
Additionally, the coverage CMV and similar subreddits generate has been overwhelmingly positive (see below). This, in turn, has allowed Reddit to position itself in popular culture as a more benign force than its counterparts — one that is in no way perfect (see also here, here, and here) but is, by current measurements, more creative and explorative than larger tech companies that are seemingly entrenched in their current model.
When the international conversation (and CMV is an international community) has turned to the detrimental impact social media has had on democracy writ large, it behooves Reddit to continue as a platform that allows for both squirrels on a skateboard and thoughtful dialogue on tough, nuanced issues of public import. Reddit is on the forefront of this topic and could be part of the mass experiment dealing with intersections of technology, democracy, health and culture, which is really cool.
Upvotes, downvotes, like buttons and retweets, oh my
Design determines the range of actions we can take on a platform. Lawrence Lessig made this observation in Code 2.0 (available for free here), demonstrating how code is effectively architecture, and architecture regulates our behavior. Architecture, like code, is an amoral tool that can be turned into a constraint or enabler to be used for good or for ill. Architecture has been used to craft well lit areas to reduce crime, speed bumps for safer roads, and wheelchair accessible buildings. Here, it is used to society’s benefit.
In contrast, architecture is also the means by which people bypass prohibitions on housing discrimination; city planners and engineers build physical inconveniences (highways, railways, etc) between predominantly white and black neighborhoods, creating de facto segregation. Similarly, the city in which I live has used bike racks to prevent homeless populations from sleeping under bridges. Hostile architecture such as this is not unusual.
Design is the digital analog (ha) of architecture. Thus the contention by developers writ large that platforms are in someway neutral defies the very nature of creating that platform in the first place. To some extent, design choices influence how we interact with those digital surroundings and one another. Joe Edelman, who has worked with Harris on “humane technology,” puts it best in his letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:
As we’ll see below, social software simplifies and expedites certain social relations, and certain actions. If these actions and relations that are made simple don’t match a particular user’s values, then the software makes it harder for that person to live by their values, and leaves them feeling that their time was not well spent.
As users, we end up acting and socializing in ways we don’t believe in, and later regret. We act against our values: by procrastinating from work, by avoiding our feelings, by pandering to other people’s opinions, by participating in a hateful mob reacting to the news, and so on.
Look at social conventions. They certainly shape our lives: teenagers get ostracized for wearing the wrong clothes, adults for spouting unpopular beliefs. But it’s still possible to flout convention. And sometimes it pays off: by operating outside of convention, a person might initiate a new trend or subculture. With software, on the other hand, acting in a way the designers didn’t intend is often impossible: a user can’t sing “Thrift Shop” to a stranger on Tinder and can’t wear their Facebook cover photo on the bottom of the screen. The software has structured the sequence and style with which they interact.
In practice, laws can’t structure social life that tightly. (Even in the worst dictatorships—when the Nazis had Jews wear stars—they couldn’t ensure complete compliance.) As law, the “Twitter Code” would be impossible to enforce. But as software, it’s impossible not to comply.
Social software is therefore different from laws and social conventions. It guides us much more strictly through certain actions and ways of relating. As a result, we have less of a chance to pursue our own values. The coded structure of push notifications makes it harder to prioritize a value of personal focus; the coded structure of likes makes it harder to prioritize not relying on others’ opinions; and similar structures interfere with other values, like being honest or kind to people, being thoughtful, etc.
Internal footnotes omitted.
Here is where we get to CMV and Reddit’s redesign. My co-moderator, Kal, is the founder of CMV. Both Wired and NPR have interviewed him about CMV. He has presented our subreddit at The Hague’s “Innovating Democracy” Conference. CMV has been cited in academic research and explored in podcasts. Teachers have used CMV in the classroom, PhD candidates incorporate it into their theses, and Reddit’s co-founder calls it one of his “favorite Reddit communities of all time.”
Honestly, I love reddit, and I agree that some aspects of the old design were holding it back. I’m a moderator of r/changemyview and through this I have been able to witness the positive power of reddit and its communities. I’ve tried to explain this to friends and family – telling them that there are communities here for all of their interests. But they often can’t get into the style, which I love now but was a slow burner for sure (our custom CSS definitely helps).
I have a huge concern though. I’ve read through u/creesch‘s guide for giving good feedback and I’m not sure of the best way to approach this, but here it goes:
Discussion subreddits, like r/changemyview, feel secondary.
The pop-up/overlay approach to opening posts feels more like a “preview”, as if we aren’t really supposed to spend too long in the comments.
“Consume the linked content, read a couple of comments if you want to, and move on.”
But please remember that for many subreddits, the comments are the entire point. Making them less comfortable to read is a mistake. The smaller text doesn’t help either.
Reddit’s new design choice creates a pipeline for quick comment review, therefore rendering the comments as a secondary content experience. Our purpose at CMV is to make the comments the primary content experience. As of today, this remains the same, and neither moderators nor users can change that experience to reorient priorities. Skipping or skimming comments is a frictionless experience but it makes reading comments feel cumbersome and clunky. There is little to no meaningful way for a user or subreddit to “flout” that decision and it undermines intended content consumption and user experience.
(An additional meta-point: my link included “np” at the front. This illustrates yet another deliberate design choice of sorts. “NP” stands for “non-participation” and allows someone to link to another subreddit without being able to participate, thus making it impossible to do things like manipulative votes or spam. Yes, this limitation works only so long as the “np” remains, but it nevertheless diminishes the likelihood of trolling by opportunity.)
In his letter to Zuckerberg (who I assume is having a fun time testifying in front of Congress at the time of my writing this), Edelman offers up some advice for designing social systems “without causing depression and war.” Essentially, designers should create spaces that optimize for reflection and experimentation; envision social systems as practice spaces, and; cultivate and maintain collective wisdom. All of these allow people individually and as a group to better understand themselves and work to grapple with what is important to us as a society.
I’m not a designer, so I’m not going to spend time making this an homage to Edelman and Harris. I do think it would be prudent for any designer, not just Reddit designers, to look through the exercises he provided in his blog post. I would like to put to work at least one exercise he throws out as a short example, because I think it creates a useful analytical framework to describe why CMV brings value and how the new design fails to capture that value to Reddit’s detriment:
To take another example, if a News Feed user believes in being open-minded, designers would ask which social environments make this easier. Having made such a list, they would look for common features. Perhaps it’s easier to be open-minded when you remember something you respect about a person’s previous views. Or, perhaps it’s easier when you can tell if the person is in a thoughtful mood by reading their body language. Is open-mindedness more natural when those speaking have to explicitly yield time for others to respond? Designers would have to find out.
In my experience, which aligns with other moderators, CMV facilitates open-minded conversation for the following reasons:
- It values quality conversation. Our rules explicitly disallow behavior that is low-effort. This doesn’t mean a post needs to be long, but it does have to be substantive. This also avoids the trap of Edelman’s “scientism.” Users are allowed to make value-based claims without data or metrics so long as they can present a thoughftul, substantive case.
- We take our rules and standards seriously. They are not enforced haphazardly or inconsistently. Rules always apply, and people know they exist before posting.
- The Delta system. Every time someone successfully changes another poster’s view, they are awarded a delta. This invests users in both changing views and their Reddit handle. This sounds silly at first, but the more people gain deltas, the less they want to post under another name — that new name will not display the same, larger delta count. Thus users (a) return for more deltas, and; (b) do not want to be banned from posting under that name, increasing the likelihood they will, at the least, follow the rules and, more likely, be good contributors. We consider this to be a discussion “virtuous cycle.”
- It encourages community enforcement of rules. Our users internalize the values of civility as they hold each other to outlined standards of behavior. Over time, people conform to these values less because the rules require compliance and more because they personally see civility and open-mindedness as intrinsically valuable.
- Conversation is non-zero sum. The reason why we say that CMV is not a debate subreddit despite a lot of commonalities is because debates have a winner and a loser. Even if there is no true right answer, someone does a better job of making their case. At CMV, you can have your view changed without it being deemed a loss.
- CMV requires good faith assumptions. You need to read through a post and presume this person means what they say and says what they mean. Usually this is the case, so we mitigate unfair accusations. When it is not the case, users have the choice to report.
- Building on reports, users feel they are heard. Either their report has merit and we remove a comment/post, or if they feel wronged, they can message us directly. Our rules and design are intended to create community involvement. I went to report a comment recently and got a crisp radio list. This is good but it also takes a few more steps to get to CMV’s specific report options, and I worry this gives the impression of canned, ambivalent moderation — that moderators work distant and removed from a subreddit’s community.
This is a non-exhaustive list, and not all of it touches on the redesign concerns outlined by Kal. It does demonstrate much of what I and the rest of the mod team find successful about our subreddit. In order to have valuable conversation, and therefore time well spent online, discussion-based subreddits need users to spend more than a few seconds previewing content. Our purpose revolves around digesting all information presented in a view and subsequent comments. We want users to talk to each other and feel like their contributions aren’t minor or crowded out. Few things are less conducive to good conversation than feeling like people are only waiting for their turn to speak, and the listening (reading) imperative is seemingly lost in the redesign. To run with our architecture theme: it takes something that must be a two-way street and converts it to a one-way street.
The design choices by Reddit are understandable in faster-paced communities where content and comments operate separately, but they are detrimental in discussion subreddits where comments are content. The notion of subreddits was deemed radical and, in some cases, unwanted when first rolled out. Same with comments. I think both of these things were fruitful and do not want to be taken as a redesign luddite. But their value was in their ability to convey ideas and increase choice for users — subreddits in particular had the dual benefit of allowing users to coalesce and explore values (wisdom) and specific design choices (architecture). These are features, not bugs, and Reddit should continue embracing the underlying value-structure that created those features rather than sacrifice them to the altar of immediate gratification.