The reddit rebellion and the challenge of commercializing communities

The most recent reddit rebellion has quieted down but it’s not the end. Online communities have a history of rebellion spanning over 30 years (my former employer, Imgur, had its own rebellion complete with homepage takeover a few weeks ago) but reddit is the largest collective identity online community the world has ever seen. This makes it a fascinating experiment in community governance and commercialization. No rebellion repeats itself exactly, but they do rhyme.

The vast majority of online communities are run by for-profit corporations, where dollar profits accumulate only to the host. But the line between private corporation and public good is often intentionally blurred, and profits are portrayed as a kind of tax. This facade is necessary because otherwise the volunteers who create value will see themselves as merely low-wage employees: much easier to paint the fence white for free than for a dollar.

Commercializing online communities has the following challenges:

  • The community believes itself a democracy. The host portrays the community as a republic, with itself as the elected. In reality, online communities are weak dictatorships. The host company has technical control of everything that touches its software. But while the host company owns the software, both are essentially commodities, with the value provided by users who create and curate content, as well those who visit and make that content influential. A result is a form of governance that combines the self-righteousness of the oppressed with the timidity of a democracy.
  • Media businesses (which online communities, who trade in attention, are) require either massive scale, or a niche built upon a vein of gold. Most choose to go for scale, which means that the company must seek to ‘mainstream’ the community. But communities are built by creating an insider language that defines those within the community as well as those who are not. This naturally create a barrier to new users who have to learn the language to participate. To make the community more accessible is to dilute what made the community special in the first place.
  • A single user-controlled homepage concentrates identity and power amongst the users rather than the platform. The typical user of Facebook or Twitter is as resistant to change as a Reddit user, but on these platforms silos of attention dilute the power of the angry. The resistance bandwagon has to spread far more organically across sub-communities of followers which limits its power against administrative editorial control. When Facebook launched the Newsfeed, it inadvertently created a tool for its own users to turn on their master. But because each users’ Newsfeed was unique, and ultimate editorial rested with the host, it was not the only story that all users saw for days. With a centralized user-controlled homepage, and the collective identity that emerges as a result, users have far more control of over their own fate.

No online community with a collective identity has successfully become a large business like the segregated, follower-based communities of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube. Strangely, it is the retailer Amazon (proprietor of acquired communities Twitch, Goodreads, IMDB and DPReview) who has the most sophisticated understanding of collective identity online communities of any modern mega-corp. Amazon’s communities act as Bloomberg’s media empire does for Bloomberg’s terminals: a subsidized asset used to acquired attention it then redirects to its cash registers.

I continue to be fascinated by the evolution of online communities, and especially curious that no large collective identity communities appear to have yet been born mobile first. I suspect it will be possible to create a large business with a collective identity community but it will require an unprecedented level of host-community interchange. It might very well be Reddit or Imgur. In the meantime, I’m going to go do something else.