When Your Community is Someone Else’s Business.

I have been watching the meltdown over on Reddit with interest this morning. For those of you not up on the current story the Reddit community is currently up in arms over the dismissal of Victoria Taylor, a beloved admin who was largely responsible for Reddit’s incredibly popular ama or “Ask Me Anything” series. In response to her dismissal many of the most popular destinations on Reddit where made private by their community moderators, effectively “going dark.”

This generates an interesting tension for both the Reddit community and the Reddit business. The question that arrises is this: How much does a business owe to the community that built it?

To be fair, a ton of amazing effort has gone into the software that makes Reddit possible, and it has gone from a labor of love project to one of the most popular destinations on the Internet. In addition, much effort has gone into promoting and growing the business itself. However, viewing this in terms of a typical business/customer relationship between the company and it’s community would be naive at best.

Reddit is a community in every acceptable definition of the word. There are customs and practices, a hierarchy and a common social structure. Violate the customs and standards of the community, and the push back can be swift and extreme. This has been the case today with many of the most popular sections of Reddit being essentially disabled by the community’s own moderators.

The problem here is that from a business standpoint, those communities are owned by the company Reddit, and can simply be switched back on by Reddit admins effectively overriding the community moderators. There is some evidence that this is happening on a few of the more popular areas. As you might imagine the community’s reaction to this has been vocal and angry.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out in the next few days, but it highlights some tensions that are relevant far beyond the confines of Reddit. The questions it brings to mind are these:

When the interests of the community are in direct conflict with the interests of the business, how do you resolve the problem?

From a business standpoint, how do you balance the desires of shareholders and financial backers, while maintaining the community itself (which is in fact your only actual product)?

Can the voice of a community overpower the $$$$ of the company stakeholders? And if it can’t, can a community with no effective voice in its leadership survive?

Yeah… this is not just about Reddit.

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