Reddit is about to further censor its communities to attract advertisers


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14 years after it was founded, Reddit is one of the most visited websites in the United States – but its ability to make money has lagged far behind the more successful and influential social media competitors like Facebook and Google, and even Twitter.

Over the past couple of years, Reddit has unsurprisingly decided to attempt to make money off of the popularity of the platform and its large audience, but this comes at a time of constant and mounting pressure on any social media platform of consequence to police speech and bring it up to what are often arbitrary standards imposed by political and media power-centers.

And now the two problems – censorship and revenue growth – are interlinked, with Reddit paying lip service by saying it's trying to solve them both at the same time. With this in mind, what a Los Angeles Times story refers to as cleaning up a platform that is apparently giving rise to “chaos” promises to be a tricky task.

That's not least because, as co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman suggested in his comments for the newspaper, the process would essentially involve imposing control over the very ingredients that differentiate the platform and that originally grew its userbase: an open internet approach to content and moderation.

At the same time, Reddit's clean up is nothing new – over the past couple of years it has either restricted access and monetization options for several communities, most often those with conservative leanings, or has outright banned them. Among them is the “quarantined” r/TheDonald, a community of supporters of President Donald Trump.

Reddit has also recently introduced some incredibly vague new rules to which it expects users to adhere. At the same time Reddit introduced the rules, it deleted over 50 Reddit communities.

But Huffman now says that Reddit is still struggling with finding the right way to balance free speech with content policing, and revealed that he thinks he can find help in “history books.”

“These aren't new issues. I look to what people smarter than us have thought about them,” said Huffman. It's unclear if his reading list includes the US Constitution – that obvious “history book” to consult whenever in doubt about free speech.

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Money matters

What's obvious is that Huffman is eager to have both the approval of advertisers and avoid any strong negative reaction from users. After all, the one thing that can make an internet platform even less attractive to brands than “unsuitable” content is a platform with no users.

To lure in advertisers, Huffman explained, Reddit will give them a “human-approved ‘whitelist' of communities that are deemed safe” – and they will also be able to shun others that they don't like based on keyword filtering.

And like most similar operations, Reddit wants to combine artificial intelligence, i.e., machine learning algorithms and paid censors to track down unwanted content. At the same time, the company wants to continue to effectively crowdsource subreddit moderators as unpaid censors helping in Reddit's bid to become more attractive to advertisers.

To solve the problem of allowing its users to post and comment using aliases, Reddit plans to allow brands to target them “by interest, placing standard ads or ‘sponsored posts' in a particular discussion group.”

One of Reddit's flagship features, Ask Me Anything (AMA), will also be monetized: namely, brands will be allowed to “put experts forward to speak directly to users about a product or topic.”

However, Reddit is famously sketchy not only about its user engagement metrics but also about any detailed figures concerning its revenues, and advertisers are aware of this. Instead, what they have to work with are forecasts offered by market analysts earlier in the year that said Reddit would reach nearly $120 million in ad revenue in 2019.

But with an estimated 330 million active monthly users this is a low value per user. So despite having built its brand and boasting massive internet traffic figures, Reddit is still a small operation compared to social media giants.

There are some hard figures available, though: Reddit is now a Silicon Valley “unicorn” whose valuation reached $3 billion after the latest round of funding that raised $300 million, with China's Tencent emerging as the main investor.

And when it comes to the push to grow revenues, it's the likes of Facebook and Google that Reddit is hoping to poach advertisers from, seeing the increasingly unpopular “advertising duopoly” of the two dominant platforms as its chance. Reddit is trying to make itself more attractive not only with more involved content policing but also with cheap ads.

That effort will clearly require throwing some of the freedoms enjoyed by Reddit users under the bus; only time will tell to how far this policy will go and how much it will hurt communities to increase profit.

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Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovich is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovich is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]