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Social Media + Society
April-June 2019: 1â€“12
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On 2 July 2015, volunteer moderators of over 2,200 â€œsubredditâ€ communities on the social news platform reddit effectively went on strike. Moderators disabled their subreddits,
preventing millions of subscribers from accessing basic parts
of the reddit website. The â€œreddit blackout,â€ as it became
known, choked the company from advertising revenue and
forced reddit to negotiate over moderatorsâ€™ digital working
conditions. The company, already struggling with pressure
from racist and bullying groups that it had recently banned,
conceded to moderator demands within hours. Management
allocated resources to moderator needs, CEO Ellen Pao
resigned 1week later, and within 2months, the company had
hired its first Chief Technical Officer, partly to improve the
platformâ€™s moderation software (Olanoff, 2015).
Even as the blackout surfaced anxieties about the responsibilities of digital platforms to their volunteer workers, it
also led many to question the legitimacy of moderatorsâ€™ governance role. Some moderators were censured or even
ejected by their subreddits for joining the blackout without
consulting their communities. Conversely, many moderators
were pressured to join the blackout through subreddit-wide
votes and waves of private messages. Three weeks later, in
The New York Times magazine article, on the word â€œmoderator,â€ Adrian Chen (2015) wrote,
The moderator class has become so detached from its mediating
role at Reddit that it no longer functions as a means of creating
a harmonious community, let alone a profitable business. It has
become an end in itselfâ€”a sort of moderatocracy.
Are these moderators unpaid workers whose emotional
labor is exploited by platforms, are they facilitator citizens
upholding societyâ€™s collective communications, or are they
oligarchs who coordinate to rule our online lives with limited
accountability? Chen struggles to reconcile these views for
good reason. When making sense of the work of moderation,
scholars have tended to think primarily in one of three ways.
Scholarship on digital labor describes moderation as
unwaged labor for commercial interests or free labor in peer
production communities like Wikipedia (Menking &
Erickson, 2015; Postigo, 2003; Terranova, 2000). Legal theorists and computer scientists describe moderators as civic
leaders of online communities who build their own public
spheres (Kelty, 2005); much of this scholarship outlines
836778SMSXXX10.1177/2056305119836778Social Media <span class=”symbol” cstyle=”Mathematical”>+</span> SocietyMatias
Princeton University, USA
J. Nathan Matias, Center for Information Technology Policy and
Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540,
Email: [email protected]
The Civic Labor of
Volunteer Moderators Online
J. Nathan Matias
Volunteer moderators create, support, and control public discourse for millions of people online, even as moderatorsâ€™
uncompensated labor upholds platform funding models. What is the meaning of this work and who is it for? In this article,
I examine the meanings of volunteer moderation on the social news platform reddit. Scholarship on volunteer moderation
has viewed this work separately as digital labor for platforms, civic participation in communities, or oligarchy among other
moderators. In mixed-methods research sampled from over 52,000 subreddit communities and in over a dozen interviews,
I show how moderators adopt all of these frames as they develop and re-develop everyday meanings of moderationâ€”facing
the platform, their communities, and other moderators alike. I also show how this civic notion of digital labor brings clarity to
a strike by moderators in July 2015. Volunteer governance remains a common approach to managing social relations, conflict,
and civil liberties online. Our ability to see how communities negotiate the meaning of moderation will shape our capacity to
address digital governance as a society.
online behavior, digital labor, Internet governance, collective action, content moderation
2 Social Media + Society
general strategies to structure governance work for fair and
functional communities at scale (Butler, Sproull, Kiesler, &
Kraut, 2002; Grimmelmann, 2015). A third conversation
draws from the sociology of participation to consider the
social structures of those who acquire and exercise moderation power, finding common tendencies toward oligarchy
that may be necessary for the survival of online communities
(Shaw & Hill, 2014; Zhu, Kraut, & Kittur, 2014).
Even as scholars debate the nature of moderation work,
online communities routinely define what it means to be a
moderator in everyday settings: they dispute over moderator
decisions, recruit new moderators, participate in elections,
investigate corruption, offer mentorship, and share peer support. In their everyday work, moderators must satisfy and
explain themselves to all three parties identified in previous
research, sometimes simultaneously: the platform, their
communities, and their fellow moderators. The platform
operators must be satisfied that a moderator is appropriately
productive, communities must accept the legitimacy of a
moderatorâ€™s governance, and other moderators must also
trust and support the moderator throughout their work.
Academic views of moderation work typically attend to
only one of these stakeholders at a time. Digital labor
research on the role of moderation in a â€œprofitable businessâ€
attends to the relationship between moderation work and
platform operators. Scholarship on the civic outcomes of
moderation emphasizes the relationship of moderators with
the publics they govern. Finally, studies on moderator social
structures draw attention to the ties and obligations of moderators to each other.
The everyday work of defining volunteer moderation is
central to the legitimacy and power of online governance;
however, scholars choose to describe it. Consider, for example, the issue of compensation. Since moderators create and
enact policy on acceptable speech, their work fundamentally
shapes our digitally mediated social and political lives.
Moderators respond to conflict and harassment online, risks
that 40% of American adults report experiencing (Duggan,
2014). This valuable work is costly. Professional services
reportedly charged between US$4 and US$25 cents per comment in 2014 (Isaf, 2014). In 2008, America Online (AOL)
community leaders settled a class action lawsuit over unpaid
wages for US$15 million (Kirchner, 2011). In recent years,
many news organizations have disabled public discussions,
unable to afford moderation costs (Gupta, 2016).
Although platforms could afford moderation costs, the
legitimacy of moderation is also affected by how communities interpret compensation models. On reddit, many communities see paid moderation as corruption, forcing out
moderators accused of receiving compensation or favors in
exchange for their labor (Martinez, 2013). Because moderation is governance as well as labor, its legitimacy depends on
the beliefs of people other than the moderators who create
and enforce policies. Consequently, the processes that shape
the meaning of moderation also define its power.
In this article, I examine how the meaning of moderation
is defined in the everyday boundary work carried out by volunteer moderators on reddit as they negotiate the idea of
moderation. Boundary work, as described by Gieryn, is discursive activity that attempts to define the boundaries of a
profession or field, to support claims to authority and
resources (Gieryn, 1983). These boundaries are â€œdrawn and
redrawn in flexible, historically changing and sometimes
ambiguous waysâ€ that reflect the ambivalences and strains
within a given institution. In online platforms such as reddit,
volunteer moderators define and redefine what it means to be
a moderator in conversation with platform operators, their
communities, and other moderators. To foreground the ways
that moderation is defined with all three parties, I introduce
the idea of â€œcivic laborâ€ to describe authority that is defined
through negotiations with these commercial, civic, and peer
While online platforms do pay some people to enact their
content policies (Gillespie, 2018; Roberts, 2016), volunteer
moderators have played a fundamental role in social life
online for over 40years. Many online social systems fundamentally rely on volunteers, from librarians in 1970s
Berkeley looking after local message-boards (Bruckman,
1998) to todayâ€™s Facebook group administrators (Kushin &
Kitchener, 2009), Wikipedia arbitrators (Menking &
Erickson, 2015), and reddit moderators. Although not all
work of fostering community is carried out by designated
moderators, people in these formal positions are founders,
maintainers, content producers, promoters, policymakers,
and enforcers of policy across the social Internet (Butler
et al., 2002). On many platforms, moderators also manage
autonomous and semi-autonomous moderation software that
work alongside them (Geiger & Ribes, 2010).
By delegating policy and governance power to moderators, platform operators reduce labor costs and limit their
regulatory liability for conduct on their service while also
positioning themselves as champions of free expression and
cultural generativity (Gillespie, 2010). This governance
work invites public scrutiny, which draws platforms into
debates about their responses to flagged material (Crawford
& Gillespie, 2014). However, when platforms delegate policy-making to their users, that scrutiny is faced instead by
moderators, whose labor nonetheless upholds a platformâ€™s
On reddit, the evolution of moderation followed this longer 40-year pattern. When redditâ€™s creators founded it in
2005 to be â€œthe front page of the Internet,â€ they developed an
infrastructure for sharing and promoting highly voted posts a
single, algorithmically curated page. After these algorithms
regularly promoted pornography and other complicated, possibly illegal material, the platform created an alternative
algorithmic space for â€œNot Safe For Workâ€(NSFW) material,
calling it a â€œsubredditâ€ 1month later (Huffman, 2006). Over
the next 2years, the company started dozens of new subreddits, mostly to separate conversations in different languages.
In January 2008, after its acquisition by CondÃ© Nast and
10months after introducing advertising, the company
launched â€œuser-controlled subreddits.â€ Before then, users
could join official company subreddits, reporting spam and
abuse directly to the company through a flagging system.
Now they could create their own public and private subreddits, taking action themselves to â€œremove posts and ban
usersâ€ (Huffman, 2007, 2008). By giving communities delegated power to define their own governance, reddit was positioning itself as a platform and disclaiming responsibility for
how its users behaved.
Seven years later, reddit was one of the largest social platforms online. In the month before the reddit blackout, the
company received over 160 million visitors,1
roughly half of
the number of active Twitter users in the same period.2
maintain social relations at that scale, reddit relied on nearly
150,000 moderator roles3
for over 52,000 monthly active
Moderation as Free Labor in the Social Factory of
Digital labor scholarship on the work of moderators foregrounds their relationship with online platforms: theorizing
the role of moderatorsâ€™ volunteer work within platform business models. Among examples in open source and free culture, this scholarship also frequently refers to labor organizing
by community leaders (essentially moderators) of AOL chat
rooms and other communities in the 1990s. Initially eager to
offer moderation work in exchange for discounts, credit, and
other perks, some of the 14,000 â€œcommunity leadsâ€ came to
see their work as unpaid labor. Moderators filed a class
action lawsuit in 1999, prompting an inconclusive US
Department of Labor investigation. The community leaders
eventually won US$15million from AOL in a 2008 settlement (Kirchner, 2011; Postigo, 2009).
In an analysis of labor organizing by AOL moderators,
Terranova points out that this freely given labor comprises an
arrangement where people carry out self-directed cultural
and social work that produces the value extracted by platforms. For Terranova, the â€œfree laborâ€ of platform production is something that is both â€œnot financially rewarded [by
platforms] and willingly given [by users]â€ (Terranova, 2000).
In a series of articles on the AOL lawsuit, Postigo explores
the nature of the delicate symbiosis between platforms and
moderators by observing the factors that led this arrangement to collapse. Postigo observes that the gift of volunteer
time by AOL moderators was inspired by the â€œearly Internet
community spiritâ€ found in â€œhacker historyâ€ and in â€œthe academic, collaborative efforts that shaped the Internetâ€ in the
1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Yet some also took on the role to
grow their technical skills or gain the discounts initially
offered to volunteers. As AOL grew, the company began to
formalize and control the relationship with their community
leaders through communications, software, and compensation structures. No longer allowed the autonomy to imagine
themselves as cultural gift-givers, the community leaders reimagined themselves as mistreated employees and sued the
company. Postigo describes their labor organizing as an
effort to â€œstake out new occupational territoryâ€ for â€œcommunity makingâ€ on the Internet, an example of people who were
â€œbreaking out of the â€˜social factoryâ€™â€ that Terranova put forward (Postigo, 2003, 2009).
Terranova and Postigo rightly draw attention to the codependence of many online platforms with the substantial
uncompensated labor that continues to support them.
Community management is now more common as a paid
position, but the majority of the labor continues to be unpaid.
Theories of digital labor offer clarity on the challenges of
creating a â€œprofitable business,â€ through volunteer labor, as
Adrian Chen phrased it in The New York Times.
In many ways, the reddit blackout defies explanation by
prior theories of volunteer moderation. Moderators did not
attempt to stake out their work as an occupation, nor did they
demand compensation. Instead, they leveraged redditâ€™s
dependence on advertising to force the company to better
meet their needs and those of their communities. As
Centivanny has argued, the reddit blackout was a social
movement focused on company policy, a moment where the
dependence of a platform on volunteer labor was deployed to
achieve aims with as many civic dimensions as economic
ones (Centivany & Glushko, 2016).
Moderation as Civic Participation
Volunteer moderation is also the work of creating, maintaining, and defining â€œnetworked publics,â€ imagined collective
spaces that â€œallow people to gather for social, cultural, and
civic purposesâ€ (boyd, 2010). While social platforms offer
technical infrastructures that constitute these publics, the
work of creating and maintaining these imagined spaces is
carried out in many everyday ways by platform participants
and moderators. Butler and colleagues call the work of moderation â€œcommunity maintenance,â€ drawing attention to the
â€œcommunal challenge of developing and maintaining their
existence.â€ They compare these communities to neighborhood societies, churches, and social movements. Writing
about the details of community work online, Butler and colleagues draw attention to the benefits of affiliation and
social capital. Where Terranova and Postigo see labor in service of platform business models, Butler and his colleagues
(2002) describe community maintenance as a service to the
community itself. This view on the work of maintaining
communities is similar to what Boyte and Kari (1996) call
â€œpublic work,â€ an activity of cooperative citizenship that
â€œcreates social as well as material cultureâ€ (p. 21). Aside
from the unique challenges of tending community software,
4 Social Media + Society
the mailing list moderators studied by Butler support their
communities by recruiting newcomers, managing social
dynamics, and participating in the community.
As online harassment has grown in prominence, scholarship on the role of moderators has drawn attention to their
work to protect peopleâ€™s capacities to participate in publics.
Volunteers who respond to harassment create and manage
technical infrastructures such as â€œblock botsâ€ and moderation bots to filter â€œharassment, incivility, hate speech, trolling, and other related phenomena,â€ argues Stuart Geiger.
These volunteer efforts see moderation as â€œa civil rights
issue of governance,â€ where marginalized groups deploy
community infrastructure to claim spaces for conversation,
community, and support (Geiger, 2016).
While these civic perspectives on moderation acknowledge the role of platforms, they foreground the relationship
between moderators and the publics they are responsible for.
The labor of moderators does sustain platform economies,
yet the work itself is most directly concerned with the specific communities they govern. When moderators are questioned, as Adrian Chen did in The New York Times magazine,
it is often for their record at fostering â€œharmonious community.â€ Yet theories of moderation as civic participation miss
important ways that moderators define their work in relation
to platforms and other moderators, sometimes in ways that
conflict with the wishes of their communities.
Moderation as Oligarchy
Even as moderation work supports community, the power of
individual moderators is defined and managed by other moderators who gate-keep the process of taking on and maintaining the role. A third perspective on volunteer moderation
examines ways that this work is socially structured by other
moderators and the interests of these moderators can diverge
from the goals of their communities.
Early theories of leadership development in online communities imagined a â€œreader to leaderâ€ process where more
active participants gain greater responsibility over time
(Preece & Shneiderman, 2009). However, longitudinal
research by Shaw and Hill has shown online communities to
be much more like other voluntary organizations, where
â€œgroup of early members consolidate and exercise a monopoly of power within the organization as their interests diverge
from the collectiveâ€™s.â€ Across 683 Wikia wikis, they find
support for this â€œiron law of oligarchy,â€ showing that on
average, a small group does come to control the positions of
formal authority as a wiki grows (Shaw & Hill, 2014). Yet
where Shaw and Hill see oligarchy, others see experience
necessary for online communities to flourish. Also studying
Wikia, Zhu and colleagues (2014) interpreted similar findings to argue that communities whose leaders also lead other
communities are more likely to survive and grow.
In all these cases, experienced and powerful moderators
control the process for others to gain and maintain
their positions. Anyone seeking the role must negotiate that
position with other moderators as well as their community
and the platform. While moderators are powerful as a group,
theories of oligarchy cannot explain the ways that platforms
and communities do exert power in volunteer moderation, or
the ways that moderators negotiate their work in relation to
those other stakeholders.
Standpoint and Methods
My attempt to understand the meaning of volunteer moderation is grounded in my standpoint as a researcher who works
directly with online communities and volunteer moderators
in studies that are independent from the technology industry
(Matias & Mou, 2018). When developing this research, I
needed ways to think about the power relations of volunteer
moderation and how to negotiate that power with the stakeholders involved. I began asking these questions after leading a team to study efforts by Women, Action, and the Media
(WAM!), a non-governmental organization (NGO) that was
supporting people experiencing harassment on Twitter
(Matias et al., 2015). The volunteers who reviewed harassment reports and advocated the cases to Twitter were criticized from multiple directions. Some argued that these
advocates represented a step backward for progress on online
harassment, taking on labor that Twitter should be paying for
(Meyer, 2014). WAM! certainly managed its relationship
with Twitter to retain the privilege of supporting harassment
receivers and maintain a public voice on the companyâ€™s policies. Others called our project a dangerous form of authoritarian censorship (Sullivan, 2014). The volunteers saw their
work as a contribution to civic life in service to the people
who asked for their help. Which of these was true? In our
answers to ourselves and to these stakeholders, WAM! and
our research team needed to draw and redraw the boundaries
of our work to manage public expectations and serve the
public good we hoped we could provide.
My fieldwork with reddit moderators began at a time
when I was trying understand the many-sided scrutiny that
WAM!â€™s harassment reviewers had faced. WAM!â€™s responders might be unpaid volunteers who took on a substantial
burden of emotional labor, but they were also a privately
selected group with substantial power over others. Their
work served platform operators who could remove them at
will. They also served and governed users, who pressured
them to share and justify their actions. As I spent time with
reddit moderators, I watched them respond to similar questions from these multiple sides, a position many moderators
had been negotiating for years.
To study the discursive boundary work that reddit moderators conduct with platforms, communities, and each other,
I carried out participant observation, content analysis, interviews, and trace data collection on the social news site reddit
over a 4-month period from June through September 2015,
with follow-up data collection through February 2016.
Collected content includes 10 years of public statements by
the company, 90 published interviews by moderators of other
moderators, statements by over 200 subreddits that joined
the blackout, over 150 subreddit discussions after concluding
participation in the blackout, and over 100 discussions in
subreddits that declined to join the blackout.4
I also used the
reddit API to conduct trace analysis of moderator roles in the
population of 52,735 active subreddits. Finally, I held semistructured interviews with 14 moderators of subreddits of all
sizes, sampled from communities both sides of the blackout.
Interviewees included moderators of â€œNSFWâ€ subreddits
only available to users 18 years or older, as well as more
widely accessible subreddits. Moderators of subreddits allegedly associated with hate speech declined to participate. I
coded interviews, blog posts, online discussions, and other
records by entering them into the Tinderbox information
management system, where I tagged, clustered, and constructed qualitative evidence (Bernstein, 2003).
In this article, I focus on moments of tension and transition that brought debates over the meaning of moderation to
the fore, including disputes over moderator decisions, the
process of becoming a moderator, transitions of leadership,
conflicts between communities, crises of legitimacy, the
work of starting new communities, debates over compensation, and collective action during the reddit blackout of July
2015. Throughout points of tension and transition, moderators carry out the work of defining this civic labor at the
boundaries of their relationships with platforms, their communities, and other moderators.
Disputing and Justifying Moderation
Decisions with Communities
When someoneâ€™s contribution to reddit is removed by moderators, it can often come as a surprise. Since many participants engage primarily with the platformâ€™s aggregated feed,
they may not be aware that the posts they submit are subject
to a subredditâ€™s community policies (Massanari, 2015).
Responses to moderation decisions are often received
through â€œmodmail,â€ a shared inbox for each subredditâ€™s
moderators. Complaints often include moderation policy
debates, profanity, racist slurs, and threats of violence.
Even when moderators ignore the complaints, these disputes shape the language the moderators use to describe
their roles as dictators, martyrs, janitors, hosts, connoisseurs, and policymakers.
Some moderators describe themselves as â€œdictators,â€
arguing that the power they exercised needed no justification. In these communities, â€œthe top mod makes all the decisions, usually because s/he created the sub.â€ Those who
complain are urged either to accept moderator power or to
Moderators of subreddits dedicated to marginalized communities sometimes explain themselves as defenders. One
moderator described the former moderator of a gender
minority subreddit as a â€œmartyr, angry and whirling and
ready to give hell to anyone who dared to cross her or to
threaten her communities.â€ When adopting the figure of a
defender, moderators draw attention to the moral and political justifications for their exercise of power.
Other moderators adopt language from hospitality or service labor, describing themselves as â€œhostsâ€ and â€œjanitors.â€
These analogies de-politicize their role. Describing themselves in this way, one moderator argued that â€œmy subreddits
belong to my communities, I just happen to help out by
cleaning up.â€ Reflecting on the accusations and complaints
they receive, another moderator explained,
It seems like itâ€™s some sort of important position, while itâ€™s
actually just janitoral work . . . the degree of accusations, insults,
abuse and unreasonable complaints from the politically
interested is extreme . . . itâ€™s janitorial when you remove
hundreds of comments that just say â€œkill yourself blackie.â€
When I asked moderators whether the language of janitor
also implied a labor critique toward the reddit company, they
disagreed. One described the language of janitor as â€œa
response to complaints about conspiracies, censorship, etcâ€
rather their relationship to the company.
Many moderators describe themselves as connoisseurs
when explaining their decisions about what to remove. In
one subreddit dedicated to shocking material, moderators
expressed disappointment over the lack of nuance and quality in submittersâ€™ sense of the truly shocking. For example,
one moderator claimed that too many submitters are shocked
by images of nudity, violent injury, or death; moderators considered these too commonplace for inclusion. These moderators described themselves as taste-makers for their
communities: â€œwe are fucked up, but in a courtesy sniff kinda
way that youâ€™re ok with sharing with your friends.â€
Some moderators respond to complaints of censorship by
drawing inspiration from the language of governance. These
subreddits describe their decisions in terms of â€œpoliciesâ€ and
sometimes produce transparency reports of moderation
actions. One subreddit described its transparency report as a
response to participant complaints, an effort â€œtowards
improving user-moderator relations.â€5
Their five-page report
offered an empirical response to common complaints
received by moderators of this 10million subscriber community. Several other large subreddits publish aggregated transparency reports, with some sharing public logs of every
action taken by the groupâ€™s moderators. By publishing transparency reports, moderators position themselves as civic
actors accountable to their communities. The reports deflect
criticism while also inviting evidence-based discussions of
The language of governance is also used by reddit participants who investigate and analyze moderator behavior.
One interviewee described investigating and â€œexposingâ€ a
6 Social Media + Society
moderator for encouraging reddit users to share sexual photographs of minors. The investigators organized a press
campaign to pressure the company, who then shut down the
subreddit involved (Morris, 2011). In another case, participants accused a large technology subredditâ€™s moderators of
censoring political discussions. To support these accusations, one person conducted data analysis of the subredditâ€™s
history, creating charts that showed a sharp cutoff in discussions of surveillance and other political topics. The moderatorsâ€™ accusers argued that the subreddit lacked
â€œaccountabilityâ€ and â€œtransparency.â€ After the reddit platform sanctioned the subreddit amid substantial international press coverage, the moderators also invoked the
language of governance, making a formal public statement
that â€œthe mods directly responsible for this system are no
longer a part of the team and the new team is committed to
maintaining a transparent style of moderation.â€ (BBC,
2014; Collier, 2014).
Internships, Applications, and Elections:
Becoming a Moderator on reddit
The practical work of recruiting and choosing new moderators also requires people to define what it means to be a
moderator. Since a subredditâ€™s current moderators control
the reddit softwareâ€™s process of appointing new moderators, would-be moderators must justify themselves and
their ideas of the work to their would-be peers. Likewise,
current moderators invest substantial labor into the work of
admitting new moderators. At these moments of transition,
democratic, oligarchic, and professional notions of moderator work come into tension as subreddits negotiate who
should select the leaders and what qualities they should
Among those interviewed, moderators gained their positions through a wide range of means. One was added by a
school friend who needed extra help. Others were invited to
be moderators after demonstrating substantial participation
in the subredditâ€™s affairs. One was made a moderator in
appreciation of their role to expose the scandal over sexual
images of minors. Some were recruited for their expertise at
operating the reddit platform software. Yet many subreddits
also operate formal structures for adding moderators, systems that draw from the language of the workplace and the
Many subreddits hold a formal application process for
becoming a moderator. In the simplest versions, interested
parties fill out an interview form, noting their time zone
and availability, describing their moderation experience,
listing their skills, and explaining their reasons for applying. One popular subreddit received 600 applications in
one recruitment effort, identified a shortlist of 60 applicants to interview, and chose from the shortlist. The process from call to selection can take from weeks to over a
While moderator teams sometimes take final responsibility for selecting new moderatorsâ€”what Shaw and Hill call
oligarchyâ€”some subreddits open the final selection to subscribers. The reddit platform doesnâ€™t support ballots, so subreddits have developed their own voting systems. Speaking
about elections in a community for people from marginalized
groups in the United States, a moderator explained, â€œI got
one ballot, just like every one else.â€ Yet especially with elections, moderators still felt responsible to filter possible nominees lest the wrong person become elected. The same
moderator explained that public opinion wasnâ€™t appropriate
for nominating candidates since it risked reinforcing prejudice: â€œlots of people who canâ€™t be bigots so much anymore
[due to social pressure] have found that they can still target
[minority group] and nobody seems to mind.â€
If voting software supplies infrastructure for democratic
notions of moderation, the job board for finding experienced
moderators outside of a community offers infrastructure for
more oligarchic forms of leadership. This subreddit publishes moderation opportunities alongside â€œoffers to mod.â€
Postings routinely offer arguments on the nature of moderation work, such as the disinterested approach to moderation
offered in one job listing for a community with frequent
Iâ€™m looking for an impartial moderator, who doesnâ€™t belong to
[organization], and who doesnâ€™t hold a specific view on it. Must
â€¢â€ƒ been on reddit for at least 2 years
â€¢â€ƒ moderating experience
The sub is an open platform to discuss [topic], but prejudiced
comments arenâ€™t allowed.
Soon after the primary moderator posted this message,
community members, who had noticed the listing, added
objections: â€œSeriously? We have posted so many requests for
mods to that sub. We have even posted solutions that result in
a very balanced 3 party system.â€ These community members
accused the poster of delinquency and argued strongly
against the idea of disinterested, objective moderation:
â€œAnyone without knowledge on the subject will be unable to
effectively moderate the sub.â€ After an extended discussion,
the moderator accepted their proposal, and the â€œthree party
systemâ€ was still in place over 1 year later.
Even democratic subreddits emphasize previous experience when selecting moderators, leading many to seek and
tout their moderation â€œrÑsumÑ.â€ Since a medium-to-large
subreddit is unlikely to accept applicants with limited experience, some subreddits grow their labor pool by offering
â€œinternshipsâ€ and other entry-level moderation opportunities. /r/SubredditOfTheDay, which publishes original content every day, offers a 2-month internship for people seeking
moderation opportunities. Interns agree to write six original
posts that feature interviews with the moderation teams of
other subreddits. Those who finish the internship period are
made full moderators, and they also gain opportunities to
moderate other subreddits.
The process of choosing moderators is one of the most
powerful ways to define the meaning of moderation and
acculturate moderators to that meaning. Even during attempts
at democracy or oligarchy, the other stakeholders still shape
this acculturation through the platform software, through
public pressure, or through the power that moderators have
over the process.
Crises in Legitimacy and the Removal
In technical terms, only two parties can remove a moderator
from their position on reddit. Platform employees, known as
â€œadmins,â€ occasionally remove moderators if they are convinced that the moderator was inactive or abusing their
power. Moderators with greater seniority also possess the
power to remove those within the same community who
were appointed more recently.
In an interview, one moderator described a â€œcoup attemptâ€
by moderators who systematically removed others who disagreed with their political views. Someone noticed the
attempt in time and reinstated the ejected moderators. In
another case, the sibling of someone who moderated a 30,000
subscriber group compromised their reddit account, took
charge of the subreddit, and only restored it upon receiving
threats of violence. Many moderators, especially those of
large or contentious subreddits, pay close attention to their
personal information security to protect against such takeovers. Platform employees will also occasionally take action
to restore a subredditâ€™s moderators when asked.
Moderators are more commonly removed for failing to
perform their role. In some cases, would-be moderators
appeal to the platform, who offer a process for requesting
moderation of â€œinactiveâ€ subreddits. In other cases, a moderator loses their legitimacy to governâ€”as in the case of the
technology moderators that were removing all conversations
about surveillance. In these cases, community participants
sometimes pursue the person they mistrust, incessantly
mocking their pronouncements and questioning their decisions. Such cases tend to conclude with a post from the moderator announcing their resignation, or a post from other
moderators announcing that the offending moderator has
Moderator Compensation and
In 2012, a moderator of three of the largest subreddits posted
links to an online news outlet after being hired as a social
media advisor by the publisherâ€™s marketing firm (Morris,
2012). In response, the reddit platform banned the user and
added a rule against third party compensation. Moderators
also receive substantial scrutiny and criticism from their
communities for alleged â€œcorruption.â€
In one case, someone sent messages on the reddit platform to â€œa few dozenâ€ moderators, offering compensation
for help promoting their content. When some moderators
reported the offer to reddit, employees investigated the private messages of everyone who received the offer. When the
employees noticed that some moderators had responded positively, the company banned their accounts, including moderators of some of the platformâ€™s largest, most popular NSFW
subreddits (Martinez, 2013). In 2015, a large gaming company asked moderators to remove links to material that could
not legally be published, offering moderators early access to
an upcoming Star Wars game in exchange for their help.
When one moderator reported the relationship to reddit
employees, the others removed the moderator for a time,
until they themselves were banned by reddit for accepting a
â€œbribe.â€ A reddit representative explained that the gaming
company should have used alternative channels to address
illegally shared material (Khan, 2015). In another case, a
mobile phone manufacturer offered â€œperksâ€ to moderators of
a subreddit that commonly discussed their products. In
exchange, the company asked that its employees be made
moderators. To protect themselves from community disapproval or platform intervention, moderators reported the
request to reddit and posted the offending messages for discussion by their community (Farrell, 2015).
In interviews, moderators were insistent that they did not
seek compensation, arguing that news articles that focused
on their unpaid status failed to understand the nature of their
work. One interviewee brought up the AOL community
leader program, arguing that reddit moderators were different because they werenâ€™t managed as closely as the AOL volunteers. This independence was important to many
moderators, including one who claimed, â€œI donâ€™t think I
work for reddit. I run communities and reddit is the tool I use
to do that.â€ Yet at the time of the reddit blackout, moderators
also felt ignored by the company behind these â€œtools.â€ One
explained that â€œit doesnâ€™t help when the site you are on
doesnâ€™t appreciate/recognize/care about the cumulative thousands and thousands of hours the mods put in to make their
Starting Subreddits and Governing
While some new subreddits are created to support a preexisting community, many moderators describe â€œfoundingâ€ a
subreddit and developing a growing community over time.
Yet even the work of creating new subreddits requires managing the expectations of platform operators, moderators,
and community participants. In interviews, I observed these
8 Social Media + Society
negotiations among relationship-themed subreddits and networks of subreddits.
Relationship subreddits offer listings of people who are
looking for conversations, penpals, and relationships,
sometimes sexual, but often not. When one moderator
started a group for users of a mobile messaging system,
their goal was to help newcomers on the messaging platform â€œfind more people to chat with,â€ whatever age. As the
subreddit grew, participants continued to post requests for
relationships and conversations that could be illegal for
minors. These â€œdirtyâ€ relationship requests also put the
subreddit at risk of intervention from reddit employees.
Rather than designate the subreddit â€œNSFW,â€ which would
limit minors from accessing the group, the moderator created a parallel subreddit for â€œdirtyâ€ relationship matching.
By splitting the conversation, the moderator found a way to
meet community expectations while also protecting the primary subreddit from platform intervention. When asked
why they moderated a community that wasnâ€™t safe for children, the moderator explained that â€œI never intended to
moderate a NSFW subreddit. It blew me away the community want for it.â€
Creators of new subreddits also work to comply with the
expectations of other moderators, especially if they seek to
join a subreddit â€œnetwork.â€ These networks are jointly managed collections of subreddits that share moderators and a
common governance structure. Some networks specialize in
a particular kind of content. Several offer inspiring generalinterest photography; others share celebrity pornography.
Some networks adopt a structure akin to city states. To join
the network, a moderator must grow their subreddit to a minimum size, institute a set of network-designated policies, and
convince a â€œchampionâ€ within the network to advocate for
their inclusion. These champions also help new network
members comply with the networkâ€™s requirements. New subreddits are inducted by vote from the moderators. At the time
of writing, the largest two networks included 169 and 117
constituent subreddits, although networks also occur at
One network stopped accepting new subreddits after participants in a newly added subreddit began â€œdoxingâ€ reddit
usersâ€”a practice of publishing the addresses and phone
numbers of people they disliked:
one time we added a sub, vetted them, once we approved them,
they started posting information on reddit users, so it looked like
[the network] had approved doxxing, which was one of the two
things that could get us banned [by the company].
Rather than risk reprisals from the platform operator, the
network dissociated itself from the offending subreddit and
halted all new applications. To address future risks, they
required all groups to accept a lead moderator from the networkâ€™s central leadership, to keep â€œeveryone pointed in the
Acknowledeging Moderatorsâ€™ Position
With Platform, Community, and Other
Two regularly shared comic strips by former moderator
Daniel Allen remark directly on the work that moderators
must do to manage their relationships with their communities, other moderators, and the reddit platform. The first â€œlife
of a modâ€ comic strip presents moderators as people who
carry out a wide range of community care for little appreciation. In the comic, moderators are janitors, referees, police,
educators, and artists (Figure 1). The second presents the
â€œLife of a Secret Cabal Mod,â€ drawing attention to the accusations of oligarchy that moderators receive. The heading of
each panel includes a common accusation toward moderators. The illustration beneath each heading offers an alternative explanation for the behavior that attracts accusation. For
example, when one moderator helps another learn to remove
what they see as hate speech, they could be accused of conspiring to silence dissent. When platform employees share
software updates and moderators pass on community complaints to the company, they might also be accused of collusion (Figure 2). By drawing attention to the complicated
negotiations that moderators conduct in multiple directions,
Allenâ€™s comics themselves make a case for how those parties
should see moderators.
Civic Labor in the Reddit Blackout
Scholars of moderation work have rightly identified the
stakeholders that moderators face as they negotiate the meaning of the work. This â€œcivic laborâ€ requires moderators to
serve three masters with whom they negotiate the idea of
moderation: the platform, reddit participants, and other moderators. Moderators differ in the pressure they receive from
these parties and the weight they give them. Some face further stakeholders outside the platform. Yet attempts to make
sense of moderation by focusing on any one of these relationships can bring the other actors out of focus. These limitations become apparent when attempting to make sense of
the reddit blackout, which was not a labor dispute, not always
a collective action from communities, and not entirely a
coordinated action by a bloc of organized moderators seeking to consolidate power. All three of these interlocutors in
the boundary work of moderators are apparent in prior
research on the factors that predicted a subredditâ€™s chance of
joining the blackout. Those models show that communityrelated factors as well as factors in the relations between
moderators predicted the likelihood of a subreddit to put
pressure on the company (Matias, 2016). Across the population of subreddits, moderators found the decision thrust upon
them. Their actions represent the outcomes of unique negotiations with the three parties who together bring their work
Deciding to Join the Blackout
The reddit blackout was precipitated when the company dismissed an employee who had consistently offered direct
support to moderators in some of the siteâ€™s most popular discussions: live question-answer sessions with notable people,
called Ask-Me-Anything threads (Isaac, 2015). Moderators
of the /r/IamA subreddit described being caught off guard
while in the middle of a live Q&A. When they disabled their
subreddit to decide their response (Lynch & Swearingen,
2015), other moderators of large subreddits took note. To
these observers, the companyâ€™s failure to coordinate the transition with moderators was another sign of its neglect of
moderator needs. Moderators had already been attempting to
convince the company to improve moderator software and
increase its coordination with moderators. In interviews,
moderators explained that moderators of the largest groups
had previously dismissed the idea of blacking out. But â€œafter
she was fired, the idea came up again, [and] no one was
really against it.â€ These moderators described the blackout
as a tactic that might give greater leverage to company
employees who routinely advocated for moderator interests.
When other moderators observed the behavior of these large
groups, many joined the blackout, leaving messages on their
subreddits expressing â€œsolidarityâ€ for moderators affected by
Even as moderators discussed the blackout with each
other, they also negotiated pressures from their communities
over the decision to join the blackout. In interviews, moderators described receiving large volumes of private messages
from participants that urged them toward or against the
blackout. In response, many posted discussion threads asking for community opinions or announcing their decisions.
Figure 1. â€œLife of a Modâ€ comic by former moderator Daniel Allen, /u/solidwhetstone.
Figure 2. Details from â€œLife of a Secret Cabal Modâ€ comic by
former moderator Daniel Allen, /u/solidwhetstone.
10 Social Media + Society
In one post, a moderator apologized for â€œthe inconvenience
of going darkâ€ and explained,
I did get messages from people. The more I watched and saw
more and more subs going down, I figured it was worth sending
a message [to the platform]. We had kind of a mod vote and
decided to black out.
Community interests were considered in many moderator
decisions. One group of gaming-related subreddits, whose
moderators see it as an â€œisland just barely within redditâ€ concluded that joining the blackout would â€œpunish our users
who donâ€™t know or donâ€™t care about reddits politics.â€ Yet
they still faced pressure from many their community to join
the blackout: â€œwe eventually released the statement after we
received dozens of modmails and posts on both subreddits.â€
Some moderators invited their communities to vote on
participation in the blackout. In many cases, moderators followed the results of community votes. Yet networks of moderators did not always agree with their communities. In one
subreddit in a subreddit network, one moderator held a vote
that came out in favor of the blackout. The rest of the network stayed active; moderators more central to the network
described the vote as a â€œrogue factionâ€ and ignored it.
Instead, they issued a proclamation that the entire network
would stay out of the protest. Elsewhere, one moderator
described their community vote as a way to distract those
who were clamoring for the blackout, gaining time for moderators to reach a collective decision. Many moderators and
participants questioned the legitimacy of the votes that did
occur, guessing that the results might be skewed by influxes
of reddit users beyond their community who wanted to influence a communityâ€™s decision.
Across these situations, moderators faced the same three
questions: what would their actions say to the platform, to
other moderators, and to their communities? The effect of the
blackout on redditâ€™s civic labor would not be limited to their
relationship with the companyâ€”it would affect every other
relationship in their everyday moderation work.
Defending Decisions After the Blackout
Moderators also faced the consequences of their decisions
once the blackout concluded. When the platform operators
quickly ceded to moderator demands, many declared victory.
Community and moderator reactions were more complex.
While some subreddits systematically removed any mention
of the blackout, it was more common for moderators to post
a discussion explaining what had happened. Especially for
subreddits that were disabled for the entire weekend, this
conversation could be heated. Only a small number of participants might notice a vote called at the moment of decision; many more would feel the effects of a blacked-out
community. At these moments, moderators often defended
themselves by referring to these votes. â€œYouâ€™re all upset
about the blackout decision. Which is silly. If you were upset
why didnâ€™t you raise your concerns?â€ one wrote. In other
cases, moderators assigned responsibility to a single moderator acting alone. Sometimes, they offered statements that
they removed the person from the moderation team or
encouraged them to resign.
In many of these discussions, moderators expressed support for the blackout, explained the reasons one might join
the protest, and also apologized to their communities. These
statements positioned moderators as supporters of the blackout while also defending themselves from community critiques. One recipe-sharing subreddit moderator took a
compromise position by briefly joining the blackout and then
re-opening in advance of 4 July US Independence Day parties. They expressed their â€œfull supportâ€ for the other moderators, drew attention to an overwhelming community vote
to blackout, and then wrote an apology: â€œwe are deeply sorry
for the outage. Things need to change on reddit, and this was
our best way to let them know our demands.â€
Conclusion: Civic Labor Online
While the details of volunteer moderation are always under
negotiation, the negotiations surrounding this civic labor
always face platform operators, community participants, and
other moderators. Scholarly accounts of moderation are right
to draw attention to these different stakeholders, but a clearer
account of moderation work should attend to all three at
once, just as moderators must always do. All three forces
acculturate a moderator to their ever-changing position, from
the application process to the moment they step down or are
From the most common dispute over a single comment
removal to collective actions that make international news,
the meaning of moderation is described in all three ways as
people define and redefine the boundaries of moderation.
Calling this work civic labor allows us to acknowledge the
complex and contingent nature of volunteer moderation
throughout the conversations that draw and redraw its meaning together with platforms, the public, and moderators
These stakeholders are not an exclusive list. For example,
during the reddit blackout, two reddit moderators published
a New York Times opinion article in the attempt to retain their
celebrity guests and large public audience (Lynch &
Swearingen, 2015). Yet I argue, based on my fieldwork, that
negotiations with these three stakeholders are central to any
discussion of volunteer governance online.
This civic labor has been a recurring pattern in a 40-year
history of volunteers being invited, elected, and chosen into
governance positions online. Nor is it unique to for-profit
platform; moderators of non-profit platforms such as
Wikipedia face a similar set of stakeholders to maintain their
roles, as do the journalists involved in fact-checking news on
Facebook (Ananny, 2018).
It is possible that civic labor may also be found beyond
online platforms: in debates over the unionization of school
street-crossing guards, among parents who coach community sports within for-profit leagues, in the elected school
boards of publicly funded private schools, or in the everyday
governance work of scholarly peer review. In all these cases,
volunteers do more than just the work associated with their
role: they must negotiate the meaning of their civic role and
power with each other and with a wider system that relies on
Even if civic labor is unique to our digitally mediated
social lives, the sense we make of this work will shape our
capacity to build meaningful relationships online while protecting public safety, managing our civil liberties, and
upholding principles of justice. By recognizing that work
more clearly, we can build the understandings we need to
address these challenges as a society.
This work was undertaken while I was a summer intern at Microsoft
Research. I owe special thanks to the hundreds of reddit users who
participated in this research. I am also deeply grateful to Tarleton
Gillespie and Mary Gray for offering mentorship and feedback
throughout this research, as well as the Oxford Internet Institute
brownbag seminar, who offered generous feedback on an early version of this argument.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support
for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This
research was funded as part of an internship at Microsoft Research.
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J. Nathan Matias organizes citizen behavioral science for a safer,
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We have a privacy and confidentiality policy that guides our work. We NEVER share any customer information with third parties. Noone will ever know that you used our assignment help services. It’s only between you and us. We are bound by our policies to protect the customer’s identity and information. All your information, such as your names, phone number, email, order information, and so on, are protected. We have robust security systems that ensure that your data is protected. Hacking our systems is close to impossible, and it has never happened.
You fill all the paper instructions in the order form. Make sure you include all the helpful materials so that our academic writers can deliver the perfect paper. It will also help to eliminate unnecessary revisions.
Proceed to pay for the paper so that it can be assigned to one of our expert academic writers. The paper subject is matched with the writer’s area of specialization.
You communicate with the writer and know about the progress of the paper. The client can ask the writer for drafts of the paper. The client can upload extra material and include additional instructions from the lecturer. Receive a paper.
The paper is sent to your email and uploaded to your personal account. You also get a plagiarism report attached to your paper.
Delivering a high-quality product at a reasonable price is not enough anymore.
That’s why we have developed 5 beneficial guarantees that will make your experience with our service enjoyable, easy, and safe.
You have to be 100% sure of the quality of your product to give a money-back guarantee. This describes us perfectly. Make sure that this guarantee is totally transparent.Read more
Each paper is composed from scratch, according to your instructions. It is then checked by our plagiarism-detection software. There is no gap where plagiarism could squeeze in.Read more
Thanks to our free revisions, there is no way for you to be unsatisfied. We will work on your paper until you are completely happy with the result.Read more
Your email is safe, as we store it according to international data protection rules. Your bank details are secure, as we use only reliable payment systems.Read more
By sending us your money, you buy the service we provide. Check out our terms and conditions if you prefer business talks to be laid out in official language.Read more