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The Reddit strike and the outer edges of work

12 July 2023

The recent “strike” by Reddit social media moderators offers a fascinating insight into ways the world of work is evolving to offer new opportunities – but also pose new challenges – for organisations and their management. Technological developments are challenging our ability to determine fundamental questions such as – what is work? Who does it? What are the mutual rights and obligations in these novel relationships?

Background to Reddit “strike”

Reddit describes itself as “home to thousands of communities, endless conversation, and authentic human connection”. It’s a (very large) collection of forums on which people share news and content and can comment on one another’s posts. There are more than a million “subreddit” communities, each covering a different topic, which are managed by volunteer moderators (or “mods”). The moderators can take down posts and ban users from that subreddit. As well as the volunteer mods, Reddit has employee administrators (“admins”) who keep the platform running and enforce Reddit’s rules and content policy, including banning subreddits. Volunteer work is not new, but what is new is that Reddit volunteers are key generators of value, which Reddit is seeking to monetise as a profit making enterprise.

Reddit’s income comes principally from advertising and by users purchasing “Reddit coins” to use on the site or the ad-free “Reddit Premium” service. As this does not generate enough to make it profitable, Reddit decided to increase revenue by charging third-party app developers more money to use its programming interface. This made some apps which were popular with the Reddit community unprofitable, and they warned they would have to shut down. Which, in turn, sparked a backlash.

On June 12, thousands of mods closed their subreddits (by taking them private) to protest what they saw as “exorbitant” pricing for third-party app access. Some subreddits continued the blackout for several weeks and there were other forms of protest too, such as only allowing users to post pictures of comedian John Oliver or labelling the thread “NSFW” (not safe for work) which affects advertising revenue.

The “outer edges” of work

New technologies have opened up various new opportunities for and ways of working and generating financial value. Most well-known are platforms such as Deliveroo and Uber, which have facilitated new working arrangements, with workers offering services at times that suit them, sometimes “multi-apping” to offer their services to several businesses at once. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are providing a “product” which is generated by their users, not by employees or suppliers. Reddit relies on thousands of volunteer moderators to ensure the smooth-running of its operations. Moderators are prepared to give their time and effort for free because of the value the site provides in terms of bringing together like-minded individuals, building communities, permitting knowledge-sharing and facilitating discussion. Some of them probably also like the status being a moderator in a popular forum brings. Reddit aren’t the only model of this kind, Wikipedia also does something similar.

The use of volunteers provides opportunities for business but also comes with risk, as the Reddit strike shows.

It is probably unlikely that moderators can claim to be employees or workers and entitled to relevant protections, but not impossible. Many years ago, a group of volunteer chatroom moderators filed a Labor Standard lawsuit against AOL in the New York Southern District Court for unpaid wages, arguing that they were working on a commercial website and therefore entitled to the minimum wage. AOL responded that they were volunteers, and thus had no entitlement to employee protections. The lawsuit dragged on for 12 years before settling, never resolving the issue of whether the AOL moderators were actually employees. There were some significant differences between the AOL moderator community and Reddit volunteers. The AOL community leaders had to apply for their position, commit to minimum hours, fill out timesheets and sign a non-disclosure agreement. Reddit mods do not make an application or have any particular time commitment.

How much control an employer exerts over its workforce is one of the key components of the test for employment in both the UK and the US. And as Reddit found, organisations sometimes want to exert control. The blackout caused Reddit some issues: many popular communities were not available, Google search results worsened, it received negative press coverage and advertising revenue was affected. In response, the CEO stated his commitment to stand firm and threatened to change its moderator removal policy to allow users to vote moderators off. When subreddits remained dark, he started informing mods that Reddit might remove them if a moderator team decide unanimously to stop moderating. And Reddit did remove some moderators who had tagged their subreddit NSFW.

Employees and workers have rights, but they also have responsibilities which the employer might find easier to enforce than against volunteers. Reddit might have forced through the change to its third-party app access, in the teeth of volunteers’ protests and forced them to reopen their communities. But it risked damaging its relationship with the people that it is dependent upon for its business model. One of the reasons mods want to give their services for free is that they value the Reddit community. They have also historically been given a lot of autonomy to manage their subreddits in the way they wish. Reddit’s recent actions had the potential to affect their goodwill and trust in the platform. If they feel Reddit is not treating them well, they will value the community less. At what point does this disillusionment risk spiralling into lack of engagement and eventually an exodus of moderators?

If employees or workers act in a way employers don’t like, an employer can discipline them and could eventually terminate their contract. Once they’ve left, an employer can generally attract others by the prospect of payment. With volunteers, the relationship is less formal and there is less leverage. And the employer is relying on goodwill to a much greater extent – goodwill that it has to maintain but cannot do so by a simple payrise. A very large and prestigious site like Reddit may have more leverage to attract and retain volunteers without payment. This isn’t necessarily true for smaller organisations relying on volunteers.

Final thoughts

It’s not new for organisations to use volunteers, the charitable sector in particular has always relied on them. Charities are not businesses, however. Charity volunteers can see their unpaid work is benefiting the charitable cause, rather than the bottom line of a profit-making business. A business seeking to rely on unpaid labour will have a more complicated and possibly more fractious relationship with its volunteers. The volunteers may resent the fact that they are not sharing in the profits resulting from their work, as well as feeling more positive emotions, such as affection for and pride in the community. That ambivalence could easily lead to legal action if resentment starts to predominate.

That complex emotional relationship should be seen in conjunction with the legal uncertainties resulting from new ways of working. The technological developments which enabled platforms like Reddit have resulted in new types of working arrangements. These arrangements challenge traditional “work” categories, causing uncertainty about what legal status individuals have, and what rights and obligations are conferred. Such uncertainty can also result in legal challenges, as the people doing the work seek to clarify their status or to claim the benefits that accompany being a “worker” or employee.

Other platforms, like Wikipedia, rely on significant numbers of unpaid administrators, whilst some organisations use them in a much smaller way (such as the mobile phone plan by giffgaff which offers rewards to members who give advice on its forums). Is the Reddit “strike” the straw in the wind foreshadowing a storm affecting many others? Or merely a localised gust that has blown itself out?

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