Steve, I'd post a comment welcoming you back to reddit if I was still a member. I'm not. My account was shadowbanned long ago (an account, by the way, which purchased $50 in ineffective reddit advertising).
However, as reddit is a competitor and was once an inspiration, I keep abreast of its major news. I read your recent AMA with great attention. Based on what you said, perhaps my account will someday be restored. If you make some of the policy changes you discussed and go back to "first principles," I might welcome it. Otherwise, it's not a concern as I wouldn't come back. Besides, popcorn isn't healthy no matter how it tastes.
Some people believe you have a very hard job ahead with difficult decisions to make. I don't see it that way. What others think has very limited importance to leaders with integrity, vision, resources, and an ability to create. For you to restore reddit's greatness requires only an unwavering commitment to the proper goals and ideals.
From my perspective, reddit has two primary problems around operations and strategy:
Problem #1 - Operations: Quality content and content providers have significantly decreased because reddit's technology and policies are anti-community, promote exclusion, decrease trust, and limit potential.
Problem #2 - Strategy: reddit isn't profitable, and both its strategy and target markets don't support profitability.
On that note, I have a most sincere offer for you. I'd like to offer reddit the code and policies of my project: valME.io. Why? Because I believe I've solved these two problems and I want to see reddit succeed. reddit has often been a great source of good in the world and I want to see that good come back.
However Steve, in the spirit of how my project works, there must be an exchange of value. Everything worth something has a cost. The price of my project is that you agree to modify reddit to incorporate all of valME's functionality and ideas. As valME runs on a LAMP stack, you can't integrate it directly anyway (nor would you want to as your user interface/experience is better). But its design and features will serve as a solid blueprint for your turnaround of a community so many of us once loved.
All valME's functionality is the direct result of what I've read from reddit users and experienced myself. I conceived the idea years ago when I saw reddit implementing terrible decisions and found it too difficult to gain value among the considerable noise created by those decisions. I agree your technologies are better, but valME's differentiating functionality, methods of operating, and strategy are better. They were designed primarily based on my prediction of problem #1. (Never did I think you'd still be challenged with problem #2 but, hindsight being 20/20, it's perfectly logical.)
Steve, together, let's make reddit a place to which people want to return and also provide amazing new capabilities targeting two new (incredibly large) market segments. "New market segments, you say?"
Be patient - I'll get there.
Problem #1 - Operations
How you got into the hole
Let's be honest: so much of reddit's success can be attributed to allowing users to create and run their own communities. Let's also not forget your co-founder kn0thing's second post on record was about openness and shining the light on The Downing Street Memo (exposing the lies the UK and US governments told to make war in Iraq). But the spirit of reddit's diversity in ideas, openness, and freedom has been reversing for many years.
Why don't so many users trust reddit anymore?
Please allow me to state the obvious: censorship (which, ironically, is the exact opposite of diversity in ideas, openness, and freedom). Please also let me remind you of the company's formally-stated position three years ago:
At reddit we care deeply about not imposing ours or anyone elses' opinions on how people use the reddit platform. We are adamant about not limiting the ability to use the reddit platform even when we do not ourselves agree with or condone a specific use. We have very few rules here on reddit; no spamming, no cheating, no personal info, nothing illegal, and no interfering the site's functions...
We understand that this might make some of you worried about the slippery slope from banning one specific type of content to banning other types of content. We're concerned about that too, and do not make this policy change lightly or without careful deliberation. We will tirelessly defend the right to freely share information on reddit in any way we can, even if it is offensive or discusses something that may be illegal. However, child pornography is a toxic and unique case for Internet communities, and we're protecting reddit's ability to operate by removing this threat. We remain committed to protecting reddit as an open platform.
Since its inception, reddit acted like Braveheart only to just recently chop off its own head. One can appropriately argue, as your previous CEO has, what reddit formally stated as policy wasn't always executed. So it isn't any surprise those contradictions between words and actions are leading to negative consequences. The good news is reddit isn't dead yet; your coattails of bringing goodness to the world have given the company the strength to hold onto life until you're healthy again. But make no mistake: while you're not on life support, users are watching you being wheeled into the ICU. And some are enjoying it...
...such as admin emeritus yishan who simultaneously takes responsibility for "much of reddit's current condition" as he enjoys the "delicious" popcorn, exclaims "AYYYYYY LMAO" and isn't "terribly upset." With an overcoming sadness you wouldn't discern from my frown, I look on from outside reddit's hospital room window as the contradictions and dirty laundry clog your arteries, destroy your circulation, and kill your heart. It's like watching someone destroy their health by behaving as if human life can be sustained by ignoring what the body requires. Years ago, I knew what would happen if reddit didn't end its contradictions. It's why I worked so hard to create valME. I didn't know how long it would take, but I knew with complete certainty that it was only a matter of time and the length of your coattails.
I'm not just referring to the subreddit bans. Among content being deleted (which it appears you hate seeing) and all your various types of other bans like shadowbans (which many users hate) and bans by power-hungry moderators who are ignorant of the communities they moderate or rule with an iron fist when people make mistakes, reddit has a well-deserved reputation for censorship.
Yet, there's more. Let's also not forget reddit's dishonesty with "fuzzed" vote counts and outright discarding votes you think aren't real (which, interestingly enough, your previous CEO mentioned as part of a thread on a project to "make Reddit and its community immune to censorship by powerful forces").
Certainly, as a private company with a risk of legal liability, it is proper to censor illegal content. You also have the privilege to disallow whatever content or behaviors you don't want on your platform (putting aside for a moment that not everyone has that same privilege).
To get reddit unFUBARed, you think you need to focus on your content policy. I'd like to ask you to consider a different focus: how does reddit re-establish trust in line with the principles that made reddit great and allow people to flourish?
How to get out of the hole
Before I explain valME's different and more transparent approach to unwanted content (which reddit users want), it helps to understand the shortcomings of the current approach.
While a reddit user, I realized that subreddit moderators in the defaults almost completely controlled most of the content and conversation of the so-called front page of the Internet. It didn't matter if you had high-quality and relevant contributions or not - what primarily mattered was if it was agreeable with the moderators. And, fair enough, you could always go start your own sub if you weren't welcome, right? Isn't that the de facto answer for unhappy users? "Don't want suppression of political ideas in the default political community? Go start /r/POLITIC with a stated goal of 'Politics without suppression'."
Steve, candidly, that approach would work much better if there are a few enablers. The first being that default moderators need to be company employees because they are then held to a much higher level of fairness (in line with the company's principles). You should expect to alienate users of default subs like /r/politics, /r/technology, or /r/philosophy when they openly ban users and content solely for views different than the moderators. Also realize you're not just alienating the users who are being banned or shunned - you're alienating other users who are watching and realize "that isn't fair and I could be next." I know reddit learned this lesson the hard way.
The second enabler for that approach to be successful is subreddits have to be able to compete on a level playing field. A policy where defaults automatically get every new member who joins the site is going to alienate users who would be happy to start their own subs but have to fight for the users without any help (and sometimes they aren't even allowed to post about their new subs in the defaults they are trying to one-up). They also have to spend money to advertise their subs (realizing, of course, some don't mind giving that money to reddit because of the values they receive). One example should suffice to make the point: /r/politics has, as of this writing, 3,127,301 subscribers whereas /r/POLITIC has 24,114 subscribers.
The third enabler, for which /r/fatpeoplehate is the perfect poster-child, is not having a single individual who has complete accountability for all decisions made within the community and gets to make the final call. Thus, instead of just banning a particular owner of a community who openly breaks your user agreement by inciting off-site harassment or encouraging others to do so, you're left with the only option of killing the entire community.
Steve, I'd like to propose valME as an alternative approach to address these enablers:
Content that the community doesn't want: Any post or comment that a moderator removes from valME goes to the graveyard (what you want to implement as a "garbage can"). It is not deleted. It is still viewable, reflects who removed it and, specifically, for what reason. This provides a useful balance for allowing the broader community to see which moderators might have particularly "heavy hands."
Based on your comment, it seems you (and many others) support the way valME approaches this. You indicated you want to give moderators the tools to effectively moderate. Great. valME moderators can use permission functionality to prevent certain users from posting, from commenting, or from linking to certain domains. However, different from reddit, valME moderators can specify a timeframe for these restraints. Appeals can be turned over to higher level moderators.
Content that is against User Agreement/Terms of Service: If a post or comment is removed by a moderator for a ToS violation (which we took from reddit and slightly modified), an admin gets a message. If the admin agrees that it is a ToS violation, the admin deletes the post or comment from the graveyard and bans the user. End of discussion.
Note: the content and user are banned - NOT the community. Also, only the admins can delete content or ban users sitewide, and this only occurs after a well-defined and transparent process.
Content a user posted but no longer wants: The original content creators can always delete their own posts or comments.
Community owner are the "one neck to choke": Unlike reddit, each valME community has a single owner who controls all moderators, no matter their different abilities (e.g., a higher level moderator can reverse the decisions of a lower level moderator; moderators could be prevented from accessing modqueue, modmail, analytics, etc. - but the owner can always override everyone).
The community owner ultimately has complete authority and responsibility for the decisions and content within the community. If the owner wants to run the community like a business, use a custom domain, prevent another community from becoming a sub-community (yes, valME allows multiple levels of sub-communities which roll-up), make it private, earn money from their own advertising, it's valME's policy to respect that owners want to build the type of communities they want to build. An owner can even shut the community down.
But a community is more than its owner. So if an owner ever decided to shut the community down (or the owner is banned for breaking the ToS), it immediately becomes available for a new owner to purchase it. (That's right - I wrote "purchase it." Communities are purchased and annually renewed. This is part of the business model.) It's unclear if this is consistent with your view but, if others still want to participate in an existing community that the owner has abandoned or given up, they should be allowed to do so.
Multiple levels of sub-communities also allow valME to have communities like /c/politics as a default and the content from non-default sub-communities (e.g., /c/politics/democrats, /c/politics/republicans, /c/politics/libertarians/, /c/politics/anarchists) all roll-up. Each community owner makes their own decisions and everyone has a level playing field. No one gets special treatment (unless they purchase a sponsor account so they can be a "Default For A Day" instead of waiting for their random selection).
How to address unwanted behaviors
reddit uses technology to punish suspected and actual bad behavior, but the use alienates your community. Even though it's no longer the case, American principles were once around the noble ideal of "innocent until proven guilty." reddit's approach is much more analogous to America's current application of law: "guilty until proven innocent." It's backwards, illogical, controlling, unfair, and it alienates reddit from its community just as it alienates American citizens from their government.
There is another way outside of just using technology. Let me explain how valME addresses bad behavior with technology, policies, and process together. valME gives the entire community both carrots and sticks to reward or punish the appropriate behaviors. From our What's a modqueue? What are moderators (mods)? page:
But to discourage "downvote brigades" who often incorrectly (and, might we add, dishonestly) flag items as spam, we "charge" a user one karma to flag an item. This provides a disincentive and, thus, reduces (albeit doesn't eliminate) the number of users flagging items in order to censor content with which they don't agree. If the moderator agrees with the flagging users, the post or comment is removed and the flagging users get their karma returned. Additionally, if the post or comment received any upvotes and the content author still has that karma available, the flagging users will receive a "bounty" of the author's upvotes (divided equally, rounded down).
For example, an author creates a post in your community, which costs two karma, and that post earns five upvotes (potentially self-promotion upvotes from the author). If two users flag that post as inappropriate to the community's purpose (which "costs" them one karma each), the post will be shown in your community's modqueue. If a moderator selects the post to be removed (i.e., agrees with the two users, even if a different reason for removal is chosen), the post will be moved out of your community and into the graveyard. The author will lose the five karma (in addition to the two karma it already cost to submit). The two users will each receive a refund of their one karma. Additionally, after one week (in which the author has an opportunity to "appeal" the moderator's decision), each of the two users will receive a bounty of two karma for their diligence (assuming that the author hadn't used the five karma elsewhere).
If your moderator disagrees that the post should remain, the two users who flagged the post have each lost one karma.
Referring to downvote brigades (an especially nasty behavior as kn0thing recently learned), we address this as stated on our Why does it cost 1 karma to upvote but 2 to downvote? page:
One of the problems with downvoting is that it’s quite easy to censor someone’s content if you just want to be a troublemaker (aka troll). Don’t like what a particular political candidate has to say? Downvote it. After all, there isn’t any cost to do so. Additionally, it’s somewhat easy to create “bots” that will automatically upvote or downvote content.
As a result, people can severely limit and/or manipulate what is seen by others without any cost to themselves. It can also negatively impact a content provider’s reputation. We think that’s a problem. Although we agree all content does not offer the same value, we want to discourage activities like “downvote brigades” that you see so often at places like reddit.
When you downvote content, it costs you two karma and the author one karma. As there is a cost, we expect this to significantly reduce behaviors like downvote brigades. We’re all for voicing your negative opinion on something, and that’s how downvotes are intended. But, as your actions cause the author to lose something of value (e.g. one karma, reputation), we want you to feel strongly enough about it. In other words, we require you to put your money where your mouth is – and where your values are. If you’re not willing to do that, it must not be that important to you. Best then to just leave the other person alone and go your separate way.
Honors are a way to identify and reward the kinds of people you want in your community. You offer some karma to challenge people to contribute to your community. Have a passion for cooking desserts? Offer some karma to find the best recipe for crème brûlée. The author of the recipe who gets the most upvotes wins the karma. Want to find people who like to discuss theoretical mathematics? Offer some karma to people who will post a few papers to your community. Want to reward your moderators for spending the time to keep your community spam-free? Offer some karma to your mods for every 10 spam posts they moderate in modqueue.
For someone to participate in your honors program, they have to be subscribed to your community and they have to register for the specific honor you're offering.
You can honor people in a competitive contest (e.g., first place for this, second place for that) or it can be based on just achieving a certain goal you think important (e.g., contributing a certain number of posts to your community).
If it's not obvious at this point, outside of legal requirements, I am against reddit's censorship and value both free expression and free association. But I am not against individuals discriminating against content they find morally reprehensible. To be able to discriminate against content you find objectionable is just as important as being able to discriminate against those who discriminate. Thus, I think many of reddit's users acted appropriately when they criticized the idea of "safe spaces."
I really question why you think you need more moderator tools and why you consider "undermin[ing] them with technology" as the best approach. I think if you look at it more proactively and think "outside the box," there are other alternatives to try.
Allow me to tangent for a moment and provide some background: I used to do a significant amount of facilitation as a consultant and program manager, including quite a bit of business process re-engineering. The BPR occurred before the technology was designed or configured. Why? Because the key for effective BPR is to avoid "paving the cow path" (as we consultants typically refer to it). You don't want to implement technology on top of poor policies and processes. You want to fix the policies and processes first as best you can so the problems don't occur in the first place. You then use technology to drive and monitor the process.
Thus, just as if you were designing job descriptions and performance measures for reddit employees, you design rewards to motivate the behaviors you want, costs to discourage the ones you don't, and put public metrics and measure in place to monitor with real data (like valME's Hall of Shame). Using moderator tools to ban, delete, censor, etc. is after-the-fact. It's too late. Focus on "how do we prevent it from happening in the first place?" Then figure out the technology to place "on top" to catch the stray problems and monitor performance.
My opinion is you're over-thinking the content policy. It should be very simple - nothing illegal or threatening, your first and third bullets. Anyone who breaks your user agreement with illegal or threatening content is intolerable and, right you are, you shouldn't want them on your platform. No matter how much you don't want to delete their content, you have to for reddit's protection. But valME's model is to ban the user (and/or the owner who is responsible for everything in the community) and remove the content - not to ban the community. Otherwise, in my opinion, you hurt the integrity of the site.
There are many things people say I find abhorrent and, if it were up to me, I'd prevent anyone in Congress from ever speaking or assembling considering the trouble they cause when they open their mouths or get together. But the ACLU has taught a very important lesson about taking a stand and making an "unwavering commitment" when it comes to principles around free speech and assembly. Thus, although I agree with Alexis that some people's behaviors are "deplorable" and I find places like /r/coontown and /r/fatpeoplehate repulsive, valME won't play the slippery slope game of selective discrimination like reddit did (or can still be played if you use phrases like your second bullet "Nothing that undermines the integrity of reddit").
Just as with reddit, valME users see the content from the communities to which they subscribe. valME's policy is to let them do what they think best for themselves as long as it doesn't break our ToS. This is what reddit used to do. It's also very appropriate for reddit to limit the content that gets to the general front page. I'm sure you already have tools to manage that but, if you don't, you're welcome to look at valME's code to see how it works. Not only do we allow community moderators to determine what gets to their own front page with highly customizable algorithms, but we have special algorithms that determine what content gets to /c/all.
Before leaving this topic and allowing you to catch your breath, I want to mention how valME addresses reddit's serious problem with power-hungry moderators. To ignore moderators who openly define themselves as "Supreme President" with only a hint of sarcasm is to kick the can only a little further down the road.
Some who stuck around in the shadow of abusive moderators have come up with quite complex ways to fix what is a clear source of alienation. I think by making all communities owned by a single individual, some shakeups will occur. I also think by allowing subs within subs, some of the power structure will be diffused (especially if those subs roll-up to a default managed by reddit employees). Overall, valME's business model (which I will discuss next) rewards primarily the best and most interesting content providers and directs the influence of the site to the users. reddit's past growth was substantially through people coming for content, but when power-hungry moderators alienate those providers, the results are certain. valME's model reduces the power of moderators somewhat because they have to keep the quality content providers happy. Thus, the idea of a "power user" shifts - no longer is power amassed by those who control the content, but by those who provide what the community defines as quality. And the model accomplishes this all without discounting all the good moderators who are critical for community building.
Problem #2 - Strategy
How to make your customers profitable
(Lets him take a deep breath from exhaustion. Don't worry - this section is shorter. Strategy is usually the easier part. Operations to execute the strategy are always harder.)
Steve, it makes sense your board wants to see growth. What competent board wouldn't? But there's a missing qualifier: I'll bet your board wants to see the right kind of growth - growth that is consistent with your principles. I doubt your board wants growth at the expense of breaking laws.
I understand you said "[m]onetization isn't a short-term concern of ours" because "reddit has a lot of cash." Must be nice not to have a short-term worry about making a company profitable. (Envisions Steve lying on the beach relaxing...) Call me small-minded and, obviously, I don't know the terms of the $50 million, but I wouldn't take that size of investment from anyone who didn't include profitability as a goal. It sounds a bit dangerous to me. I take Sam Altman's humorous reminder of the difference between money and value very seriously. But I wouldn't object to that kind of money if we were talking about a much more ambitious kind of profit: the profit that comes from achieving ideals.
One of valME's primary premises is profits to the customer. What kind of amazing things do you think reddit could achieve if it took up this mantra? Perhaps a bit hubris, but I believe reddit could change the world with valME's business model and become a profitable platform company. What do I mean? Here are a few things valME can do which reddit can't:
Enable content producers to earn money directly from their content (posts or comments)
Enable community owners and moderators to earn money directly from their own agreements with advertising companies they choose
Enable the company to earn self-sustaining transaction fees based on user actions (e.g., posts, comments, downvotes, community purchases/renewals/transfers), which is especially important as valME doesn't earn money from advertising (i.e., as user and transaction volumes grow, so do fees earned - it's directly proportional to justify, for example, increased server power)
Enable community owners and moderators to increase the transaction fees in their communities in order to earn more money
Enable community owners and moderators to use their own domain names with SSL support (which, with customizable HTML and css similar to reddit, can make a site look almost nothing like the base design; notice the "Powered by valME.io" at the bottom?)
Enable communities without owners to immediately be re-started under new ownership by whomever gets to the community's restart page first and pays the small fee
Enable community owners and moderators to define the types of karma relevant to their goals
valME's strategy is to profit from the value it offers by enabling community owners, moderators, and users to profit from the value they offer. I want the responsibilities of their choices and actions to be theirs. And if there are negative consequences, I want them to know they will be publicly shouldering the brunt (and potentially losing whatever they sought to build).
How to make reddit profitable
Honest profit is a symbol of value between participants. I know you've heard the adage "if you're not paying for it, you're the product being sold." Right now, users on reddit get the experience for free. Additionally, moderators do their critical work for free. Thus, they're the product.
I believe reddit could become profitable almost overnight by allowing its userbase to become profitable. You wouldn't even have to abandon your current model - just give users a choice.
As I alluded to, most all actions you perform on valME have very small transaction fees. Those transactions are paid for in karma (thank you reddit!), and earned karma is redeemable for Bitcoin. Users get some free karma upon registration but will have to purchase karma to do anything more than view, update their profiles, or post a few pieces of content. It costs USD $0.01 to purchase 1 karma (although reddit could decide its own fee structure). A few examples should give you an idea how the rest works.
From our How valME works page:
If you post an article (2 cents) and you get two upvotes, you just broke even. It's all profit after that. If you post a comment (1 cent) and you get only one upvote, ditto. Now extrapolate: post a great video of your band and get 1,002 upvotes? You just made $10. Post a great piece of art you just painted and get 1,502 upvotes? You just made $15. You get the idea. And if people really like your content, they can even tip you more. Bonus...
One of the primary purposes at valME is to allow you to reward others directly for bringing you value. Or, said another way, we want to help you profit when you bring value to others. Of course, you can read what another user posts, gain value from it, and not give him or her anything in return. But, if the urge strikes you, we give you the opportunity to upvote that user's content. By upvoting, you transfer one karma to the author. And, if the urge presents itself, you can even tip that user additional karma for the value you received...
Granted, you're only receiving a penny when someone upvotes your content. But those pennies can add up (and, potentially, bring you more than you were earning from click-through advertising on your blog). Think of all the posts you've seen on other social networking sites, and the thousands of upvotes some have received. If upvotes were pennies, those users would directly get the benefits of their efforts. What happens instead? They get to feel good, while the social networking sites get all the money from the advertisers. Wouldn't it be better if the users, themselves, got that money? After all, it was their content that brought you value.
In other words Steve, the reddit users and their communities get most all the profits. reddit would get only a small portion but, with your volumes, it would still amount to significant cash. Sure, maybe it's cash you don't need currently but it's a tangible testament to reddit providing real value. Why? Because people are voluntarily paying for it - that's the ticket and true standard of value: voluntary participation and exchange.
Putting aside the success you've had with reddit gold (and the embarrassment you gave to naysayers), we can't ignore that many in your huge userbase won't want to pay two cents for a post or one cent for a comment. But there are plenty of users who want reddit to be successful monetizing the site, so let the users voluntarily choose. If they want to operate under the "free" model, the default communities will be managed by reddit employees held to whatever content policy you'd like and use existing company advertising for revenue. If they prefer the "value-earning" model, go forth and prosper. You could even (and should) run them as different business units so that profitability targets can be set and monitored for each.
An important note about this business model: reddit needs content creators who provide real value. People certainly pay to go to comedy shows or pay cable companies to watch drama on TV in return for real value. But entertainment, which can be delivered in single-serving portions, is just one example of value. You cannot expect to target new segments of people who run blogs and forums (told you I'd get there if you were patient!) in hopes they'll consider moving to the reddit platform if they can't format blog posts the way they want - with full HTML support. Markup isn't going to be enough. That's why I worked so hard to give users the most HTML support while still stripping dangerous code. Yes, I understand reddit's friends at imgur.com aren't going to be happy. Who knows? Maybe reddit's consideration of moving to valME's business model would encourage them to do the same...
Why I want to solve reddit's problems
...which leads me to my most important motivation for making you this offer.
I'd love to make a ton of money from the significant thought, effort, and investment that went into valME. But values are hierarchical, and there's something that's much more important to me. I think there is too often a belief that someone should get something for nothing; get something without effort; get something without paying for it; get something without trading for it. People forget that there is always a price for value. They forget that someone, eventually, has to pay. The Internet is a hotbed for reinforcing the idea of something for nothing. Advertising revenue models exacerbate the problem.
I'm a hacker who wants "peace on Earth and good will toward men," something even Hollywood knew the NSA was against as early as 1992. I don't believe we'll ever get there as long as we, as a civilization, regard taking things from others - whether they are property, privacy, or rights (or do I repeat myself) - as a better alternative than voluntary trading. With your global and established reach, you could ignite my small contribution to humanity. That would be a world in which I'd be proud and in which my daughter would thrive. What a payday that could be...
...well, one can dream.