‘I Fundamentally Believe That My Time at Reddit Made the World a Worse Place’

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Over the last few months, Select All has interviewed more than a dozen prominent technology figures about what has gone wrong with the contemporary internet for a project called “The Internet Apologizes.” We’re now publishing lengthier transcripts of each individual interview. This interview features Dan McComas, the former senior vice-president for product of Reddit and the founder and CEO of Imzy, a community-focused platform.

You can find other interviews from this series here.

Reddit started a couple of years after Facebook, and it’s super giant, and the kind of thing that you were present for was the challenge of building a platform that can accommodate a really large and sprawling set of communities, but at the same time make sure that it’s able to maintain community standards. You worked at it, I know, from the product end. I’m interested in hearing a bit about how you came to work at Reddit, and the questions you were thinking about.
I came to work at Reddit through Reddit Gifts. I started Reddit Gifts, and the intention there was just really to see if we could get people to do nice things for other people. That was it. It was just kind of a concept that we came up with and then ran with it. It ended up being pretty impactful, I think, to the overall community. Ultimately, it was too much time for us to manage, so we were going to shut it down, and then Reddit acquired us.

I came in to work at Reddit officially in 2011, and kept doing Reddit Gifts and also being involved with the Reddit side. For a few years there, it was just interesting. I was watching them kind of from the outside, but from the inside as well because I was privy to all the conversations going on. That was kind of during the time of, I think, the r/jailbait debacle. We were acquired just before Yishan became CEO. I worked really closely with Yishan throughout the years.

For me, it was an interesting aspect that I got on it because I got to see the inner workings of the decisions they were making and why they were making the decisions they were making, but I wasn’t in the position, nor would I want to be in the position, of having any kind of impact on the decisions being made.

What were some of those critical decisions that you’re thinking of?
First, I’ll say there were very few decisions made. I think that the biggest problem that Reddit had and continues to have, and that all of the platforms, Facebook and Twitter, and Discord now continue to have is that they’re not making decisions, is that there is absolutely no active thought going into their problems — problems that are going to exist in coming months or years — and what they can do to combat them. I know firsthand that between 2011 and 2015 or 2016, there was just really no thought going into it until I took over product, Ellen [Pao] took over the CEO role, and Jessica [Moreno] took over the head of community role, and we started trying to think about what was going on and what was going to be happening in the future.

We can talk about those decisions if you want, but I think the more interesting aspect is just why people aren’t thinking about this stuff, and how can we get people to think about this stuff. That’s really half of the premise of why Imzy was started. I think there’s just a complete breakdown in the kind of thought process behind how your technology is going to affect the users that use it and the world at large, and the incentive structure that is behind Silicon Valley start-ups and how they’re formed.

What’s that incentive structure?
The incentive structure is simply growth at all costs. There was never, in any board meeting that I have ever attended, a conversation about the users, about things that were going on that were bad, about potential dangers, about decisions that might affect potential dangers. There was never a conversation about that stuff.

The only time we would ever hear anything from the board on that stuff is when there were huge press debacles like the Anderson Cooper thing. In that case, we would get a call from the people who were being negatively affected by the press basically wanting to know how they should answer and what we were going to do about it.

The kind of classic comment that would come up in every board meeting was, “Why aren’t you growing faster?”

We’d say, “Well, we’ve grown by 40 million visitors since the last board meeting.”

And the response was, “That’s slower than the internet is growing; that’s not enough. You have to grow more.” Ultimately, that is why Ellen and I were let go.

Because you pushed back against that?
Because there was so much shit going on: on the site; in the press because of Ellen’s case; internally in the company, we had just moved everybody to San Francisco and pretty much the entire employee base was totally pissed off, and there was so much cleanup to be done just from an organization side; and the technology was in such bad shape. There was no way that we could focus on the type of growth efforts that they wanted. And if you have a small staff, you have to focus on the problems that are going to give you the biggest impact.

If you look from a product angle, if you look at that just from a funnel basis, it’s like 99 percent of everybody who visits Reddit don’t know what Reddit is. They find it by organic search or from a person sharing it. They land on a page and they leave and they never come back. The biggest opportunity to grow Reddit is to focus on that part of the funnel. By doing that, and putting 90 percent of your resources toward focusing on that part of the funnel, you pretty much completely ignore everything that’s actually going on on the site. You ignore the moderators; you ignore the users who are contributing content; you ignore the communities that are being created and the activities going on within them. You basically risk the health of your platform.

It’s a really mismatched incentive structure because if Reddit, specifically, focused all their efforts on the health of their platform, on the people that are really the contributors and not the consumers, they would see growth beyond what they’re getting. It’s kind of a backward way of looking at the problem from a traditional product perspective because you’re not directly affecting growth.

Why, then, do they care so much about growth? Revenue?
From the inside, I can tell you that the board is never asking about revenue. They honestly don’t care, and they said as much. They’re only asking about growth. They believe that if they have a billion unique visitors a month, that they have a property that is going to be worth a ton of money in some way eventually. They really do look at it in that abstract way.

I know they’re making a lot of strides on the advertising side. But I guarantee, that is not their focus. Their focus is purely growth.

This dynamic at Reddit is hardly unique. It seems like it applies to all the major digital platforms.
Absolutely.

In Reddit’s case, that presented a lot of challenges, and it means that they prioritized growth and sacrificed instituting measures or investing in the kinds of changes that would have made the site less toxic. Looking at it from the outside and based on your experience at Reddit and your knowledge of that platform, how do you see this problem mapping onto Facebook or YouTube or Twitter?
Yeah, those sites are wholly different in their incentive structure at this point. It’s a bit different and nuanced in that they’re all public. That brings on a number of other expectations. There is an ultimate expectation of revenue and profit. There’s also another expectation of — I wouldn’t say growth, but I would say a predictable pattern of growth, I guess. I don’t think it’s Facebook’s ultimate objective to get to 5 billion users or something. They have a humongous user base and they don’t want to lose anybody, and they want to have the right kind of activity going on.

I absolutely disagree with a lot of people and think that Facebook has done a better job at this than any other company. I think they have tried to prioritize user safety and they have tried to put processes in place for managing content. I think Twitter is much worse. I think, ultimately, the problem that Reddit has is the same as Twitter and Discord. By focusing on growth and growth only and ignoring the problems, they amassed a large set of cultural norms on their platforms. Their cultural norms are different for every community, but they tend to stem from harassment or abuse or bad behavior, and they have worked themselves into a position where they’re completely defensive and they can just never catch up on the problem. I really don’t believe it’s possible for either of them to catch up on the problem. I think the best that they can do is figure out how to hide this behavior from an average user. I don’t see any way that it’s going to improve. I have no hope for either of those platforms.

Why?
I just think that the problems are too ingrained, in not only the site and the site’s communities and users but in the general understanding and expectations of the public. I think that if you ask pretty much anybody about Reddit, they’re either not going to know what Reddit is, which is the large majority of people, or they’re going to be like, “Oh, it’s that place where there’s jailbait or something like that.” I don’t think that they’re going to be able to turn these things around.

Were there moments in which Reddit chose to double down on something and made it that much harder to work toward a solution?
I don’t know. I’m trying to think about your question. The typical pattern that we always went through was, there would be a bunch of bad behavior on the site, and the community team would have to deal with it and would be really annoyed. Sometimes they would take the free-speech side and decide that we don’t want to make a call on this. Other times they would say, “Hey, we need to take care of this,” and somebody above them would raise either the free-speech side or the “I don’t want to deal with this because it would cause too many problems on the site” side. That was more often the response.

There are a couple of subreddits, some of which have been banned and some haven’t, but the FatPeopleHate one was a really bad one. There are a bunch of animal-cruelty subreddits, specifically with a sexual nature, that they would always refuse to ban. The arguments were usually, “We don’t want to touch this because these are our most volatile users and they’ll just make things a nightmare,” and then, ultimately, these things will bubble up, make it into the press, and then we would make a decision to change things. We would deal with the immediate impact, which was painful, would last a week or two, and then it would go away. For the most part, unfortunately, I see them still following this pattern.

Is there something recent that you’re thinking of?
I can’t remember the specific instances right now, but there was a bunch of press about things that were going on on Reddit and Discord, and they both reacted and banned the subreddit. They made an announcement, “We’re taking a bigger stance against these things.” Discord made the same announcement.

It’s just more of the same. I don’t see them getting in front of the problem and it’s a total bummer, to be honest. It’s a super bummer. I hate it. I still grapple with the fact that I worked at Reddit, and so does Jessica. She’s decided to leave the industry completely. She’s completely changing her career and has left the tech industry altogether. It’s a bummer.

There’s now this rising chorus of tech executives who, whether it’s because of the Russia election stuff or user privacy concerns or broader user safety issues, are speaking out. Do you think this could amount to any substantial change?
I don’t think the existing platforms are going to change. I do believe that new platforms could be started up, could operate better, could be more mindful, and could create better infrastructure and platforms for the large public. But in order to do that, I think that one of two things needs to happen. I think that the venture capitalists need to kind of reframe their thinking on how these companies look as they start up and grow. I know firsthand that at least the investors that I worked with at Imzy are not ready to undertake that path. Imzy shut down, we still had $8 million in the bank, and we had raised $11 million. I know firsthand the palate of these investors, and from my experience, the majority of Silicon Valley investors are all the same archetype. I think that somebody needs to come along and change their thinking on that. I don’t think that that’s going to happen.

The other way is for a group of people to get together and create a modern platform using in some way their own resources, or finding the resources in interesting ways to do so. Unfortunately, it’s a really expensive process to build a platform like this. It takes a lot of engineering, it takes a lot of human power, it takes a lot of marketing and PR power, and it’s just an expensive process and it takes a long time. It’s really hard to get a network effect going. It would take years. It’s just a really hard process that somebody needs to be in for that ride. I just don’t believe that right now we have found the right mix of the right founders and team to build the infrastructure, and the right funding mechanism to make that happen. I tried, and it just totally didn’t work. It failed. I don’t know. I would love to take a crack at it, but it’s fucking hard to put these resources together.

Let’s say you were able to change the thinking and you were able to get a group of folks who were interested in putting up the capital necessary to create a new platform. Could you get a seat at the table with Facebook and Twitter?
I think it’s absolutely possible, but it takes a couple of major factors. I think a start-up needs to think about the monetization and how it can work with the users instead of against the users. I think they need to figure out the right funding mechanisms and incentive structures that also work toward the users. I think they need to have the right product team in place to focus on users. You’ll start to see a pattern emerge here. I think that they need to have a community or a service team from day one that focuses on users’ well-being. I think they need to have the right intentions. I think you need to get all those kinds of things in place; you need to understand the investment that you’re in for, as far as time. Most start-ups these days have a 12-to-18-month horizon that they look at, and that’s just not enough. That’s not enough to build one of these platforms.

Reddit got lucky. I always thought being acquired and then ignored by Condé Nast was a blessing and a curse. It allowed the communities time to organically grow. Developers let it set and evolve. And that’s exactly the opportunity the platforms need — they need that time to find their footing and to find a number of different cohorts to grow in.

I think that the acquisition that happened was a weird one. I think Condé Nast wanted some street cred, that’s why they bought it. I don’t think they knew what they were buying. In fact, I know they didn’t know what to do with it other than just to let it sit and gain some momentum. Now [co-founder and CEO] Steve [Huffman] is able to grow it into something, and I think he’s gonna do a great job. I think he’s gonna grow it into something huge.

But you don’t think that growth solves the problems?
No, absolutely not. It’s just gonna keep getting worse. I fundamentally believe that my time at Reddit made the world a worse place. And that sucks, and it sucks to have to say that about myself.

If you were talking to people making platforms now, what would you urge them to pay attention to?
I don’t have very many opinions or thoughts about what Reddit or Twitter should do at this time. I just don’t. But I’ve got a lot of advice for start-ups, and it’s not very fucking complicated. It’s just: Think about the impact that you want to have on your users and on the people consuming your content and do the right thing. They know what the right thing is. Discord knows what the right thing is. I had conversations with Jason [Citron] a year ago about the problem of white supremacy on his site, and he said, “I don’t want to invade their privacy by going into their channels and reading what they’re doing.” And I said, “They’re gonna cause deaths because you’re not doing that.” And he said, “You really think so?” And I said, “Yeah.” And sure enough they didn’t do anything, and sure enough deaths were caused because of the shit going on in their channels.

These things can be foreseen. Don’t be idiots about it. You’re people, you see what’s going on, you see trends that are forming, just fucking do something. It’s not that hard. That’s my advice to founders of start-ups, just be mindful of it. Or put somebody in charge of being mindful of it.

All the big companies do have people who are paid to mind this, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.
My guess is that Reddit has six to ten community managers. And even if they had double that, that’s not enough. And my guess is that they have five engineers working on it; that’s just not enough. When I was there and we scaled up the community team, there were three people on the community team. There was a community of 250 million people. It’s not enough. Facebook and Twitter have teams in other countries taking care of the worst of the internet, and Reddit hasn’t even considered doing something like that. And it takes a big investment. I think you’ve got to get out in front of the problem when you start up, and you gotta be able and willing to invest in what it takes to keep up with it. But I think that ignoring either of those puts you in a place where I don’t think you can ever really catch up from it.

I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. I’ve been thinking about this for a few years, and it’s felt at once kind of affirming to see it blow up this way, and at the same time totally terrifying.
It’s awful and it’s gonna get worse, so you’re in the right business.

‘I Believe My Time at Reddit Made the World a Worse Place’