When we call Christine Moelleberndt “queen of the moderators” we mean it. She just finished a 7-year stint at Reddit as a moderator of its moderators where she went by the user name kethryvis, and she’s been doing work like that since her days overseeing the community around the ’90s web comic User Friendly. This week on Reimagining, kethryvis tells us why people volunteer hours of their day into monitoring conversations online, and why that might not be sustainable.
Christine Moelleberndt aka kethryvis has moderated User Friendly, and previously worked for the Wikimedia Foundation and Reddit. She doesn’t know what’s next, but you can find her still moderating r/hockey.
Hey everybody. This is Ethan Zuckerman. Welcome back to Reimagining the Internet. I am here today with an old friend and I don’t mean old in the sense of actually old. I mean, in the sense that we’ve known each other since we were essentially teenagers growing up on the Internet. I am pleased to bring to the show a veteran of the early dot-com days. This is Christine Moellenberndt.
Christine for the last seven years has been the senior community manager at Reddit. She’s just stepped down from that job before that. She was a community associate at the Wikimedia foundation. She’s done moderation work on the IRC and on Discord. I met her a million years ago in the late 1990s when she was doing community work and moderation for a web comic: User Friendly. In the course of being one of the world’s first web community managers.
Christine has also managed to get a master’s in applied anthropology from San Jose State wrote a thesis there called “Livejournal loyalty and melodrama” stakeholder relations in web 2.0.” You may not know her by the name Christine Moellenberndt. If you are on Reddit, you probably know her as user, Kethryvis.
Christine, it is so good to have you here.
Thank you so much for having me Ethan. Gosh, like I have to think about that. But yeah, we really were kind of teenagers on this wild and wacky Internet that no one really knew what it was going to be yet. Like, it’s amazing to see how things changed.
Well, so I started working on the Internet in 1994. I think you started around ’96, ‘97. Is that right?
I did. I was working for my Internet service provider back in the day. I started there in ’96. And I was the fresh face person on the phone who would sign you up for your Internet service and then remind you that yes, you actually did need a computer to access the Internet at that time.
It was impressive, the people who were able to just sort of put the telephone jack in their mouth and directly process the data. There were a few people like that, but fewer than you would think.
You know, I wish I was ever like evolved to be one of those people, but sadly not the case. So I legit did have someone call and was very excited to be on the Internet. And then when I asked what kind of software he needed, he was like, what? And I said, you need it. Do you have a Macintosh or a PC? He’s like, I need a computer. I said, yeah, you actually do. And he was so disappointed. I felt so bad for breaking his heart.
Well, it’s funny. You leverage that experience at, I think, your first sort of online community management job, which was a web comic called User Friendly. So what is a web comic and what was user friendly? And maybe most importantly, why did a web comic need a professional community relations person?
Absolutely. So a web comic was, they were really big in the ‘90s. I think there is still some going now that I’ve honestly kind of fallen out of that particular brand of community. But it is a comic strip that publishes on the web instead of in your traditional newspaper or those kind of areas.
Like I said, they got really popular in the ‘90s. It was a really great way for up and coming comic artists to kind of start getting their work out there.
User Friendly was a great little comic strip about an ISP, which is how I got involved in it because every one of my office, like almost every one of my office is reading it. And I know when I fell into it, I spent a lot of very productive quality hours going through the entire archives of the strip and catching up.
But it was great. It was a fantastic comic strip. Had the mascot of a dust puppy, which was a ball of dust with feet and a great big smile. And whenever anyone says User Friendly to me, I just break out to a huge dust puppy grin because I was just such a huge formative part of my life. As to why they needed a community professional, the joys of the Internet in the early 90s was, you know, community was really kind of at the forefront of the Internet in those days. It was really about connecting with other people.
And the comic strip, everybody decided that they really needed someone to keep tabs on all the facets of their community. What’s going on? What are they talking about? What are they thinking? What do they want? And so they came to me and said, you know, you’re really active. And I become friends with J.D. “Illiad” Frazer, the creator of the strip. And J.D., if you’re out there, hello. I became friends with him and a lot of the other folks at the strip and they said, hey, we need someone to do this. Would you be willing to come on board and take this job?
And I said, hold on, you want to pay me to sit in IRC, to sit on these mailing lists, to sit in these forums, basically all the things that my current boss is mad at me for. And you want to pay me to do it. And they said, yeah. I said great when can I start?
We met up in person for the first time around the year 2000. And it was at Linux World in Atlanta. You were representing user friendly. And I had moved on from tripod.com where I had worked. And I was now with Geek Core, which was recruiting geeks to move to Sub-Saharan Africa.
So we were like two people at the same trade show, not actually selling computer hardware, but selling community of one fashion or another. My favorite thing about that show—I am a person of size. I showed up for my exhibitors badge and it included a t-shirt. And I said, you better just give me the largest one you have. And the guy behind the counter just looked at me and said, son, this here’s a Linux conference. The shirts go up to 6L. And I do not, in fact, need a 6L. I’m pretty good with a 2L.
But you actually were someone who I used within Tripod. Tripod was a company that hosted web ages ultimately for about 18 million users. I used the example of you working at User Friendly to make the argument to my team that we needed a community team. In addition to what would now be considered a Trust & Safety Team—at that point we were calling it customer service team—that we needed a team that was engaging with the community, finding out what they wanted, and using it for new product production. And you may now know it, but you were actually the example I was using to sell it to the team.
To me, it’s the most important part of being a community manager is being that bridge between the community and the company. Because without it, you know, it’s like, why bother? Why have a community just having user base? And to me, they’re two different things.
So you’ve been working for the last seven years for a company that may be most associated with Web community of sort of all the major platforms out there, which is Reddit. We talk a lot about Reddit on the show. We talk about Reddit a lot in my lab. I think like a lot of people who care very deeply about Reddit, I love and hate Reddit in equal measure. And I spend a lot of time thinking about it. Reddit is utterly fascinating because it is a community of communities. And they are, for the very most part, moderated by volunteer users. And you found yourself in some ways as the queen of all moderators, the sort of really the head of the team working with those mods who sometimes put in 20, 30, 40 hours a week, keeping those communities going.
So let’s talk about how Reddit works. Let’s grab r/hockey, which I know to be near and dear to you and one that you continue to be involved with today. What is the subreddit and how do the rules and such come about for it?
Absolutely. So shout out to my mod team at r/hockey who have taken care of me for many years.
Every subreddit has a group of moderators who are kind of in charge of that subreddit making sure that it stays within the rules. Every subreddit basically has two sets of rules that it has to adhere to. One is the wider set of platform rules, which is the content policy that Reddit prescribes. And there’s another subset of rules, which is the specific subreddit rules. Like for instance, some subreddits may allow for meme or funny posts and some don’t. Like r/science, for example, is very strict about we only allow scientific articles from peer review journals, whereas hockey is pretty much anything as long as hockey related except for memes, which have its own subreddit.
But every subreddit is different and have their own set of rules. Moderators choose their own. It is a bit of a… Oh, what’s the phrase I’m looking for? This is the paper that I…
Oh, I wasn’t going to go there. I wasn’t going to go there.
It’s really hard to say like what’s perfect governance. I don’t think that there is such thing, especially not across every type of community. I think everybody has their own type of quote unquote, perfect governance.
And it is worth saying that the possibility of exit always exists within reddit, which is if you don’t like r/hockey, you can start up r/icehockey or r/NHLhockey or whatever sort of, you know, hockey themed subreddit you want to want. Some words are more desirable than others, but there are certainly cases of a subreddit falling apart and another one sort of emerging in its wake.
How did this community come about? How did the people who moderate it end up becoming mods and what do you do as a moderator for it?
So the founder of the subreddit immediately becomes a mod just hands up your all what you become the first mod, the top mods, all the things. And then you get to add the mod below you every subreddit has their own way of determining who should be a mod. Sometimes it’s just if you ask, hey, can I be a mod and I’ll just add you larger teams, older subreddits. Hockey’s been around for 15 years, has a fairly large mod team.
We, you know, if you ask us to be a mod, we’re going to say no. But what Hockey does do is they open up application periods and so you can mod bail in and say, I’d like to be a mod. This is, you know, my interest. This is what I do. If you have any other mod experience on other subreddits, those types of things, other subreddits will just like kind of know who their top, their top contributors are. And they may reach out to those people, people who they fear being really helpful in threads and say, would you like to be a mod and then add them from there.
And so how much time does this take the average moderator and why do those people do it?
You know there’s this there’s this real feeling I feel like for especially from people who have run into like had run in with with moderators that oh they’re just all power hungry and they just they just want to you know feel superior and things and are there some mods that are like that oh sure there are you know we’ve all met them but the vast majority of mods that I’ve met are not that way. They really just want to make a really cool welcoming space where people can talk about this thing that we all love we all want a really cool place to talk about all hockey you know if it’s if it’s NHL if it’s you know European if it’s AHL if it’s ECHL if it’s juniors if it’s you know whatever. We all just want to talk about this really cool sport that we love so much.
As to the amount of time it takes it kind of depends on the person. I have been spinning myself back up into moderation, I took some time away because I had to kind of reset myself after seven years of admin mode basically so I don’t spend as much time as some others do but you know it can take several hours a day and again depending on a busy period you know during playoff period or during the beginning of the season it gets really, really busy but then now like in the off period. It’s not quite so much there’s also mod mail to answer people will write in and ask you know why was I banned and then you have to you know when you were being a jerk so you know yeah we banned you for that or hey I’d like to post this would you be okay with it. Communication from admin you know we want you to help participate in a thing or whatever and then we talk about that as a team in Discord.
So there’s a team of people who are putting in sometimes several hours a day they are intersecting with each other via discord they are doing it essentially in this case for the love of hockey the love of content. The love of whatever topic they’re engaging with there are thousands of these.
If you go to reddit map dot social the tool that we’ve developed in our lab you can search for whatever topic you’re interested in and find out of the top ten thousand reddits. You know what reddit might work for you and other ones closely related to it. What’s the total population of moderators on reddit how many people are working to sort of keep this whole system going. Rough numbers estimates. Guestimates are all fine.
I honestly don’t remember I’ll be frank I honestly don’t remember it is easily thousand. It’s not tens of thousands. It is a veritable army of people who really do this for subreddit as small as a handful of subscribers all the way up to you know the twenty million I think that subscribe to like a science or a former default. Hockey has one point six million subscribers. So it’s a good size subreddit.
It’s a good size subreddit and some of these smaller ones probably aren’t nearly the same job associated with it. But collectively this army of moderators is you know in some ways almost the equivalent of the sort of frontline trust and safety folk working at a Facebook for instance.
So we all know from documentaries like The Cleaners that Facebook has a layer of a systems but it also has huge teams of people in places like the Philippines who are looking at content that’s been reported content that’s been flagged and trying to make a decision of whether it stays and whether it goes.
Reddit essentially hands this over to volunteers which in some ways is a great deal rather than paying people for this you’re getting volunteers to do this and they’re doing it out of their own joy for it. But obviously that’s not a process that runs itself. Keth, what does it mean to be the moderator of moderators? What is involved with that work?
So there’s a whole team of us and I was not the only senior community manager there were several of us and all of us kind of you know did the same work together. The way that that it worked on Reddit—
I’m still calling you queen of the moderators. I you made several queens of the moderators but I’m still going to use the name. I’m down for it.
I’m down for it. I’m totally happy, I’m not going to gain say it at all. But there was definitely is—you know it takes a village to raise a child. I often say I don’t be kids I have an online community it takes a village to run an online community as well.
And my team at Reddit is hands down the most amazing team I think I’ve ever worked with just wonderful people. Many of them are former mods themselves so they know the job from that perspective they know the job from an admin perspective and our job is to kind of be there and be that touch point help them out when things are going are going sideways maybe will you know a lot of times admins will keep an eye out and if there is something going down like well you know hey are you guys, OK do you need you know here are some resources for you here some here’s some tools we don’t want you to forget that exists for if you are kind of having problems.
The other piece that is kind of in the news lately is what I started out with as the moderator guidelines which is now called the moderator code of conduct. And this is basically just a list of rules that moderators need to follow and it’s not so much about like you must do X Y Z and Y period of time it’s more about like…It’s don’t be a dick, right?
So you know don’t be a dick you know don’t treat your community with contempt don’t just ride herd over them don’t power trip over them like treat them with respect the way that that they should be treated with respect don’t ban them just because you feel like banning someone because you don’t like the team that they’re affiliated with that kind of stuff.
So essentially in some ways you have this system that you know absolutely could not work in theory does work in practice and in practice works surprisingly well. And in some ways having a touch point to officialdom to sort of be able to say hey you know we’ve seen a lot of this over time, here are things that work better than others.
So you’re not the trust and safety department you’re not someone is being stalked, someone has put non-consensual nudity up and it needs to come down. That’s a different piece of this correct?
That is a different piece a lot of times moderators will contact community team members because we are the most visible on the platform. And so they may if they’re putting a report in and they don’t feel like it’s getting action quickly enough they might reach out to us individually and say hey this isn’t right and then what we usually do is then redirect them back over to the appropriate reporting form so that the trust and safety team who at Reddit is called the anti-evil operations department can take it over and handle it from there and then mete out appropriate punishment.
So one of the things that’s been really interesting about Reddit and moderation over the many, many years is that moderators periodically get fed up and end up engaging in protest of one fashion or another.
There’s been a wave of protest regarding changes to the API. I’ve talked on this podcast about the fact that losing access to Pushshift has derailed a lot of my research. There are a lot of mods who were using third party tools because they found those tools better than Reddit’s in-house tools for managing their communities.
But before we get into the API protests which I want to spend some some time on these protests are not always admirable, right? There were there were Redditors who were very upset about losing really horrific subreddits like coontown and fat people hate. Right. People will periodically sort of engage in protests around this. There were a number of Donald Trump subreddits that ended up in many cases going towards extremes.
When Redditors decide to protest how does that actually manifest and what does it mean for the company?
So I guess it kind of depends on who is kind of fomenting the protest. If it’s moderators they will sometimes just shut their subreddit down. They’ll turn it and that’s they turn it private and by turning a subreddit private only moderators and approved submitters can access the subreddit. So most subscribers can’t see it. And then that’s how they kind of film it, their protests.
When it’s users that don’t maybe have like a moderator backing, they will often do write in campaigns. So they’ll send in mod mail to admins and make their case. It’s all very similar to write-in campaigns for anything else. There’s a form letter and you just kind of overwhelm a support team with all these messages and then we just kind of go. Oh my gosh, we’re getting all these messages. And then it’s just a matter of is this something that actually needs to be looked into yes or no. And then handling it as appropriate.
One of the things that’s interesting to talk about with subreddits going private or going dark as some people put it is that it breaks the internet in a really interesting way.
So I’m a very committed board game player. My wife and I will routinely search for clarification of a rule on a board game. And often the best answer to the question is on Reddit and we have learned as so many people years ago to append Reddit.com to our searches. But during these recent protests around the API, that content is inaccessible.
I realize you had left Reddit by the time this took place but I’m guessing you were following it fairly closely. Can you give me kind of a rough outline from your point of view of what people were upset about in the API protests and you know how the platforms reacted.
So one thing I do want to point out as well with this is that moderators are very aware that when they take a subreddit private, it will break the internet in the ways that you described. You know, people aren’t going to be able to get the information they’re looking for. They’re not going to find what they need. And that’s something that weighs on them very heavily when they’re trying to make the decision of whether or not to engage in a protest or not. And so the fact that they decide that it’s worth it, I think should really make platforms aware that this is something that they take very seriously.
With the API stuff, I don’t want to go into a lot of like super detail on it, but I can say that, you know, one of the big concerns was that moderators were very worried that a lot of their tools would break. Moderators have built a lot of bots over the years that interface and help them with with moderation. It’s a hard job and especially on these subreddits, you know, with 1.6 million subscribers on hockey, like you can’t see everything. You can’t look at everything. And so that’s why there are bots. There’s auto mod. There are all these things that help out even though Reddit was very clear early on that this isn’t going to break your moderation tool. There was still worry. And so that was a big piece of it.
But also just the fact that, you know, that it was going to affect all these third party apps. And that just comes back to and this is I don’t believe any secret. And this is something that was brought up in the media a lot of times. Reddit was slow to the to the mobile game. You know, that wasn’t that wasn’t their bag. So that wasn’t something they jumped on right away and they have an app now in the app is okay. But for moderation, you know, it doesn’t it doesn’t quite do everything.
And so other apps filled in that gap and they do moderation better. And those were the ones that were going to get hit. And that’s why mods were really freaking out because they can’t, you know, sometimes they’re moderating on the go. I’ll look at subreddit when I’m on the go and go, oh, I can’t do anything with that. Like, you know, okay, and then you have to, hey, can someone take care of this because I’m I’m on mobile and I can’t handle that from here. So that was that was a really big frustration for them.
And then the accessibility piece as well. A lot of those apps are much better at accessibility. So blind users, especially, you know, using third party apps and third party add-ons to help them experience this very textual platform of Reddit. You know, they need those tools and the official app just wasn’t quite there. At least at the time at the protest started.
I will add perhaps a little bit more opinion to all of this. Reddit for years was essentially unusable on mobile unless you had a third party app. And those third party apps really gained their own communities and sort of followerships. I used one called Bacon Reader. I no longer know why I started using Bacon Reader, but you know, I got used to it. I got used to the community that provided support with it. And the notion that it was simply going to disappear was very, very hard for me to get my head around.
One of the things that’s very clear to me using Reddit’s app is that it is tracking me much the same way that Facebook tracks me. And so if my eyes linger on a post, I get more posts from that subreddit. And that’s often not what I want. And I often my eye has settled on something because that was really inappropriate or I’m not happy about it. And then feeding me a whole bunch more of it is really terrible. It feels like the sort of logic of surveillance capitalism that a lot of us are familiar with from Shoshana Zuboff has sort of now come into this community.
And while on the one hand that seems reasonable, right? These are all private platforms being run for profit. It seems a little excessive for Reddit, given how much Reddit relies on volunteer efforts.
So on the one hand, like it’s great that Reddit has found a way to work with volunteers. On the other hand, it obviously is going to mean that those volunteers are periodically going to have a voice in how the platform works. In this particular case, it doesn’t seem like this protest has actually led to all that much change on behalf of the platform.
And I understand you no longer work for this company. I’m not going to ask you to formally speak for Reddit. But, you know, did you see sort of moderators leaving or sort of stepping away from the platform instead of your experience? Or is this simply rough seas that everybody’s navigating?
There were some moderators who did step down and they made that public. They talked about it in their subreddits. I know some of the mod teams that I am in contact with, they did have mods that last. They or at least have stepped back. You know, they will do what is required. They won’t always, you know, they won’t maybe take that extra above and beyond step. You know, and that’s their choice and that’s their decision.
And I don’t judge any moderator or any admin or anyone for the actions that they’re taking, just knowing how this is a complicated issue for everybody to try and end stuff through. And so you need to handle it, you know, whatever feels right and correct for you because I don’t think there’s a right answer.
Yeah, we’re still trying as scholars to sort of figure it out. So we’ve added to the Reddit map that social tool. We’ve added what we call protest view, which what you look at sort of a category.
So I’m looking at a category that we call full time minimum wage and East Coast local. For whatever reason those two sets overlap a lot. So a lot of people talking about r/Boston are also talking about, you know, r/USPS or r/Walmart. And when I turn that flag on, I can see that roughly half of those subreddits went dark for at least part of the protest.
There’s other areas where almost no one went dark. Over in the finance world, for instance, the stock trading world, very few of those guys went dark, whether it’s sort of an understanding that capitalism is the way things work or whether it’s a different opinion. But it does seem like fewer people are staying turned off. There’s fewer of this sort of de minimis, you know, work to rule piece of things. It looks like Reddit may well make it through this moment. Do you think Reddit’s model of uncompensated moderators is long term sustainable?
That’s an interesting question. I would kind of like to say yes and no, right? Because I honestly believe that having a volunteer force like this is a huge strength. These are people who are on the platform because they care and they care deeply. And that’s why they do this. They do this because they love it and they do this because they love this community. And they are going to see things faster than any platform person would. They catch trends quicker because they’re on the ground and they’re there all the time and they’re there because they love it. So they have a different investment. They’re a great resource. There are wonderful people to have around and they’ll clue you into things quicker than any AI model, I think, could clue you into something. On the other hand, this work takes a toll and we know this.
And the thing with volunteer moderators specifically is because they’re volunteers, they get no training. There is no official training. A lot of, you know, some mod teams will train themselves, but not all of them do. And it’s very much tool related. This is how this tool works. This is how this tool works. This is how this rule should be, should be enacted. It’s not about like, this is how to handle it when someone wants to commit suicide. This is what to do when you see a really horrible piece of content that is just like horrible and mind shattering. And there are no resources for them. You know, there’s they have no wellness resources unless they have some through their other employment.
And so they’re they often see these things with no blurring, full color, and when they least expect to see it. And so they can’t prepare and then they have to go on with their lives because, you know, they might have kids in the room. They might have a spouse that needs caring. They might have an elder parent that needs help and they have to go from looking at some of the most horrible content on the Internet and then go about their lives with nothing in between.
And that is the part that I don’t believe is sustainable. I do believe that, you know, these groups, these volunteer mods should have more resources. And this is something that I’m starting to put a lot of thought into is where in the professional realm of trust and safety, where do the volunteer mods fit and how can we bring them in a little bit closer to make sure that they have the resources they need if they want to keep doing this. And even if they want to transfer over and start doing this as their full time job.
And this feels like something that that really has to be at the front of the mind of a lot of people thinking through these questions. Trust and safety is really starting to emerge as a field. It has a conference that has academics who study it. It’s sort of finally getting some of the respect that it’s deserved for a long time.
But there does seem at times to be a little bit of a professional separation between the people who are paid full time and the people who are doing this on a voluntary basis. And the truth is that a lot of those resources are probably necessary for everyone to be involved and that we know from past experience how incredibly important it is to ensure that people are getting psychological care when they’re doing this. This really difficult work. I think that’s a really worthwhile thing to be to be working on and fighting for.
You’re no longer doing this work for Reddit. I feel very confident that you will be doing something wonderful and exciting again in the near future. What sort of moderation and community work are you doing sort of in your personal life? Like what are you doing on your own? I know r/hockey is there any other work that you’re doing at the moment?
So I moderate the discord for my local hockey team. San Jose Sharks represent. So I moderate there. I also have a really small little discord for me and all my friends that I started during the pandemic. Just a great way for us to make sure that we could have stayed connected when we couldn’t see each other physically. So I’m doing that. I’m doing I’m also trying to keep my toes in the field by doing a lot of reading. I’m reading every book that’s been stacking up in my to-be-read pile so that I have like a better kind of basis of knowledge and getting involved more with the trust of safety professionals Association of the integrity Institute. Really just trying to lend my knowledge there because if there’s one thing that I’m finding is that there’s not always a community component to when we start talking about enforcement and policy and trust and safety.
When you bring your community in on that process when you are developing a new policy and you bring the community in, they’re going to have more ideas than you even thought were possible. And they will make your policy just that much better. It might take a little more time. But you’ll get a policy that is more likely to be accepted by everyone and less blowback and less protest.
You know, if you say, hey, we did this, we did this call these many users help us figure it out. Everybody kind of goes, yeah, okay, that’s cool. The community is in on this and so I approve and they’ll kind of just move on. And that’s a piece that I really want to start helping more companies and more organizations start to see about bringing into their process. And then again, this whole thing about how to volunteer mods fit into the grander scheme. Can we start to give them these resources and can we help companies see what they can do to help their moderators as well?
So I think community moderation and the work necessary to make it happen is perhaps the least understood and one of the most important topics on the contemporary internet.
Christine Moellenberndt, it’s just been amazing to get your perspective on this as a space that you’ve worked in for two and a half decades. It’s wonderful. She is Christine Moellenberndt, better known as kethryvis, such a pleasure having you on here. And really looking forward to bringing more conversations about communities and how we care for them onto the podcast and into the internet more broadly.
Absolutely. Thank you for having me. This was great. And thank you for making me feel old right at the very end.