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Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman. | Courtesy of Reddit
/r/The_Donald was punished for hosting “violent content,” and Huffman isn’t convinced the community’s moderators are taking that problem seriously enough.
The Reddit community /r/The_Donald is a perpetual online rally in support of President Trump, but last month, Reddit decided to put the group in “quarantine” for hosting and not acting on violent threats on police officers and public officials in Oregon.
“Quarantining” does not prevent people from reading or contributing to /r/The_Donald, but it asks new visitors if they’re sure they want to check it out, and a notice at the top of the page reminds everyone to be on better behavior. On the latest episode of Recode Decode With Kara Swisher, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said the goal of the restriction was to put /r/The_Donald on notice but give them a chance to change.
But so far, he’s not been convinced that the quarantine should be lifted. And in the context of the quasi-violent tone of Trump’s real rallies, he’s not surprised.
“In order for that to happen, we would have to see a real, concerted effort to make a change and ownership of this challenge. I haven’t seen it yet,” Huffman said. “So this gets back to my point of, if they are a self-described never-ending rally for the president and we can all see the behavior of people at those rallies and this is a digital version of that, I think they have their work cut out for them.”
At the same time, Huffman said he would have banned the group if he thought it was impossible to save because “I don’t want to waste time on something that’s inevitable” — and clearly, that hasn’t happened yet. On top of that, he said he wants to make sure Trump’s nonviolent supporters aren’t being unfairly restricted from expressing their views.
“Political speech is amongst the most sacred in our country, and we do believe that, and removing a community that represents political views of a large percentage of our population I think is deeply problematic,” Huffman said. “But at the same time, it doesn’t mean a community can use that as a shield to behave dangerously.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Steve.
Kara Swisher: Steve and I have done interviews several times, and we were going to tape this in our studio at Vox Media, but I thought … One of the things that I like is a live audience, and Steve is … Not everybody can do a live audience very easily or be very interesting, but Steve is absolutely a terrific interview.
We’ve done many over the years, and I thought he would be great. It was either him or a venture capitalist from Andreessen Horowitz, and I can tell you, you don’t want to see that live. He was great. He was great, but, really, you don’t want to hear about cap tables, I think, right now, which was fascinating to me — not really, but sort of.
In any case, Steve obviously is one of the founders, a longtime entrepreneur, founder of … He did Hipmunk. He did all kinds of companies. But the most famous, obviously, is Reddit, which he … How many of you co-founders … You and Alexis?
Steve Huffman: It was Alexis and I, technically.
Two of us, and then Aaron Swartz and Chris Slowe, who’s our CTO now, joined us about six months later.
Anyway, co-founder of Reddit, which I think is a very well-known site and service and communication service. How do you call it? What do you call Reddit now?
That’s actually a really good question. I definitely use the line that we’re “not social media.”
Okay. Good thing these days.
Right? But the idea that we’re either a tech company or a media company … I think the reality is we’re both, and this is probably one of those questions that I’ll have a better answer maybe 10 years from now, looking back. But my honest answer is I don’t know, somewhere in between.
Somewhere in between. All right. So I want to … Very quickly, for those who aren’t familiar … I think most people are familiar with Reddit, and most people … Show of hands who are familiar with Reddit and how it works. Okay, everybody. You came back how many years ago?
Four years. Four years last week.
You came back and started off to try to figure out what went wrong with Reddit, really, and try to fix it, or what was the …
Well, yeah, I mean, my mentality was twofold.
You had left.
I had left Reddit. So I was with Reddit for the first five years. Then I left for five years, and I was slinging plane tickets at Hipmunk. Coming back to Reddit, I had mixed feelings because, in some sense, yes, there was an aspect of, “Can we fix Reddit?”
But really, what was behind that was … I think and I thought — I do now and thought then — Reddit is a truly incredible place and an incredible thing. It, unfortunately, wasn’t known as such. Maybe for our core users, but popularly, not known as such. It was actively committing suicide, is how I viewed it at the time.
Why do you say that? Because …
Well, part of it was getting up the motivation to actually come back, right? We have to tell ourselves these stories. So I was like, “If I don’t come back, it’s going to die.”
Now, whether that was true or not, I would say we were doing, very efficiently, the checklist of things a company would do to kill themselves. We weren’t hiring. We were in the press for all of the wrong reasons. Our users were in open revolt. The employee morale was very low. The product wasn’t changing.
So, a lot of things going wrong. What was going right is that we were growing. So this is one of the things that just from a pure business point of view, made me then and continues to make me really optimistic about Reddit, is that, even during our darkest days, we were growing, which means something is working.
Right. So something is working. You were at the front end, I would say, sort of the John the Baptist of really awful internet memes, really awful conversations, racism, sexism, things like that, way before this was a thing that sort of infected all the other sites. Talk about how that occurred. I know you don’t agree with everything. There’s tons of great stuff on Reddit. I know that. I know that. But a lot of the ones that were more controversial were terrible.
It is true, the ones that were more controversial were terrible. I wouldn’t say we pioneered any of these things.
No, no, no. No, I don’t mean to say … But you got the attention for this way before everybody else. Reddit was the first site that got most of the attention around this.
Fairly or not, we got a lot of attention for this.
That was troubling — both the fact that it existed and that’s what we were known for.
Because, again, then and even less so now, we’re talking about actually a very small percentage of our users who had a disproportionately loud voice.
One of the things that’s changed over the years at Reddit — and it’s been a personal learning of mine and for the company — is when we started Reddit, the idea behind Reddit is that this will be a real place. This is a bullshit-free place. It came from a point of view of, “Marketing is lying to me. The media is lying to me. Everything is kind of manicured and just not real.”
“And we want a place that’s actually real.”
So we had this idea — and we more or less enforced it in the beginning — is we’re not going to remove things. So, for the most part, this meant we’re not going to remove content. We actually didn’t even really even have spam, let alone hate. It mostly meant we’d let swear words survive and content critical of us.
But that did lend a certain amount of authenticity to Reddit. And so it’s easy to say things like, “We’re not going to remove things,” or some kind of free speech argument when your values aren’t being tested, when it’s easy to say so.
It gets a lot more challenging … and these were in those years, that kind of 2010 to ’15 era. So I came back in 2015 and we’re immediately wrestling with these issues of, well, we don’t want to remove things. We don’t want to undermine the authenticity of Reddit, but this stuff is wrong. Finding our voice on those issues was a real challenge because we had to really test our values and find ways to justify doing what we knew in our heart to be the right thing, but wasn’t supported by our policies, or wasn’t supported by our previous words. So there was a disconnect there that we had to close.
One hundred percent. And the reason I’m saying … I don’t mean to imply that everything on Reddit is awful. That’s not the case. Most of them are wonderful, vibrant communities, but you were the first to see these problems and have to deal with them quickly. This was pre-Donald Trump, pre- a lot of the controversies about white nationalism, Alex Jones, everything else. You all faced it early.
Yeah, and one of the reasons for that is that Reddit is, one, well-organized. That is to say, our users self-organize into communities.
So if you’re looking for a particular piece of content, whether it was the bad stuff or, more commonly, some really good stuff…
Knitting, actually, is a community I actually really enjoy.
We can get into that, I hope.
I think there’s something really important about the commonality of the human experience that we don’t get to see in our day-to-day lives that might even come through in a community like Knitting. For me, it’s actually the Cross-Stitch community.
Okay. Nevertheless, so Reddit is a little bit different in that it’s well organized, so you can find what you’re looking for, and it’s public. Right? We’re not behind logins. That was very important to us.
We’re not behind logins. We’re not in an AI-generated custom feed for you.
Right, news feed.
It’s really human-powered, and so, for better or for worse, at the time, it created new challenges. But I think, overall, for Reddit, it’s a healthy symptom of the fact that Reddit is a reflection of what’s going on in the world.
But the challenge was our early internet users were also of the kind of techie, troll-y variety and were adept at manipulating the system and taking advantage of it, whether to spread hate or, more commonly, just to kind of waste everybody’s time.
Right. To be trolls. To make trouble.
So talk about when you got back, how you thought to deal with this, because initially it was really up and down for you.
It was really challenging. I mean, it was within my first week, we were talking about a community whose name I don’t even like to say, but a nasty, racist community, and we’re trying to find the argument for removing them. We went back and forth on this for a couple of weeks, and, finally, I remember …
What were the back-and-forth arguments? See, I would’ve been like, “Take it down.”
Well, that was an argument.
It was an argument we all kind of fall back on. It’s like, “We know what the answer is here. How can we get there?”
The challenge is, defining what we’re actually talking about. Is this hate or is it not? These users, we kind of chased them around the site, and they would do really sinister things. For example, communities of news of only black people committing crimes, major news sources, right? No commentary, no anything. So things like that, but we know, “Hey, this is wrong.” So, during that discussion, that’s actually where we created the quarantine feature.
I want to get to that, the quarantine.
Yeah. It was like, “We’re not sure quite how to ban it yet or how to justify this, but this is not what we want users seeing. This is not what we want to be representing to the world. So we’re going to put them in this kind of list of sanctions.” Then the day before …
So like the Iraqis, but go ahead.
The day before we applied the quarantining feature, I woke up and I just said, “You know what? Fundamentally, what this community is doing, amongst other things, is wasting our time. They’re attacking this company. They’re deliberately posting nasty stuff, and then they go to the press, maybe you, “and say, ‘Hey, look at this nasty stuff on Reddit. Would you write about it?’ They’re doing this to attack our company, to waste our time, to get everybody spun up, and, fundamentally, we just have more important things to worry about.”
What we’re trying to do is … What Reddit does really well is it gives people a sense of community and belonging.
That’s the prize. We think that’s an important glue of society, and these people are preventing us from doing that. So you know what? We’re going to ban them. We’re going to ban them on the grounds that they are in the way of our mission. Over the coming months, we refined our content policies, and, even since between you and I last spoke, we’ve made a number of iterations through our policies to kind of provide more clarity on these issues, both for our decision making and for the public.
Right. So when you make these decisions, one of the things that I think Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to do, Jack Dorsey, “We don’t want to decide.” That’s always their fallback position, except that they created it and made it so that … But they don’t want to take responsibility for the private company that it is and make decisions.
Talk about … You probably have … There’s a lot of people … I know Alexis was like that, your other co-founder. Why is that a mentality that you feel like you don’t want to decide, even though you all created the platforms?
The challenge here, speaking for Reddit specifically, is that we didn’t create Reddit. Our users created Reddit.
We believe this very strongly, and if we zoom out of Reddit for a second and just talk about the internet, the difference between the internet and the media landscape that existed before it is that, on the internet, everybody has a voice, right? Everybody can share what they know, what they’re thinking, whatever.
This has been an overwhelmingly positive change, I think, for humanity, right? It has elevated and educated billions of people. At the same time, people will present themselves in ways that might conflict with our values, sometimes very much so, and sometimes in ways where it might be, actually, a simple political disagreement.
So now we start getting into the discussion of who should choose what people can and can’t say, and I do believe it’s problematic for a private company — or even worse, me as an individual or, God help us all, the government — to be deciding what people can and can’t say, which ideas live and survive. We believe that that power really lies within people. So, in the United States, that means all of us. It means publishers and journalists who are really debating these ideas publicly.
That’s kind of the founding principle of this country, and so, on Reddit, the ideal case is that our users do this, and Reddit, more than the other platforms, much more so, our users do do this.
Well, you can distinguish between Reddit and Facebook, because that’s a highly controlled environment. Even though they’re pretending it’s not, it’s highly controlled in every aspect of it.
You sign in. These news feeds are thrown at you. There’s a huge advertising business built on your data. It’s not this, “Oh hey, we’re all sort of hippies here,” because someone’s a billionaire and someone isn’t.
The challenge with Facebook specifically is that the feeds were engineered, not necessarily by people, but by algorithms.
By people, I mean employees, and so it was optimizing to the wrong thing. Now we look back, it’s so obvious. Oh, if you’re optimizing for engagement or time on site, the end result is you’re going to get this click-bait-y, angry politics, emotional content. I don’t think there was a moral imperative behind that one way or the other, other than optimizing for time on site and revenue. We are different because our users do that.
So, while I do think it’s problematic, though obviously not unheard of, we do make decisions on what … At some level, we have our content policy of what is allowed or not allowed on our site. But, more importantly, our users and moderators do that at a far greater scale. We think that scale is much better. For example, Facebook got in trouble last year, maybe two years ago, when they started deciding which news sources were valid or not.
Right? They ended up killing a bunch of publications, right? Or putting them on near-death because they just cut off traffic to them.
Google’s done that before, too.
Yeah, because some decision that somebody made, inadvertent or not …
No, Google did it. It was called Aardvark or some stupid childish name they have for ruining people’s businesses.
So we don’t do that.
They do. They name it stuff like that. Penguin.
So we don’t choose which news publications survive or not, but our news communities are amongst the most strictly moderated.
They do. /r/News has, actually, a list of publications that are allowed, and only external links are allowed. So the end result is …
Or think about it this way. Two very different headlines: “Reddit bans whatever news source dot-com,” hugely problematic bias, this and that, oh my gosh, the whole world’s on fire. Or “This community decides to ban it,” fine, whatever, “We’ll go to a different community.”
It’s very different. So we try to work towards how can we empower the users …
… to make the selections.
… to make the selection, our communities to make the selection, and then grow as many communities as possible.
In some cases, though, you do have to make the selection.
So talk a little bit about what happened just recently with — it’s /r/The_Donald, right?
So The_Donald is a community on Reddit. They are self-described as a never-ending rally for the president, which I think is important in this context if we just consider the behavior of people at those rallies.
So it’s been a challenge for us, because they … First of all, Reddit has the far right in The_Donald and the far left and everyone in between. So, I mean, we see that, right? They go after each other. They both go after me. It’s something we’re living fairly viscerally.
The_Donald, if you asked the far left, that’s where Nazis are born and bred. I think a little bit closer to reality is that their ethos is less in hate and more in pissing off liberals, which is annoying, and they’re really good at it, and it’s not against our content policy.
However, we have seen in that community behavior that does violate our content policies. So, in this particular case, we have a policy against inciting or glorifying violence.
Most recently, there were comments suggesting violence towards police officers — ironically, given their politics — in Oregon during that whole thing. We saw some of those comments reported and banned by moderators, which is what we would expect when there’s rule-violating content.
We saw other of those comments not reported, therefore not banned and even upvoted. So what we did with quarantining, in this case, is it basically puts a splash page on The_Donald and says, “There’s violent content here. We expect change,” sends a warning to both the moderators and the community.
So you put the splash on. You put … Go ahead. Sorry.
The warning is basically saying, “We expect you to hold yourselves to a higher standard. You’re trending in the wrong direction.”
Right, or … Is there an “or else” anywhere in there?
Well, it’s implied, right?
If they don’t get ahold of this, it’s problematic for us and for that community and, I think, for our country. So that can go all the way to a ban. It could go the other way and result in the removal of the quarantine. But, in order for that to happen, we would have to see a real, concerted effort to make a change and ownership of this challenge. I haven’t seen it yet.
So this gets back to my point of, if they are a self-described a never-ending rally for the president and we can all see the behavior of people at those rallies and this is a digital version of that, I think they have their work cut out for them.
So when do you decide what to do? Because I remember talking to Facebook people and Twitter people around Alex Jones, and one of the things that drove me crazy … I got in discussions with a lot of the executives there about this, and I was like, “You’re going to be taking him off so you might as well do it now. That’s the end result. You’re going to do it, because he’s broken the rules a million times.”
They were like, “Well, we’re considering …” I said, “Yeah, but in the end, you’re going to take him off. Three weeks, four weeks, he’s coming off.”
You can always just see, in the distance, where it’s going, and it was fascinating because they weren’t particularly resistant. It just was this sort of slow roll to the inevitable. How do you think of a quarantine, versus a ban? You expect them to do what? What can they …
At Facebook, what they did, which I thought was really interesting, it’s like, “Well we have a bunch of strikes on them,” and I was like, “Well, how many strikes?” “Well, we can’t say, because if they know they’ll game it up until the blank strike.” I was like, “Well, that’s ridiculous. Why don’t you just say you have three strikes and then we’re going to take you out,” or whatever? It turned out to be nine, and that was like the greatest … It was nine at Facebook, and it was the biggest secret, “Oh, don’t tell them nine, because they’ll know,” and I was like … I didn’t even understand the mentality of that.
I mean, I can understand it a little bit.
I don’t know why it was nine, but go ahead.
I don’t know why it’s nine either, but I’m sure they have a reason. Look, they have their reasons. I can say, in our own policies, I had this idea when I came back to Reddit in 2015, watching all this stuff, and I was like, you know what? Reddit needs crystal-clear policies. Draw a line and enforce it really aggressively.
Enforcement is critical, of course.
The challenge is, wherever we would draw that line, the users would go right up to it and stick their nose over it and just waste our time. So, actually, our policies are deliberately … They leave a little wiggle room. I think that room for interpretation is important because we have to adapt with the changing situation.
So, communities that get banned on Reddit are the ones where they’re in consistent violation of our policies, the moderators are not cooperative, and there’s just no way they’re going to recover. What we’re talking about with The_Donald is a community dedicated to the president, and so I do think we have to acknowledge that the era in which we live, we live in an era where two reasonable people can have a spirited debate about whether or not the president of the United States should be allowed to tweet.
That debate’s over, but go ahead.
The fact that that’s a question is absurd. So, political speech is amongst the most sacred in our country, and we do believe that, and removing a community that represents political views of a large percentage of our population I think is deeply problematic. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean a community can use that as a shield to behave dangerously.
So, you’re talking about The_Donald moving in the wrong direction, and of course, we saw the physical manifestation of that at the rally, the “send her back” chanting, which I think is sticking their nose over the … That’s a version of that, because it’s not quite violent, but it’s not quite not. You know what I mean?
It’s kind of in that sort of weird space that’s offensive and yet not necessarily dangerous, but is, really. When do you decide whether they’ve gotten better, and what is better? Why not ban? Why not just … Are they not going to get better, or just you can’t do that yet?
I think you’re asking really good questions, and these are questions we are asking ourselves. If I thought, similar to what you were talking about with Alex Jones before, if I thought the answer, if I thought it was inevitable, we would just do it, because as the CEO, I don’t want to waste time on something that’s inevitable, and we have made decisions like that in the past. Right? There’s just no hope here. We don’t have the perfect words, but we’re not going to spend any more time on this.
I have in mind of a series of things they could do that would be steps in the right direction. One of them, without going into specifics, one of the things I would like to see is ownership of, “We are going to support the president, but we are not going to have anything remotely violent on this community, and we are going to enforce that ruthlessly.”
If I saw that message, and then I saw them do that in the data, that would be a compelling argument. Instead, we saw a YouTube video stickied on the top that was the equivalent of “send her back,” and so I saw that, and me and our policy lead Jessica were like, “Well, doesn’t look like they want to be un-quarantined next week.” So, we’ll see.
You’re right. It’s not in violation of our content policy. It’s gross, and you can play that forward and see how that’s problematic, but I can also play forward how forbidding that sort of language, even though it’s deeply in contrast to my own personal values, is also problematic.
So, getting to the idea of your responsibility to do something about it, given you create … I know you’re a much more user-generated … It’s such a different experience. You’re sort of past Twitter. Twitter’s closer to Facebook, but they’re sort of in the middle. It’s kind of a free-for-all there, too, very much less organized and no moderators whatsoever, which changes the equation quite a bit.
I want you to talk to the bigger ethos in Silicon Valley, because I’ve still not understood it correctly. Why not take responsibility for the content on your platform? I just was thinking, when we were … On Recode, or All Things D, we had a lot of comments on our site, and a lot of them are just vile and just not conducive to community, just a pain in the ass. They were just a lot of crazy people. When Steve Jobs died, there was all these … “He had AIDS,” and then there was a whole anti-gay thing. It went on and on, and we have a very small staff, and we didn’t want to moderate, and we were sick of it.
So, what’s the status of those comments now?
I got rid of all of them. I just made the decision, no more comments. You can go to Twitter if you want to yell at me. Sounds good. What was really interesting is I got a series of emails from a couple of them, because one guy kept coming back and being vile all over the place and kept changing his … All kinds of tricks. It was exhausting to try to chase this guy, but he wasn’t too smart, so we could always figure out it was him once again, so it was kind of you’re dumb and yet persistent.
You know what I mean?
Oh, I know what you mean.
It was really interesting, the kind of energy he put into fucking with us.
What was really interesting is he kept writing me these emails, and he got me on Twitter, like, “You can’t do that. I have a right to say what I want,” and I said, “Not on my fucking website. Go over to Twitter.” You know what I mean?
”It’s my website. I say no,” and he goes, “You can’t say no.” He goes, “It’s a free country. It’s free speech.” I go, “Congress shall …” I have this obsession with the First Amendment. I’m like, “Congress shall make no law… Kara Swisher can make whatever frigging laws she wants, and she’s going to say, ‘You get off of my site.’” So, it was a really interesting debate at the time. This was years and years ago, but I remember sort of the mentality of being able to say and do whatever you want, and then I thought, “I’ll just take responsibility for it,” and eventually, that’s where all our comments happen. There’s an overwhelming feeling here of not doing that, and I get part of it, but other parts I’m like, you just don’t want to face the music of that.
Well, if we were to do what you did and get rid of comments, Reddit’s gone.
Well, yes. Of course. Yes, I got that. I got that.
No, but that’s the point.
That’s the point. That’s the point, and so …
Yeah. Well, I meant more stuff that’s so obviously not …
Well, the stuff that’s obviously bad is gone. The edge, the line for us right now is The_Donald.
Political comment, The_Donald. Right. So, it’s moved.
Oh, of course it’s moved. Since you and I last spoke, we’ve updated our policies on harassing and bullying. We’ve updated our policies on violence. We’ve built out a massive team. Our anti-evil team, both in the engineering and operations …
It’s called the anti-evil team?
Okay. All right. Do you have uniforms?
Secret uniforms, yes.
Okay. All right. Yeah.
Hoodies and plaid, yes. So, we have actually, I think, on what I would perceive as vile …
Yes, you’ve moved.
We’ve done a lot there. Now, there’s always more, and whenever we ban a community, I always think, how could we have put ourselves in a position for the community to have done this for themselves? We had this joke when I was in the computer science department that brute force is the second-best solution to every problem.
A little computing joking. Go ahead.
So, my fantasy is that one day the Reddit community — which really, it’s not Redditors, it’s people, we’re pretty massive now — can do this for themselves. But in present day, we have to intervene because something does need to be done, and so we do.
But we’re very different from, certainly, Facebook and even from Twitter. One of the reasons is in the downvote. So, for example, all of our content has upvotes, which is the equivalent of Twitter with the hearts or “Likes” or retweets or whatever they are, the positive affirmations you see on the internet. The downvote is really important because …
They don’t have a “don’t like,” but go ahead.
It’s really important because I think that’s where culture is defined. That’s where people say, “This behavior or these words are not allowed here. I don’t care what the rules are. I as an individual say no.” You can see the effect of this. You go on Twitter, everything Donald Trump tweets, he gets 50 to 80,000 hearts or whatever. He thinks he’s the most popular guy in the country, and to an extent, he is. If he did that same thing on Reddit, he might get the same 50,000 upvotes, but he’d also probably get a million downvotes, and I think that’d be a really clear message that what you’re saying is not welcome here.
We think this is really powerful. So, when I talk about empowering people, even through something as simple as the downvote, that allows us to scale in ways that our peers can’t. One of our sayings is, the only thing that scales with users is users. I’ll get off my soapbox, or maybe you’ll give me another opportunity to get on it.
Yes, I … No.
But one of the life lessons I’ve learned from Reddit is that people, when they’re in the right context, will do the right thing. People are actually fundamentally good. This is my deeply held belief, and I’ve learned this at Reddit, and I’ve seen this.
So opposite to my point of view, but go ahead.
Well, spend more time on Reddit. So, empowering our communities, empowering our moderators, letting them define the rules and the culture and express their values, I think is not only the only way that we’ll survive. I think it’s the only way that a user-powered platform like ours can survive in the future.
Okay. So, let’s talk about … My point of view is sort of Oscar Wilde’s, which was we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Not many, with the idea that we’re at the bottom. Anyway, good thing I’m not running Reddit.
So, when you think about that, one of the issues is right versus left. I’ve spent a lot of time in Washington recently, and I’m engaging with a lot of the people on the right to talk about whether they’re being shadow banned, whatever their conspiracy theory of the moment is, and it is. It’s just not happening that way. They tend to violate more, from what I can figure out.
The_Donald bans more users than just about any other community on Reddit.
Right, right, because there’s more violations of it. How do you answer that from the right? I want to engage. I’m going to be doing a podcast with Josh Hawley, and we had a discussion before, and some of his proposals are really interesting around regulation of tech, and they’re smart, and he’s obviously a very smart lawyer and everything else, and then he goes off on the shadow-banning stuff in a way that is just absolutely wrong, from every bit of reporting I’ve done.
And I said, “Look, if you’re going to go off to Crazy Town, I’m going to shut you down, real hard, so just be aware of that. I want to talk about the smart things you want to do,” and from Cruz to all of them, really do truly believe this. Scaramucci, all of them believe it, and Donald Trump obviously says it all the time. How do you respond to that right versus left, that you’re favoring … Trump just did it this week, is we’re not insulting the Squad, we’re insulting his racist remarks and not their racist remarks.
I mean, it’s an absurd claim. It’s an absurd claim. How could you possibly make the claim that the right is being silenced in this country where Donald Trump is president and they control the Senate and they controlled the House for years?
Yes, I know. It’s sore losers. Sore winners, I call them. Sorry.
Correct. One experience I’ve had, though, talking with politicians on both the right and the left, is actually this message of, “We don’t want to be the arbiter of truth. That is the job of journalists. That is the job of people, of society, and we are going to orient our platform around that idea,” actually resonates really well with both sides, because I think it’s fundamentally an American idea, and it’s one of our earliest ideas. So, I do believe there is rational thinking on both sides around this issue, but I also sense from both of them a lot of fear. Right?
What are we gonna do about this, whether they’re talking about how do we fight hate online or how do we fight the fact that my political views seem to be not welcome or ostracized or this or that? What do we do about this? But if the answer is, well, you don’t get to choose politicians, and a private company is problematic as well, but there is another path, that actually resonates with them. So, I have some optimism there. Now, maybe they’re just humoring me, and “Steve, get out of my office,” sort of thing, but I do think there is a path forward.
What would that be? Because today, you saw the story that the Justice Department is looking into antitrust violations. They didn’t name companies, but they said in search services, in retail, in social media, large companies we’re not going to name.
Oh, shit, they’re coming after us!
No, they’re not coming after you. Facebook, Google, Amazon, essentially. There’s movement afoot in antitrust. There’s regulatory things. Are you fearful, or what would you like to see from a regulatory scheme work? Because it’s coming.
Would I love to see the government F our largest competitors?
Yes, yes. You would.
Yeah! That’d be great. That’d be amazing.
Okay. That’s the best answer I’ve gotten for a long time.
Look, it’s a conversation worth having.
They’re going to F your largest competitors, but go ahead.
Honestly, I hope they do it for the right reasons. The right reasons would be what is best for business in the US, what ensures a reasonably level playing field, and not out of spite, like, you screwed up over here and we’re coming after you over here.
All right. So, what is the problem that they need to solve of these big companies, from your perspective? Then we’ll get questions from the audience, because we’ve got about an hour, I think. Manny? Where’s Manny? In a minute, we’ll start with …
I mean, presumably they’re going to look into whether these companies have an unfair advantage. I think I could make an argument on both sides, very easily. One, Google and Facebook control 80 percent of the ad spend in the US, so I’d say that’s a pretty massive advantage. On the other hand, there are benefits that come out of when companies get really big.
The example of that I like to screw with myself with is when I think about Bell. Right? Bell is a very famous monopoly that was ultimately broken up, but a company that big and with those resources created Bell Labs, which created the laser, the cellphone, TCP, which is the internet, satellites, I believe. So, what I don’t buy is the argument that the solution to our content moderation challenges is because we’re so big. Only a big company like us …
That’s their new excuse.
Yeah, I don’t buy that for a second.
No, neither do I.
Because we are a tiny company compared to them. We’re growing. We’re about 500 people now, but we were half the size a year ago, and half that size the year before. I think where they are running away from the problem, we’re running towards it, because I actually think we can solve it. I think we can present a solution, at least, that scales. So, I don’t buy this we’re too big to fail, or you have to be big to do this sort of stuff argument.
You have to be big to fight this, and you have to big to fight China. They’ve got a whole bunch in that you-have-to-be-big argument area.
So, what would you see — and then let’s get questions from the audience — what would you see as fixing the content moderation issue? Because it’s not just … It’s content moderation, which is married to hate speech, which is married to people feeling depressed, it’s creating mental issues around our society, which is linked to addiction, which is linked to election … It’s all part of a larger spin.
Yeah. So, if we’re going to talk about what should we do, I said it many times today, which is empower our users, empower our communities. For example, our communities, Reddit doesn’t have a formal hate speech policy. We have the violent speech policy, but the majority of our top communities have a hate speech policy. They all draw the line in slightly different places, because it’s a difficult thing to define, and they all enforce it with different levels of strictness, but we think that’s a very powerful thing. I think that’s very encouraging.
They make their own rules.
They make their own rules and they enforce them, and those rules reflect their values, and I think the values of people are generally pointed in the right direction, if we take advantage of that. Now, if we’re talking about, when we talk about what’s going on in the country, I think we face some real challenges.
One of the things that I find personally a little dismaying is in all of our talk about politics and tech and the next election and what do we do, we don’t spend enough time talking about the fact that the suicide rate is skyrocketing, and the opioid crisis, and all of the ways that I think we as a society have neglected ourselves. The middle class is completely decimated. So, it’s no surprise to me that people want to turn away from the establishment politics and turn away from our government and just find somebody different to do something differently. I think we can spend more time looking at ourselves, not just as tech companies, but as Americans, and trying to figure out, how can we make things better for everybody?
Do you blame tech for these issues now? I saw a movie last night, The Great Hack, which is coming to Netflix on Wednesday, I think. It’s about Brexit. It’s about the Trump election. It’s really probably the most depressing documentary I’ve seen in a long time.
I look at Reddit specifically as a reflection of what’s going on in the country. So, two, three years ago, The_Donald was our No. 2 community. Now it’s not in our top 250, and so to me, that’s a reflection of what’s going on in the country. Whether or not Reddit existed, I think the cause of that symptom would still exist, which is America is not working for the majority of Americans, and so they’re looking for something else. I think we went the wrong way and we’re seeing that now, quite viscerally. We’re not trending in the right direction. But no, I don’t think it was tech that caused that, but I do think it’s tech that reveals that and amplifies some of these views, for sure.
Okay. We’re going to do questions. What is the top community right now, the top two communities on Reddit?
The top two communities, I believe, are AskReddit and IAmA.
This is the Ask Me Anything.
Yes. Yeah, so our blue chips. They’ve been No. 1 and 2 for a long time.
What is the top one that’s not one of … I’m just curious, what’s the trend?
That’s actually a great question. I don’t know off the top of my head. AskReddit, IAmA, news, politics, gaming is very big. Those are our biggest categories. I’ll call them kind of Reddit, human interest, gaming, news and politics, and then entertainment.
So in topic … There’s not something particularly …
There is, I just don’t know it off the top of my head.
All right. Questions from the audience?
Eric: Hi, my name’s Eric. I’m the communications director for Agatha Bacelar. She’s actually running for Congress here in San Francisco against Nancy Pelosi. My question is, Pew recently did a survey of the people that use Reddit and they found that it’s 72 percent male and I’m just kind of curious to hear your explanation for that and your thoughts on if it has anything to do with the downvote mechanic that you mentioned earlier.
Steve Huffman: That’s a great question. We don’t know that number because we don’t ask our users their gender, but I will say that number is reasonably aligned with what we kind of figure out by looking at our own data. I actually find that number encouraging because when we started Reddit we were probably 99 percent male. So we’re actually trending in the right direction towards a more balanced user base.
But [when] we started, Reddit had one community and our product strategy in that era in 2005 was, “I’m going to build things that I like.” And my reasoning for doing so was I am not unique. There are millions of people just like me, and so if I build things that I like, millions of people will like it. That turned out to be a decent strategy. It also turned out that there are millions of people just like me, but there are not hundreds of millions of people just like me or billions of people just like me. But we started with one community and the news was programming, tech, gaming, internet memes. Categories that are dominated by men. And certainly, 15 years ago, even more so.
As Reddit’s grown — we celebrated our 14th birthday about a month ago — we have diversified tremendously. And so, we’re moving in the right direction. So our categories right now cover … our largest categories are still gaming, which is very male-dominated; news and politics on Reddit as a category that should be more balanced but I think it still skews male, both out of history and also I think kind of the tone of some of those conversations can be off-putting. But we also see communities right now growing around fashion and parenting and hobbies that are of interests predominantly of women. And so I can see the seeds of that growing.
One of our major initiatives right now across the company is safety. And so making Reddit … Making sure that people have good experiences on Reddit. That they’re free from harassment and bullying, which women face more of online. So I’m not surprised at that number. And I think the story arc over the years makes sense. But it is really important to us, both … Well for a variety of reasons, to balance that out.
I think most importantly, diversity, whether we’re talking about in nature or on our platform or in our workforce, diversity equals resilience. And learning how to grow in new categories with new populations is a requirement for us to be able to grow internationally. And our mission is to bring community and belonging to everybody in the world. That’s really what Reddit’s product is. And so to bring that to everybody in the world, we have to have everybody in the world on our platform. So that means Reddit has to work for everybody, not just dudes, not just Americans, but everybody. So we’ve got a long way to go, but I think we’re getting there.
Okay, let’s do one back here.
Josh: Hi, I’m Josh. I’d just be interested to understand your view of how Facebook moderates and they remunerated the moderators, whereas your moderation is largely community and volunteer driven and how some of them, I believe in We Are The Nerds, experienced similar difficulties as to what Casey [Newton] found.
Steve Huffman: I missed the last …
Josh: In a book that I read, some of the moderation experience of harassment and violent imagery were experienced by your volunteer moderators, whereas the paid moderators of Facebook are going through similar things.
Steve Huffman: Yeah, so our moderators are users. And they’re users who create our communities and they write the rules and they’re volunteers. And that’s the way Reddit’s worked since the beginning. Our relationship with them is evolving. Right now, we have many thousands of moderators that moderate many thousands of communities. One of our larger teams is basically dedicated to moderators and building mod tools. So there’s both build mod tools and then also work towards the safety of our moderators because we do know they’re on the receiving end of harassment, more so than the average user, and that is problematic and that’s not something we want to see into the future.
And as I’ve said many times today, the key to us being able to scale and to achieve our mission is to empower our communities. And in many ways that means empower our moderators and making sure they’re having good experiences. So I think as with all things, we’ve made a lot of progress here. We’ve been chasing down harassment and bullying site-wide and have actually made pretty great strides over the last couple of years from being 100 percent reactive three years ago to being about 98 or so percent proactive today. So we’re finding a lot more and getting rid of it before it even affects users and, in particular, moderators. But, that said, it is …
Finding it via how?
We’ll look at patterns of reports. So it’s usually a small number of users creating a lot of the problems. So if they create problems over here and get reported, then we’ll go through and action that user, right? Or we’ll look for … basically patterns in PMs and we can see this behavior. We do have a fair amount of machine learning in there and trying to figure out what’s abuse and what’s not. And so we’re learning as we grow. But we’ve gotten much more effective at that. Long story short is we’ve made progress there.
Josh: … compensation.
Steve Huffman: Compensation, well, that’s very different from harassment. So the way we think about that is there’s … A few steps down the road what I would like to do is when I say empower communities, I think there’s an extreme version of that, which is where we bring economics into this. Allowing communities to have business models. And hopefully you can use your imagination there, but I think there’s a lot they can do and that would open the door to communities having money and potentially moderators having a share of that. So I think we’re pretty far off, but that’s one of my, kind of, fantasies, that we can elevate communities to such a degree that people can actually run a business or earn a living on Reddit.
Okay. Another question right here.
Audience member: You said that you look at Reddit as either a tech company or as a news company. I think that Reddit is slowly evolving into a canon for a company for machine learning and NLP [natural language processing] systems, like the state-of-the-art generative model that OpenAI basically trained was trained using a dataset that was seeded off of Reddit. So what Reddit is basically doing is curating anthropocentric human-created data for all of your … The bots to basically train off of. So do you have any policies in place where you have a set of rules for what can be passed from your site and what cannot be? And because it’s very easy to kind of curate data sets off of — and basically build metadata assets off of — Reddit and basically train these large machine learning models that can be used as generative models for both propaganda or for hate speech.
Steve Huffman: Yeah. So it sounds like what you’re saying is we shouldn’t allow people to scrape Reddit because they can train AI models that can be used for bad things. Reddit is a public platform, right? We cannot control … Reddit wouldn’t exist if we didn’t make everything public. And so Reddit, yes, is probably one of the largest repositories online of human speech, and that can be used for really wonderful things and it can be used to create bots that do bad things. But that … I think the ethical dilemma there is using bots to do bad things. It’s not in making speech or humanity publicly available.
So I think it’s actually really important that we allow Reddit to stay public. Because when I talk about community and belonging, being able to see what’s going on in the world and get to see what people think about things all over the world and around any topic is critically important. So yes, we do try to limit people actually scraping us, but there’s no way we’re going to practically prevent the development of AI, nor do I think that’s even a good idea.
Even if it’s … Because it typically is used for bad purposes is your point. It’s typically used … It’s not used for helping humanity, it’s used to either help the Russians or sell Pampers or whatever the hell they want to do with it.
That is an absurd claim.
Okay, all right. That’s fine. I’m just …
That AI is used only for bad things is …
No. No, of course not. But the examples have, of late, been not positive.
Well, those are sexy examples, right? Those are sexy examples and …
Right. Well they’re not sexy, just depressing.
Well, they’re … Look, they’re going to generate clicks for whoever’s writing about it.
Right. You know what, let’s put a rest to that. Journalists … I do not sit around going, “Oh, this will be click-y.” No journalist I’ve ever met has ever done that, except for maybe Rupert Murdoch’s people.
Kara, I believe that, but a lot of people writing things online who aren’t journalists …
Yes, that’s true. But that’s different. That’s like … There’s a lot … Anyway. Sorry.
Long story short, look, AI is inevitable. We are going to fight, we’re gonna face ethical dilemmas with these in the same way that the technology that powers cars also powers tanks, right? These are human problems and technology moves humanity forward. And I generally believe that’s overwhelmingly good.
I mean, look at the state of the world. I know it’s easy to get pessimistic, but the status quo for humanity is substantially higher now than it was 100 years ago. And I hope that it’ll be substantially higher 100 years from now. And so what’s important is that we hold ourselves to ethical standards as people and not eliminate technology just because it has a bad use.
Right. Well, I think it’s easy to get into that, though. I mean, you can talk about lots of things that AI are going to do, but if you look at any of the technologies, and I don’t think it’s out of the realm to realize something like Twitter, I won’t do Reddit, for example, it looks like it’s Donald Trump’s show pony. That’s it. It’s been used in that way.
And even though there’s tons of great things going on on Twitter — there’s funny things, there’s wonderful things — most of the examples now is this is governing and you saw that in the racist tweets just this week, but you see governing by it, you see campaigning, you see propaganda by it. So it’s not … We’re not looking at the negative, it’s just the overwhelmingly strongest case for it is that.
Yeah, I hear you on that point. And I do think as a tech company, Reddit in particular, we do have a role to play in this, which is that the volume of any particular viewpoint on Reddit, good or bad, is in proportion to the number of people who actually have it. That Reddit, to the extent that I believe it is and should be a reflection of what’s going on in society, it should be an accurate reflection of what’s going on in society and that means our systems aren’t being gamed. We’re not being manipulated by bots or, more commonly, Americans with a political agenda. That we’re presenting a fair and accurate view of the world. And so as a tech company, that’s where I think we have the most control and I think when we do a good job at that, that’s when we see wonderful things occur. When we were not doing a good job at that, that’s when we saw the bad behavior take over.
But if you go to Reddit today, the vast majority of our content is this really interesting view, this glimpse into humanity that we wouldn’t otherwise see. And I would love to train AI models on the best of humanity and … But we also, I fully admit, we will hold ourselves to as high a standard as possible towards that end.
All right. Manny, do we have time for one more question or not?
Manny Yekutiel: We have time for one more question.
One more question. Oh, I’d like to get you right there.
Manny Yekutiel: Okay.
To get a lady.
Manny Yekutiel: By the way, I didn’t understand any of the terminology that he used.
“AI bad.” “No, it’s not.” “Yes, it is.”
Manny Yekutiel: Nothing. I didn’t understand anything.
Steve Huffman: AI is like the two words that either are like world peace or the end of days. The reality is somewhere in the middle.
Just the fact that it so could be the end of days is why people are nervous about it, that’s why.
Cleo Kirkland: Hi, I’m Cleo Kirkland.
Steve Huffman: Hey, Cleo.
Cleo Kirkland: I used to work with Steve at Hipmunk.
Steve Huffman: Good to see you.
Cleo Kirkland: When he was slinging airline tickets.
Steve Huffman: We were doing it together. Good to see you.
Cleo Kirkland: So what has surprised you, good or bad, from in the last year from your competitors, Facebook, Twitter, in terms of what they’ve allowed to go on their platform. And same question for the Reddit community, positive or negative, surprises?
That’s a good question to end on.
Well, let me start with the Reddit version. Because this is the one I know the best. There’s actually this paper, I referenced it a little while ago without giving credit. There was a paper that came out of Georgia Tech, I forget the title and I should really know this, but it’s something about the community norms online. But what they did is they studied Reddit, because it’s publicly available, and looked at all of the community rules and the content that was removed and they found that the vast majority of our communities removed, for example, hate speech.
And this was really encouraging to me, because this is something we’ve been wrestling with, which is how do we do this? How do we scale this into the future? And so seeing academics find this in Reddit and actually help us understand how and why Reddit works is really important to us. Because sometimes I think our job is less as product people and more as sociologists studying this thing that continues to grow and continues to do really cool things.
We often wonder why does this — this company was not well run for a long time. Why do we deserve to exist? And I think we deserve to exist because we reveal, I think, the best of people. And so seeing that validated by third parties was really cool.
As for our competitors, look, they are, I think, wrestling with real challenges, and these challenges I don’t think were — or sticky situations — were not created intentionally or overnight, unfortunately, which means they can’t be undone overnight. And so there’s a process that I think they and we all have to go through, which is figure out, hey, now we have these real problems, how can we solve them? And how can we solve them without undermining the value that these businesses actually provide people?
Or maybe someone was … I was on a panel last night, maybe these businesses aren’t worth what they’re worth. Maybe they’re worth a quarter of what they’re … If they have to do the things necessary and spend the money necessary to do the things to clean them up, perhaps their business model isn’t so good, perhaps…
Well, I can only speak for our business model. And as I said before, the only thing that scales with users is users. I think if you’re … If we were to try to throw money and employees at it, that is a losing strategy.
Okay. Very last question: is The_Donald gonna make it?
If The_Donald is a digital version of a Donald Trump rally, I’m not holding my breath. Wait, I’m holding … I’m not holding my breath.
Okay. You’re not holding your breath, because then you die. Right?
Okay. All right, everybody, Steve Huffman of Reddit. Thank you.
Thank you all.
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