Reddit Is Choosing Uniformity Over Customization, and Hard-working Subreddits Like CFB Will Pay the Price

So some of you… O.K. a fair number of you are probably familiar with Reddit, the place we can all go to find just about anything in online community form; a place to complain about multi-level marketing, or look a cute pictures (mostly of pets), or even… talk about college football!

If you frequent Reddit, you also know that they have recently undertaken – and are continuing to complete – a heavy redesign of the user interface (UI) for the site at large that will apply across all subreddits, and which has been met with what can kindly be referred to as mixed reviews.

A lot of subreddits (or “subs”) are small groups that are there to share content and conversation with each other, and are none too concerned with exactly how that user experience looks to them, as long as it isn’t too confusing.

The problem is that the concerns of subs like r/CFB and other sports-centric communities are largely being ignored, and it could send these communities up in arms (and/or down in flames) over some easily fixable issues.

In order to address this, I spoke with some of the moderators of the CFB subreddit to get their thoughts on the matter.

Forgotten5: I’ll start with the basics here. Am I right that the situation is the powers that be rolling out a redesign that is sucking the character out of the subs in favor of… who the hell knows what? Which is exceptionally bothersome for you all because of how much work so many have done in developing that uniqueness?

r/CFB: You’re basically right!

To summarize what appears to have happened, and trying to be neutral to all sides:

  • Reddit wanted to make a more uniform experience for users for two big (and intertwined) reasons: (1) they want ads to appear in a uniform manner (especially as they plan to slip some ads in as Twitter does in their feed), and (2) they want to make it friendly to new users. Both of those things are necessary parts of a maturing platform like Reddit, and our mod team is completely fine with those goals, but not the route they’re taking to implementing it.
  • Reddit’s communication from the get go has been lacking, and they don’t seem to have a well thought out plan of action (at least towards the various subreddits, especially those with elaborate and specially customized CSS); from our perspective, they are unable to fulfill promises to keep what our users like about our subreddit.

You can get our technical mods really going on this subject (several have substantial experience in that field). From their perspective it appears Reddit has set a deadline that’s unrealistic and refuse to step back and reevaluate it: this is something they probably should’ve started seriously working on years ago (~2013), but now it appears they are trying to do it all in a year and a half.

After the initial push back (the pro-CSS movement), Reddit has promised the same level of control on appearance as currently provided, but it appears they are going to be unable to fulfill that bold promise. Frankly, they could actually have all these planned out and accounted for, but because of problematic communication (a chronic problem), none of us believe they will. Reddit has in turn harmed its credibility with the moderator teams it relies on to keep the site popular.

While no single sports/esports sub is as large as the giant former-defaults such as /r/pics  or /r/funny, if you band us all together we make up a significant portion of Reddit’s user base—and, it should be noted, many of those user’s favorite parts of Reddit (/r/NBA/r/NFL/r/soccer, all the esports, etc).

The commonality between us all is a community where people can rep their team, rep their passion, and somehow not devolve into the morass of most online sports forums. Yet here we are: we’re going to take a disproportionate hit because of the redesign and haven’t got any good answers.

F5: Do you think there is any chance of r/CFB (or any other sub)… seceding and becoming it’s own entity out of this? Sort of a “we’d rather lose ties to reddit than lose all of our hard work” situation?

r/CFB: I’m sure there’s been loose talk of it among the various mod teams, and certainly a worst-case scenario might bring it to a more serious discussion, but as of right now no one at /r/CFB is seriously planning for that eventuality.

While we do have a separate site (RedditCFB.com), we used it support and augment what we do for the user experience (UI/UX) on the subreddit that Reddit itself doesn’t do or offer to the moderator team.

I should add: Could we do it? Yes. Do we plan to do it? No.

F5: Obviously this is a situation where to you and others within the mod/technical teams the correct course of action that Reddit itself has not chosen is fairly clear and cut. Do you think that Reddit doesn’t care to do it the correct way that you see it? Or perhaps they’re trying to cut corners and this is one corner that they chose?

r/CFB: It really appears that they have set a date for the redesign to be ready and, because it remains a fairly bare-bones operation (for a site it’s sheer size, Alexa ranks Reddit traffic 4th in the USA and 6th in the world), they may simply not have the man-hours to do everything that would be needed for a site with thousands of independent communities. I don’t think Reddit genuinely wants to anger its popular sports subreddits, but I also think they don’t care enough about this otherwise popular corner of its site.

***

I personally find this odd. You would think that the popularity of highly customized subreddits like… well, all of the sports subreddits, would indicate to Reddits higher-ups that uniformity of experience is not what current or future users are looking for.

Realistically, unless they know for sure that there is a demographic they don’t currently have cornered that definitely wants this – and I have no idea what that would be – it seems to make little sense.

I mean, I get the importance of this balance; finding ways to expand your user base to encompass a broader audience, while also not changing things so much that you alienate your existing audience, is crucial to any site or business’ growth.

The problem here is that Reddit appears to be leaning so hard into the most obvious way to lower the barrier to future entry that they are stripping away the things that their existing user base have loved so much about where they are now.

They are giving up a wide-open blank canvas that subreddit members can largely customize into what their own community values most, and instead creating a streamlined, simplified and clean user experience that achieves such by being as homogenous as possible.

To bring in the r/CFB voice again:

The best we can tell, it’s Reddit’s version of Facebookization: trying to make the site friendlier to the users of the most popular site out there (which certainly has a far larger userbase). To some extent, Reddit’s longstanding flaw has been how intimidating it can be on first glance, especially to someone unfamiliar with how web forums work. There’s tons of buttons and things to click and it has a modest learning curve.

They have people who want it to appear better on a tablet, so they went through and created their own native app which is nice – but not for the things that make /r/CFB unique and interesting.

Certainly, the biggest fear with the redesign is Reddit going the way of Digg; their disastrous redesign in 2010 is what led to a massive exodus to Reddit, and the ascendance of Reddit over Digg as the internet’s news aggregator/front page forum. That’s why you’ll occasionally see older users make sly comments about the Reddit Redesign being “Digg 2.0”.

Again, we all agree Reddit should make tweaks to better ensure it can monetize itself. I think most realistic moderators share the view that the company should be able to use the Twitter-approach of scrolling marked ads through the news feed on each subreddit.

It’s the desire for visual harmony forced across each and every community that not only seems like it may not work, but also seems to ignore what makes Reddit good in the face of public gaffe after public gaffe; some of the individual communities, like the sports communities, are actually quite good.

It was a Navy computer programmer, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, that coined the phrase “it’s easier to ask forgiveness than get permission” and the Reddit Redesign team appears to plan to rely on that.

I’m sure they have some data to back up certain decisions. It’s just the details of implementing them on a site with so many groups that had previously been encouraged to develop their own styles is overwhelming.

***

Hat tip to the following chaps for all their input. Feel free to blow up their DMs with your amazing opinions on this. Even better, tell them how much you value and appreciate their work and keep an eye on r/redesign to see what’s coming.

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