Sunday, October 14, 2012

Reddit and The Middle Ages

I don't really spend much time on Reddit, so I don't know what made me click on this link. It's the story of one of the most prominent users on Reddit, the so-called "troll" Violentacrez (pronounced "violent-acres") However, there is one part of this story that I found particularly fascinating.
Violentacrez's privileged position came from the fact that for years he had helped administrators deal with the massive seedy side of Reddit, acting almost as an unpaid staff member. Reddit administrators essentially handed off the oversight of the site's NSFW side to Violentacrez, according to former Reddit lead programer Chris Slowe (a.k.a. Keysersosa), who worked at Reddit from 2005 to the end of 2010. When Violentacrez first joined the site and started filling it with filth, administrators were wary and they often clashed. But eventually administrators and Violentacrez came to an uneasy truce, according to Slowe. For all his unpleasantness, they realized that Violentacrez was an excellent community moderator and could be counted on to keep the administrators abreast of any illegal content he came across.

"Once we came to terms he was actually pretty helpful. He would come to us with things that we hadn't noticed," said Slowe. "At the time there was only four of us working so that was a great resource for us to have."

Administrators realized it was easier to outsource the policing of questionable content to Violentacrez than to dirty their hands themselves, or ostracize him and risk even worse things happening without their knowledge. The devil you know. So even as Jailbait flourished and became an ever-more-integral part of Reddit's traffic and culture—in 2008 it won the most votes in a "subreddit of the year" poll—administrators looked the other way. "We just stayed out of there and let him do his thing and we knew at least he was getting rid of a lot of stuff that wasn't particularly legal," Slowe said. "I know I didn't want it to be my job."

Violentacrez's close relationship to administrators made him an elite member of Reddit's army of moderators, known as "mods" on the site. Though much is made of the millions of users who submit content to Reddit, it's Reddit's over 20,000 volunteer mods who are the real secret behind its success. They act as janitors and editors, keeping their subreddits clean and well-stocked with content. Reddit's main innovation has been to move these users up the food chain, from simple content-generators to management positions. This allows Reddit's mind-boggling breadth of content and users to be overseen by just a few paid employees. The downside is that it requires Reddit's official management to enter into uneasy symbiotic relationships with sketchy but effective moderators like Violentacrez.

When it comes to mods, the political model of Reddit is not so much a vast digital democracy, as it's often framed by fans and users, as online feudalism. Moderators like Violentacrez are given absolute control over their turf in exchange for keeping the kingdom of Reddit strong. Moderators become more or less powerful in direct relation to the number and popularity of the subreddits they moderate, so they try to take over other subreddits to boost their profile in the community. Inevitably, Reddit's administrators develop relationships with the most influential moderators. Like feuding medieval lords vying for the king's favor, moderators form alliances or wage epic flame wars over power struggles.

This is how Violentacrez, Reddit's creepiest user, also became its most powerful...
Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web (Gawker)

What's fascinating to me about this is how this whole scenario provides a fascinating study as to how actual Feudalism probably developed in Europe. Human social instincts are the same whether they are expressed in the real world of forts, farms and workshops or the virtual one.

To understand, you have to think of Reddit as a sort of a fixed-boundary kingdom or territory, with the founder/owners as the "king." The various discussion forums can be seen as regions or provinces within the kingdom. Rather than a democracy, Reddit is more accurately an anarchy - a place where anything goes. How do you police it and keep order?

The answer is you turn to certain powerful people already enmeshed in the social order to do it for you; to do the "unsavory" tasks that need to be done but you don't want to dirty your hands with. That way Reddit can use little manpower but keep things humming along. An informal exchange is made, in which people higher-up get order, and people lower-down get status. A understanding of rights, expectations, duties, limits and obligations is arrived at, formally or informally.

A similar situation probably prevailed in the power vacuum during the Roman Empire's deterioration. How did the higher-up rulers keep order with little manpower? They turned to people they had relationships with who were most enmeshed in the social order - the holders of large villas (the basis of the medieval manor) and the warlords who knew how to use a horse and a blade. In a situation probably strikingly similar to that described above, they delegated certain responsibilities to the lower orders in exchange for loyalty (fealty). Power ultimately is, and always has been, dependent upon relationships and access (which is why the one percent and politicians all know one another). Most likely some of these characters were pretty unsavory, too. Slaves and indebted farmers probably ended up as the peasant/serf/sharecropping class of the Middle Ages.

Now imagine that Reddit decides to raise money to run the kingdom (I don't actually know how Reddit makes money). They might turn to these moderators to shake their users down for money (without really caring how they do it). Successful fundraisers would get more power, less successful ones would lose power. This is probably how feudal princes and lords gained in status and curried favor with the king over time - those that delivered the most taxes to the kings were rewarded with more land and power, while other lords' power ebbed. Thus you shook down everyone below you  for money to deliver to those placed higher up in the food chain, up to the monarch (who probably used it to wage war to gain more territory for himself). This medieval method is opposed to how taxation and government work today in a modern "democratic" nation-state system.

And just like running a family business, VA's family apparently got involved in his side job:
His current wife is similarly accepting of Brutsch's unsavory side, according to Brutsch. She is not only aware of his online habits, she's also a prolific Redditor under the handle not_so_violentacrez. She is a founder of the Fibromyalgia subreddit. She has diabetes and plays the online game Kingdom of Camelot. Violentacrez said that at home, the two would lie in bed together with their laptops, both on Reddit, him posting his porn, she posting cute animal videos and pictures of dolphins.

About a year ago, Violentacrez's teenage son did his own Ask Me Anything thread. His son uses the handle Spawn_of_VA and he is dad's biggest fan. Interspersed among talk of family game night, Spawn_of_VA regaled readers with more weird tidbits about his father, including the fact that he has a "suitcase full of dildos in his closet" and a "roller type thing with spikes on it, he uses that to roll on his balls."
Aside from the sheer ickyness of this (I'm reminded of Ran's comment that we're a nation of "mad kings"), it shows how being in the family of a powerful person can lead to a dynasty, since you also inherit the relationships and name recognition of the founder. If something happened to you, you would pass down duties to your family. Your sons would inherit, and if you eventually wound up with an incompetent administrator several generations down the line who fell down on the job, there would probably be ensuing power struggles, perhaps leading to a new dynasty forming.

It provides yet more tantalizing evidence of the social behavior of the aggressive hairless apes in conditions of disorder and breakdown.

While we don't have a time machine, little things like this actually teach us a lot about history. I leave it to some enterprising real sociologist to study the emergent social orders in these virtual communities in order to give us further insights into human social development throughout time and across cultures. Be sure and cite me in your thesis.


  1. Interesting take on the reddit hierarchy.

    I was, however, confused by your comment linking aggressive hairless apes to conditions of disorder and breakdown. Hasn't there always been people who behave in ways akin to Violentacrez?

  2. I didn't phrase that very well. I wasn't referring to VA's individual behavior, I was referring to how human heirarchies tend to form organically in the absence of centralized order. Many people believe that breakdown inevitably leads to chaos (the unfortunate "common" perception of the word anarchy). In reality, humans will bootstrap social relationships to maintain some semblance of order, whether on a message board or in an abandoned city. Over time those relationships become untethered from their origins and rigidify, becoming self-justifying as humans seek meaning and order from their environment through symbols and relationships.

    Of course, such ad-hoc relations are often hardly ideal as the above examples show.

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