Reddit says it won’t reopen subreddits (but will it?)

Reddit promises it will honor the subreddit blackout, where thousands of subreddits currently remain dark, but it’s not clear if the company will actually do so.

“We are not closing discussions or unilaterally reopening communities,” reads a line from a “Reddit API Fact Sheet” the company shared with The edge alongside our full Reddit CEO interview.

But that word “unilateral” might do an awful lot of work – because Reddit has apparently given itself a framework and justification to exclude the moderators who support a blackout and replace them with those who would reopen the sub.

On Reddit, the ModCodeofConduct account has notified moderators that the will replace inactive moderators with active oneseven if they all agree to “stop moderating”:

If a moderator team unanimously decides to stop moderating, we will invite new, active moderators to keep these spaces open and accessible to users. If there’s no consensus, but there’s at least one mod that wants to keep the community going, we’ll respect their decisions and remove those who no longer want to moderate from the mod team.

That Reddit admin suggests it violates Reddit’s rule 4 Moderator Code of Conduct and is nothing new – even though line 4 says nothing of the sort. You can read it yourself:

Here is a screenshot of Rule 4 as of June 15, 2023.
Screenshot of Sean Hollister / The Verge.

We asked Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt: For a subreddit that went dark as part of the protests, does this post mean that Reddit may decide to replace that subreddit’s mods due to violations of the Mod code of conduct? For example, could Reddit claim that mods from subreddits that have gone dark violate Rule 4?

The first part of his answer: “Yes, that would be against Rule 4 of the CoC.”

Rathschmidt writes that “this is not new and not something activated just for our current situation,” suggesting that the admin account in question has a history with the rule that you can look it up. So far, looking through that history, I see that the account has to do with subreddits that were completely abandoned or moderators that were unreachable, no active moderators that took their subreddit private with the support (or even the lack of support) from their community.

And again, there’s nothing in Rule 4 about this situation, although Reddit certainly has the right to do whatever it wants with its platform.

I ask Rathschmidt to confirm, “Yes, Reddit believes that a team of moderators darkening their subreddit in protest is a violation of the Mod Code of Conduct and can/should be replaced?”

He replies, “No, I said before that this has nothing to do with a protest. What matters is whether they violate the Code of Conduct, not what caused it.”

I don’t know how to interpret that, or his other answers explaining that the current actions may be a pastiche of interpretations of different Rules rather than just Rule 4 – but I all wonder if the conspiracy theorists among us were right.

While browsing various subreddit threads prior to the blackout, it was quite common to find Redditors suggesting that Huffman just remove the moderators from the most popular subreddits and reopen them. There were even accusations that it had already happened to r/AdviceAnimals and r/tumblr, but I originally wrote it off as the moderator drama that happens on Reddit from time to time.

In our interview, Huffman told us that he sees Reddit as a “democratic living organism created by its users”.

“Occasionally there are protests in cities. And I think that’s exactly what we’re seeing right now. We, even if we disagree, appreciate that users care enough to protest on Reddit, protest on Reddit and then our platform is really resilient enough to survive these things,” he told my colleague Jay Peters.

“Dissent, debate, and discussions are fundamental parts of Reddit. We respect our communities’ ability to protest, as long as mods follow our code of conduct for moderators,” another section of the factsheet reads.

But Reddit has apparently decided that this form of protest does not abiding by the rules can be grounds for a moderator removal — and may not even be the only way Reddit removes moderators who participated in the protest.

NBC News writes that Huffman “plans to make changes to the rules that would allow Reddit users to vote out moderators who oversaw the protest by comparing them to a ‘landed gentry’.” and suggested that the moderators were not following the will of their users.

That seems like a possibility, but it reminds me of when Elon Musk suggested that verifying notable people on Twitter created a “lords and peasants” system just because Twitter needed a new revenue stream.

While many subreddits are still dark, Reddit writes that more than 80 percent of the top 5,000 communities (by daily active users) are open, “and we expect that to continue.”

Here’s our full interview with Reddit CEO Steve Huffman.

Update, 7:31 PM ET: Added that the mod’s code of conduct can serve as a pretext to force a subreddit.

Update, 9:39 PM ET: Changed as the situation seems to be evolving.

Update, 10:40 PM ET: Post rewritten to reflect the current situation.