Managing Online Communities: Lesson’s From Reddit’s “AMAgeddon”

Reddit is one of the largest and most popular online communities, but is often overlooked by public relations practitioners in their communication efforts. In addition to a rich source of conversation that can be monitored and analyzed for brand mentions, trends, and potential issues, Reddit provides an example of the complexities of online community management.

Reddit attracts members thanks to its laissez fare administration policy and minimal terms of service. Moderators are unpaid members who voluntarily manage individual threads (called a subreddits), including banning members who violate the site’s terms of service, or the community standards and spirit of the subreddit.

Allowing members to essentially self-govern has contributed significantly to Reddit’s success, but the site still needs communication and cooperation between administrators and moderators to function as designed. Ask Me Anything (AMA) is a live interview with a high profile guest, most notably President Barack Obama. Reddit’s Director of Talent, Victoria Taylor, managed AMA events and was very well liked by moderators and members who saw her as respectful, supportive, and an effective liaison between the community and the site’s leadership.

When Reddit dismissed Taylor without explanation, the community fired back. Moderators closed hundreds of subreddits and members expressed their concern, outrage, and confusion, and speculated that Taylor’s firing was an example of the site’s focus on profit over respect for the community (Feinberg, 2015). Responses from the site’s administrators were deemed either too formal or too dismissive, and did little to defuse the situation.

We analyzed the posts and media coverage of the AMAgeddon to understand how the situation could have been handled more effectively and ethically. We examined the communication between the site’s leadership and members through the lens of Baker and Martinson’s (2001) TARES Test, which advocates for the following in persuasive communication: Truthfulness, Authenticity of the Appeal, Respect for the intended public or audience, Equity of the Appeal, and Social Responsibility, and other standards of professional communication.

Here are three key insights from our study:

  • Online community members invest considerable time and effort in the community, creating content, building relationships, and establishing a culture, and this unpaid labor is directly responsible for the success or failure of the site. As such, members want to be treated as partners rather than consumers. Taylor’s presence helped humanize the relationship between site admin and members.
  • Members expressed disappointment that they had to read about Taylor’s dismissal and other Reddit news on external sites, and did not feel that they were offered a satisfactory reason for her termination. Even when full disclosure is not possible, site administrators can prioritize communication with the community, and create an equitable dialogue between members and administrators.
  • AMAgeddon occurred on the heels of leadership changes and a more restrictive policy on hate speech. Members saw these issues as unresolved at the time of Taylor’s firing. Crowdsourcing policies or holding online town hall events can proactively address concerns and invite engaged users to participate in a constructive dialogue.

Online community management has become part of the job description for many communication professionals. While the AMAgeddon might seem beyond the scope of most practitioners’ day-to day responsibilities, consider that the social media backlash to Applebee’s firing of a server who posted a photo of a customer’s receipt on Reddit quickly migrated to Applebee’s Facebook page. Even heavily-moderated brand communities can benefit from including Reddit in their monitoring efforts and learning from the site’s challenges.

Amber Hutchins is an Associate Professor of Communication at Kennesaw State University. Follow her on Twitter @amberhutchins.

 

 


References

Baker, S., & Martinson, D. L. (2001). _e TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics,
16(2–3), 148–175.

Feinberg, A. (2015, July 2). Reddit in chaos after allegedly _ring AMA Coordinator Victoria Taylor. Retrieved from http://gawker.com/reddit-in-chaos-after-allegedly-firing-ama-coordinator-1715556970?trending_test_two_f&utm_expid=
6686609068.hhyw_lmCRuCTCg0I2RHHtw.5&utm_referrer=https://www.google.com/

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