Reddit CTO Chris Slowe was in Dublin to talk about what it means to do ‘anti-evil’ work and preventing echo chambers from flourishing.
If there is one person who has seen almost everything when it comes to the online behemoth that is Reddit, it’s the company’s current CTO and founding engineer, Chris Slowe. Since Reddit first came to be in 2005, Slowe has overseen its transition from a so-called ‘dystopian Craigslist’ to the ‘front page of the internet’ in about 15 years.
“Back then, I was a 26-year-old grad student in experimental physics. I had no idea what I was doing,” Slowe said in conversation with Siliconrepublic.com in Dublin at the company’s first international office.
Based in Dublin 2, plans appeared to be in the works for the last two years, but the first rumblings of a base coming to the capital began early this year. Now, it plans to have a team of around 25 here after initially sending a landing force of two to test the waters.
For the most part, those based in Dublin will be working to cover the timezones when the rest of Reddit’s US staff would be asleep.
What has drawn most of the attention with this jobs announcement is that Reddit will be looking for ‘anti-evil operations specialists’. Rather than fighting crime, these are the staff at the coalface of content moderation. This means trying to clamp down on any illegal or downright inappropriate content that can appear on the 16th most visited online service in the world.
When I asked whether two dozen staff is enough to cover the amount of web traffic that Reddit caters to, Slowe said that, in fact, this office nearly doubles the amount of anti-evil staff members employed by the company.
That’s approximately 50 or so staff working to respond to the growth of content such as ‘deepfakes’ – which are now officially banned on the platform – and described by Slowe as the “last line of defence against the horde”. Compare this with Facebook, which currently employs or contracts out this work to thousands of people and it seems like it might seriously struggle to keep up.
Slowe, however, said that even with its huge online presence, Reddit remains a small company of approximately 450 people –“We’re definitely small for our weight class.” He added: “I joke that Reddit is the biggest little site no one’s ever heard of.”
Rather, Reddit relies heavily on the work of thousands of volunteer moderators who give up their time to police the platform and keep an eye on the thousands of communities that range from the broadest of topics to the nichest of the niche. On top of that, Reddit sees its userbase to be self-policing, with communities that like to call out something wrong when it pops up.
Some would argue this sounds more than idealistic given that Facebook with its thousands of moderators has, time and again, found itself featured in a number of exposé profiles of the extreme mental anguish suffered by its staff and contractors. So, is Reddit completely different from other platforms that constantly need many watchful eyes?
Needing a ‘mental hazmat suit’
Not really, according to a report published to Engadget last year that revealed the experiences of a number of volunteer moderators who have been subjected to racism, death threats and other horrors, and claim to have had little in the way of support from Reddit itself. Among its employees, at least, there is support, according to its CTO.
“We take our team’s mental health very seriously,” Slowe said solemnly. “We have a set of mental health counsellors ready to go when things are getting a bit too intense. We also are trying to make sure that we have – as part of the wellness programme – that they take time away from the screen.”
He went on to describe that those staff need to take off their “mental hazmat suit” when they get to work. So obviously it’s dangerous work, I ask? “Like anything else, it’s high intensity of work that requires a certain skillset to do it,” he said.
Going back to the point that only a few dozen employees work to fight back the horde, as Slowe put it there are no plans currently to follow the Facebook model and outsource anti-evil specialist roles to contractors.
“I’m not really a fan of throwing bodies at the problem,” he said. “For example, another way to help mental health would be to have some more advanced tooling to proactively detect content on the dark side.”
Breaking down echo chambers
On the user side, Reddit has undergone some major changes, most notably its total redesign launch in April of last year. This was seen, in part, as the company’s first efforts to really bring advertisers into the fold, with promoted sections appearing across the site.
While reaction has been mixed to the redesign – as is the case with nearly all major platforms – any account holder can reselect the old design and continue to use it. Slowe said that while he would prefer that users move over to the new design, there’s no date set for the death of the old version.
“We’ve done a pretty terrible job of deprecating old redesigns over the years,” he joked. “One of the more ancient mobile designs that we have that was optimised for Blackberry is still live. It’s really compact, actually.”
So, is this Reddit’s first step towards creating more personalised feeds, something I moot could lead to the creation of harmful echo chambers on an already community-focused platform?
“We’re trying to find a happy medium for personalisation,” he said. “I’m very aware that one of the side effects of over-recommending is that you end up giving a diet of candy; things that they’re excited about. But then they get tired of getting excited about the same stuff and then they just burn out.
“Our underlying platform is that everyone sees the same content, or at least everyone can see the same content. The relevancy work that we’re doing is just about adjusting what order people see things in.”
Slowe would only say that Reddit was “building some tooling” to halt outside interference ahead of the upcoming US presidential elections in 2020, but no doubt the new Irish office will be kept busy in the months ahead.