It's finally happened. Reddit – the so-called front page of the internet and the third most-visited site in the UK – announced that it is trialling a livestreaming service. From Monday to Friday this week, Reddit will test its new Reddit Public Access Network (RPAN) daily from 9AM to 5PM PT, with a view to roll it out permanently in the coming months. This is a bold move for the predominantly text-based platform, but raises important questions about Reddit’s longer-term vision.
Obviously Reddit’s livestreaming service will rival similar functions offered by other big players in the tech scene: Twitter has Periscope, Amazon has Twitch, and Facebook, Instagram and YouTube all have their own versions of Live. Although livestreaming feels like the natural next step for a social media giant hoping to remain competitive, Reddit’s design makes this service a risky move.
You likely already know that the text and image content in the site’s piles of subreddits is moderated almost entirely by volunteers. And so one of the biggest challenges arises from how the company will moderate these livestreams, in the long-term. As noted by The Verge's Julia Alexander, Reddit is clearly aware that asking volunteers to moderate livestreams would pose significant risks, and so in their trial period have decided paid Reddit employees will moderate all streams. The streams will take place in a dedicated subreddit called r/pan and only “eligible users” will be able to participate.
In the longer term, Reddit has several options. They could continue to restrict the number of concurrent streams and rely on paid employees to moderate them. But this seems unlikely, given the business incentive to roll out streams more widely to compete with other platforms. If they do allow other subreddits to host streams, the question is whether paid employees would also moderate them, which would require a significant increase in workforce numbers for a business that has so far kept costs low by operating on a volunteer moderator model.
But moderating livestreams is challenging for any worker, paid or otherwise. For a start, livestreams cannot be moderated automatically like other content can. To know if something is breaking the rules, you have to watch it. While Facebook was able to take down a reported 1.5 million uploads of the Christchurch mosque shooting in the hours after the attack, the original video could be livestreamed because moderating live video relies on users reporting issues to the platform. Facebook said the original video was only reported to them by users after the live-stream had ended, some 29 minutes after the 17-minute live video started. Although moderators deal with the worst things the participatory Web has to offer, social media companies are notoriously bad at providing mental health services to paid moderators. Reddit has yet to make a statement on health provisions for its current team.
Not only do moderators have to watch livestreams to decide if they break the rules, but Reddit’s new content policy for livestreaming states: “When showing the world live as it happens, broadcasts may capture things that technically break these policies, but are nonetheless important. They may be newsworthy, educational, or otherwise socially valuable. Accordingly, we always take into account the context of a specific broadcast when making policy judgements.” Moderators therefore need to decide if a rule-breaking stream has become “socially valuable” to the point of inclusion. This is precisely the kind of dilemma explored in recent work on content moderation and something that will fuel even more Reddit-based controversies.
Dr. Sarah T Roberts, Assistant Professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and author of Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media says that some of her concerns have been addressed through Reddit’s plans – especially their decision to ask paid employees to moderate livesteams rather than volunteers. But there is still “much that can go wrong here. Reddit doesn’t have the best track record over the years in terms of its users’ behaviour, although it has admittedly done much to improve its reputation more recently. The bigger question, as always, is how it intends to scale this rollout and sustain it over the long haul.”
Although platforms need to adapt to changing marketplaces and user demands, Reddit can’t roll out livestreaming in the way its competitors can. Its very design and business model present a unique set of challenges, meaning the Reddit overlords have some difficult choices ahead. The platform has vowed to learn from users’ data and feedback to help it shape the permanent livestreaming service. A Reddit spokesperson told us: “We will use the five-day event to test, collect feedback, and engage directly with redditors to shape the future of streaming on the platform.” In its efforts to keep up with the Joneses (the Zuckerbergs, the Dorseys, the Bezos), we can only hope Reddit makes the right decisions for its volunteer moderators, its paid employees, and for its mass of users who found some sort of community there.
Ysabel Gerrard researches social media content moderation at the University of Sheffield and Tim Squirrell researches online communities, focussing on far-right and misogynist extremism.