In the last few years or so, Reddit has been through some tough times. It’s been accused of going back on its claims to support free speech. It’s been intense fire for banning certain subreddits and being hypocritical about others.
And with stuff like admins editing posts and staff members being threatened by favoured subreddits unless they hand over control of their communities, it’s become quite clear the site doesn’t really work the way it should do. It’s gone from a platform to a somewhat sanitised single community meant to look appealing to investors and businesses.
So people are looking for solutions. They’re looking at Voat, at Imzy (well they were), at Voten and Steemit… and basically all manner of other similar sites riding Reddit’s coattails.
But these sites don’t fix Reddit’s core problem. The fact a centralised community is incentivised to act against freedom of speech or relaxed users rights. As a result, I’ve come up with a better solution.
What is it? Simple.
It’s a decentralised replacement to Reddit. Or more precisely, a federated version based on independently hosted forums rather than identical sections.
This isn’t a particularly new concept in the social media world (the likes of Mastodon and GNU Social are aiming to do the same thing with Twitter style microblogging), but I feel it’s one that could catch on.
And it has its advantages for everyone. For example, what are the main problems forums have? Well, I’d say it comes down to the following:
Registration can get arduous because you have to re-register on every single site individually. There are alternative methods to address this (like Google or Facebook login schemes), but they obviously don’t work on most sites and they’re still more complicated than merely logging into a new service.
This makes it very easy to forget your login details, or just feel like becoming a part of these communities is too much of a hassle.
Yet that’s not the main issue here. The main issue is that discovery is a pain with forums.
That’s because there’s no easy way to ‘catch up’ on everything you missed. To find out what’s been posted on the forums you frequent, you have to view and then filter content on every website you’re a part of.
Above: I have to check tons of pages like this every time I go online.
And that doesn’t get much better when looking for said sites either. You can use Google, but SEO is kind of broken at the moment. Poor quality content ranks better purely based on post frequency and backlinks rather than any objective sense of quality.
All of these issues were things Reddit solved. They had a simple way to find communities by searching a single site/service, you only had to register once to take part in a multitude of them and your achievements across the entire ‘network’ were catalogued in a single profile.
Add how the traffic from popular communities (like Ask Reddit, Politics and Gaming) provided an audience for smaller ones (like say, Ask Docs, Gary Johnson’s subreddit and Games Journalism), and you had a service that grew more quickly than any traditional forum ever could.
However, at the same time, the way Reddit implemented these communities had problems. First and foremost, that by having all the communities on one domain/set of servers, they granted a few administrators and company staff full access to every forum on the site. The communities were ‘independent’ only as much as they were tolerated by the executives.
And this led to numerous controversies. Like banning ‘hate’ subs, removing popular staff members, editing comments in controversial communities, etc.
These were all understandable moves from an admin/company perspective, but they hurt a site that originally prided itself on freedom of speech.
Which is a problem almost all centralised systems will have. Namely, the dichotomy between the users interests and the company’s commercial ones.
Users want freedom, whereas companies have an incentive to reduce risk as much as possible.
Basically, a company wants to protect its image at all costs. An individual or community… often doesn’t.
And in a nutshell, that is always going to be the problem with centralised services like Reddit or Twitter or YouTube. Regardless of how much they promise freedom, they can’t actually deliver it without destroying their ‘brand’ and its reputation. Reddit’s problems are that in its attempts to appeal to Joe Average and the mainstream media, it starting losing what made it unique to begin with.
A decentralised system could avoid these issues. It would be a place where the free speech philosophy is absolute and impossible to change, and would avoid a lot of reputation issues by some virtue of not being able to do anything about anything controversial.
Above: Something like this would be impossible in a decentralised system.
Add the additional control over styles and modifications forums allow, and you’d have a system which would work better for everyone.
However, what about the issues you may think? Surely such a system would lead to some fundamental problems?
Well, maybe. The biggest concern I see here is that with no way to restrict communities, outright illegal content could be made part of the network with no way to remove it.
Like say, someone puts up an illegal porn forum and then gets it associated with the network’s brand. Or a section is put up that encourages criminal behaviour.
That could be an issue (though some might say Reddit is already uncomfortably close to that line as is), and I see where you’re coming from with the concerns. In theory, it means communities of questionable legality could be ‘allowed’ without anyone being able to remove them.
However, at the same time… is this as likely to be a problem as people think it is?
Because let’s face it, I see a lot of people online talk about ‘what ifs’ in regards to why a system is a bad idea, while overestimating how exactly how often said problems occur.
For example, go on GameFAQs and ask why they won’t add an edit button. Or do the same thing on Reddit about submission titles.
You’ll get a lot of people saying how it could be misused, how people could edit posts/titles to make others look bad (by changing an innocent question to a loaded one), etc.
But at the same time, I’ve seen millions of communities with edit features that don’t have these issues. The likelihood of a forum user editing a topic title to make others look like criminals is so infinitesimally small that it’s almost a non factor.
Above: As mentioned, this rarely actually ever happens. It's a 'worry' that's based on a very unlikely 'worst case scenario' rather than reality.
It’s the same deal as with driverless cars and the trolley problem. It’s interesting to think about (see my recent article on the matter for instance), but the chance it’ll become a problem is virtually nil. In 99.9% of incidents, the car will stop way before it could hit the innocent pedestrian. It’s a nice philosophical thought experiment, but it’s mostly irrelevant to real life.
So in that sense, it’s a bridge that can be crossed when it becomes relevant. If ever this stuff does start happening on the service.
You’ve also got to keep in mind that such a service would be incredibly stupid to use for illegal activity. Remember, your profile would likely link your activity on multiple communities together.
So if you were like a normal person and posted on both ‘questionable fetish forum 101’ and ‘local sports team fan forum’, it’d be pretty easy to connect the dots and figure out who you are. Heck, we probably see such stuff happening with Reddit right now. Like say, potential employers looking up candidate profiles, finding they’re active on the trees (drugs) and shoplifting subreddits and denying their job application.
Only a moron would tie their profiles on a bunch of normal forums with ones that support fetishes and interests they don’t want made public.
Still, if it all came down to this problem, the best solution might just be ‘ban illegal content and nothing else’.
I mean, your freedoms in real life don’t extend to ‘the freedom to break the law and get away with it’. Neither freedom of speech nor freedom as a whole is completely absolutist. The standards held by the US and its constitution are fine for a system like this.
So in other words, the answer to the illegal content problem is that A: it’s too rare to matter as much as you think it will, and B: it’ll just get removed/blocked since freedom of speech isn’t absolute in any case. The issues Reddit and other social media sites have isn’t that they remove illegal content. It’s that their standards for what’s allowed go far beyond that and result in ‘controversial’ stuff being removed despite the law saying it’s fine.
Hang on though you may wonder. What stops this from being used to censor controversial communities like on Reddit?
Well, in three words:
“No lock in”
If this system removes a community, the content isn’t lost and the members can literally just march off and take everything with them.
So if the censors march in and things get out of hand, then a more controversial alternative can take on board all the controversial communities without them losing even a minute’s worth of content.
That’s a death blow to trigger happy censors here. I mean, what makes it so unlikely a community will truly leave Reddit?
It’s because they can’t take their content and userbase with them. This also makes censorship dangerous because the whole community and everything in it is gone.
But on my decentralised concept, that doesn’t happen. Now a community that’s booted out doesn’t lose any members or posts, and the network’s ‘owners’ can do nothing if the userbase votes to leave and takes everything with them.
As a result, any controversial changes can literally mean the entire userbase ups roots and walks off never to be seen again.
So there’s a huge incentive to keep things open. Ban the Donald? Enjoy seeing 450,000+ users walk off to another service with all however million posts and comments going along with them. It’d mean a big protest against the administration (like we’ve seen on Reddit in recent years) could cost the network anywhere up to half its userbase or more.
Above: Imagine if Donald Trump's popular subreddit left immediately after the Reddit admin edit fiasco, and took all that content with them. Reddit would certainly feel the pressure.
Censorship has become a whole lot scarier for the system’s owners as a result.
However, what about the technical side? Would that raise any issues?
Possibly. Remember, for a system like this to succeed, it wouldn’t just be a forum aggregator. It would be a very complicated forum aggregator with a ton of features necessary to create the combined community side like on Reddit or its alternatives.
For example, it would need:
- A way to connect separate notification systems together. This would get complicated for community scripts where such a system doesn’t exist, like many free ones.
- Unified logins for a network of forums, including any new ones that join the network
- Some sort of slightly more centralised setup for an r/all alternative as well as inter-site search pages
- Site specific functionality like upvotes and downvotes, sorting content by the amount of upvotes, etc.
- Profile page edits that merge the profiles for users together and list activity across forums rather than only that on a specific domain.
- An (optional for the user) standardised design for websites.
And all this stuff would need to be made cross compatible with all manner of different forum scripts.
After all, people don’t just use XenForo or phpBB. They also use SMF, MyBB, vBulletin, Invision Power Board, Woltlab Burning Board, Discourse, BBPress and Yabb among a fair few others. So the plugin infrastructure would need to tie installations of all these scripts together in a way that feels cohesive and easy to use.
So it’d certainly require a fair bit more coding skill than a more traditional link aggregator. However, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility.
After all, we’ve seen plugins to connect different CMS systems together, as well as other plugins that turned forums into part of a bigger network (Zoints was a system aiming to do something like this back in 2006-2008). If a team got together and were passionate about making this sort out of system, it could be done regardless of any extra complexity.
This is just a bigger scale, more complicated version of what’s already been done. Nothing a genuinely determined team couldn’t manage if they put their heart and soul into it.
And the technical side is probably the most complicated aspect here. Why? Because the other problems Reddit like aggregators have would be minimised through this model.
You wouldn’t need to worry too much about ‘network effects’, since the sites involved would already have communities to leverage. This would avoid the problem other aggregators have with appearing ‘empty’ or ‘dead’, as well as steer around the need to make a few hundred fake accounts to pretend the site is active right from the get go (see Reddit’s own history).
There wouldn’t be much of an issue with moderation either. Again, the sites have moderators. You don’t need an internal team supervising them, nor do you need to worry about attracting moderators to your service in particular.
Heck, even the need for things like server space, bandwidth and processing power would be minimised simply because most of the content isn’t on any centralised server.
Either way, it’s an idea that might go some way to fixing the ‘walled garden’ problem with internet aggregators as well as give back more control over communities to the people who actually use them rather than large corporations.
Of course, it still raises questions about how it’d be financed or supported. No investor would back a service that couldn’t be controlled at all and could lose most of its userbase overnight.
But those of us who want a free speech first, open, user controlled discussion system, something like this would be just what’s needed.