“I cheated on my ex during our relationship and she found out shortly after we broke up,” a Reddit user posting from the burner account Khaleesiscorned wrote in the spring of 2016 in the subreddit r/relationships. “She’s blocked me on everything, but briefly unblocks me every Monday to send me Game of Thrones spoilers before I can watch. How do I get her to stop?”
The full story involves a number of details that are not particularly redeeming: The original poster actually cheated multiple times; some of his friends joined the ex in her cause because they no longer wanted to be associated with him and in fact actively disliked him; at no point did the poster acknowledge that this woman is obviously very funny! The post was eventually removed by the subreddit’s moderators as potentially fake, but not before a screenshot of it went viral on Twitter and dozens of outlets circulated the story with headlines like “Girl Gets Sweet, Fiery Revenge on Ex With ‘Game of Thrones’ Spoilers.”
“I think I expected a bit of advice?” he said when interviewed by New York magazine, incredulous, or pretending to be. “I’ve no idea why it was shut down.”
There are more than 1 million subreddits on Reddit, though the number of active communities is somewhere around 130,000. With 2.6 million members, r/relationships is currently number 73 on the site by size—a little less popular than basketball, a little more popular than tattoos. Last month, it recorded more than 40 million pageviews, and added an average of 1,516 new members each day.
This is a space to air your dirty laundry and request that perfect strangers tell you how to get the stains out. And as many different schools of thought as there are for red wine on silk, there are exponentially more for dealing with infidelity, dishonesty, poor personal hygiene, a partner who is perfectly kind in person but then tweets all his negative feelings about the relationship on a public Twitter account.
You can imagine the conversation spiraling out of control, but you rarely see it happen. That’s because of Anne, a pseudonymous 58-year-old woman living in the mountains of California. She’s been leading the moderation team for r/relationships for close to a decade—long before mainstream publications started running roundups of the subreddit’s worst stories—and if you ask her, it’s not even that hard to maintain civil discourse and community. The big secret? Just delete stuff.
“We maintain [the community] by removing as much stuff as we remove,” she told me flatly in a phone call, stating what should be obvious to me.
Anne has been on the internet pretty much the whole time there’s been anything to do here, holding on to the same username since the 1980s. She’s been a chat-room manager and a forum guide; now she moderates more than a dozen subreddits, mostly pertaining to interpersonal relationships. (Anne is not her real name. She asked that I not “dox” her or any of the subreddit’s other moderators and instead use pseudonyms, because their moderation style results in banning dozens of users every month, many of whom might harass her team indefinitely over their decisions.)
Though she would never let anyone commit them to the public record of r/relationships, some of Anne’s favorite words to use conversationally are elementary-school insults. As we talked, she called people “buttheads” and “assholes” and “pigs” liberally—mostly the men of notoriously seedy and misogynistic spaces like r/TheRedPill and r/MGTOW (“Men Going Their Own Way”). There’s no troll post she hasn’t seen before, no condescending jab she could ever find charming. Asshole isn’t a word she uses because she’s angry; it’s just a clinical diagnosis of a person who operates by default in bad faith.
“I’m a parent. I don’t like bad behavior,” Anne explained. She doesn’t believe in getting worked up over it; she just believes in rooting it out. “It’s our subreddit; it’s our fiefdom. We don’t have to explain ourselves to anybody,” she said. She is perfectly aware that no one in r/relationships would mistake her for a democratic leader.
Anne’s rules forbid gendered insults, including “bitch,” obviously, but also “dick,” somewhat perplexingly. They forbid “alpha” and “beta,” because that dichotomy attracts the Red Pill crowd. They forbid external links or images of any kind. (“People will go through a breakup and post revenge porn and we’re not going to have that,” Anne explained. “Or they’ll post 15 pictures of a text-message exchange. I would rather roll naked in my own vomit.”) They forbid asking for upvotes, because “karma whores” are bad for the integrity of the discussion. (The Reddit points system awards “karma” based on how well user contributions are received by others, in the form of upvotes. You can get trophies!) They forbid political discussions and pull down anything with the words Trump, Clinton, or Obama. They dictate that posts include ages and genders for relevant parties in the title—for example, “My (31F) husband’s (32M) obsession with building rafts is becoming a detriment to our family life”—and that they end in a question. They also require that posts include a “TL;DR” (“too long; didn’t read”) summarizing the story in a couple of sentences at the bottom; a moderation bot pulls down any that don’t. (Trolling the bot by superficially following the rules doesn’t really work, because the human moderators are typically only a half step behind. “I removed something today because someone wrote ‘TL;DR: It’s a short post; read it,’” Anne said, laughing. “You know what? Fuck you.”)
Any thread that’s linked to anywhere else online is shut down—including every post linked to in this article, as a result of this article. Though it’s a challenge to spot it every time, members of the community who copy-paste r/relationships stories, or even post links to them, in another subreddit can be instantly permabanned for cross-posting, which puts everyone at risk of a “brigade”—scores of trolls storming in, instigating arguments and causing distractions, robbing someone with a real question of the chance to get any useful advice.
“They’re popcorn-eaters,” Anne told me. “They want the schadenfreude; they want to see a big production, and it’s not what we want. We’re here to serve the [original poster]. That’s our purpose.”
Whether anybody has an issue with any of these rules is not immediately obvious, because meta-discussion of the subreddit or its moderators is also prohibited.
Reddit has a complicated history with moderation, thanks to its early web 2.0 dedication to user-generated anything, and a sticky reputation as a hate-speech free-for-all.
When the platform was smaller, users who wrote “racist, sexist, or homophobic” posts were reportedly banned on sight, but in 2012 the company made an ethical 180: “We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it,” then-CEO Yishan Wong told his staff in a leaked internal memo.
“Reddit’s supposed commitment to free speech is actually a punting of responsibility,” the journalist Sarah Jeong wrote in her 2015 book, The Internet of Garbage. “It is expensive for Reddit to make and maintain the rules that would keep subreddits orderly, on-topic and not full of garbage (or at least, not hopelessly full of garbage). Only by giving their moderators near absolute power can Reddit exist in the first place.”
Like Anne, Jeong uses the word fiefdom to describe the political structure of a subreddit. In this metaphor, Reddit the company is a distant king, excused from getting his hands dirty no matter how vile Reddit the platform gets. Moderators are left to make all the hard decisions locally.
By 2015, that policy had turned much of Reddit feral. When interim CEO Ellen Pao banned five infamously disgusting subreddits and fired a popular employee, she was met with violent harassment over the decisions and ultimately agreed to leave the company. Co-founder Steve Huffman stepped in and announced a confusing new code of conduct that drew strange lines, taking down a subreddit called r/rapingwomen but leaving up the racist cesspool r/coontown.
This was also when the site introduced the idea of quarantining communities: Any content that violates “a common sense of decency” wouldn’t be visible without logging in and deliberately seeking it out. (These pages also serve no ads and aren’t indexed in search results. The biggest recent example is misogyny den r/TheRedPill, which was quarantined in September 2018.)
Recently, as the Los Angeles Times highlighted in a profile of Reddit’s advertising business, the site has been more interested in cleaning itself up—banning one of the biggest incel subreddits and broadening its definitions of bullying and harassment. This is, explicitly, a business concern. Huffman told the Times that Reddit is looking to double its revenue growth for the third year in a row. It just raised a $300 million investment round from the Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent, valuing it at about $3 billion, and maintaining this kind of growth requires Reddit to be a suitable partner for the big-name brands that can afford massive advertising contracts.
But at the level of an individual subreddit, things are more personal. Before r/relationships, Anne was a moderator in the similar but much more unruly r/relationship_advice, where she had to teach herself how to do the job. “Nobody trained me; nobody told me what to do,” she said. “I just saw appalling things going on.” Years before anyone was talking about incels, Anne saw them writing in for advice: “I like this girl a lot and she won’t go out with me so I want to kill her.” She saw pile-ons from homophobes and misogynists and racists. Most of all, she saw a space that could be useful if only someone would step up, set the terms, and outlaw conversational gasoline like “pussy” and “cuck.”
Anne and a couple of other moderators from that subreddit took over r/relationships (which had been founded a few years prior but mostly abandoned) and created a new set of rules with hard lines.
The ideological divide between r/relationships and r/relationship_advice has created a not-so-secret rivalry between the two subreddits, and something like a controlled experiment for the way the internet can, or should, be moderated. In a 2015 paper parsing the “virtues of moderation,” the Cornell Law School internet-platform expert James Grimmelmann identified four types of behavior that moderation is meant to excise: congestion, cacophony, abuse, and manipulation. But taken in total, he wrote, “moderation is how online communities walk the tightrope between overuse and underuse.”
Both r/relationships and r/relationship_advice deal in extremely similar subject matter, but have nearly opposite philosophies on reining in use of the space—one rigid, one loose. The top posts on r/relationship_advice are examples of things Anne and her team might shut down immediately: “Husband put Viagra in my drink,” and “Found my wife’s condoms. We’ve never used condoms in our 10 year relationship.” The posts have hundreds of comments, some of them sincere, but many of them building on one another in a classic style of internet riff that sets the original poster up as the butt of the joke. If, as Grimmelmann argued, moderation’s biggest challenge is to create “strong shared norms,” you could say that both subreddits have succeeded. But while r/relationship_advice abides by norms that are broadly accepted by the entire platform and much of the web, the norms that guide r/relationships are much more narrow.
Shortly after Anne started r/relationships, a friend who was moderating r/relationship_advice got in a big, public argument with a commenter, and then banned the person in a huff.
“That’s a no-no. Our thing is, you have to stay detached,” Anne said. “If you give advice, you can give advice, but you can’t be the one to remove things on that post.” That day alone, she estimates, about 25,000 people came over from r/relationship_advice to r/relationships.
In July 2016, Reddit announced a major change to its points system. Text-only posts had been ineligible for karma for the past eight years “due to various shenanigans and low effort content,” but the decision was going to be reversed.
This meant, all of a sudden, that there would be an incentive to post in r/relationships other than to sincerely request and receive advice. The subreddit’s membership was already significant, but it spiked after the change, as Reddit users realized that they could get tons of attention for dramatic stories or zinger responses—real or fake.
Anne has a handpicked team of three dozen people in various time zones, most of whom volunteer a few hours a week. One of them, Michael, lives in North Carolina and works as a pharmaceutical researcher. He started reading r/relationships in 2014 and was tapped as a moderator in 2017, after he helped track down a serial poster who was trying to game the karma system.
The perpetrator wrote a series of posts over the course of about a month. “Then,” Michael recalled to me, “we find out he’d been posting in other subreddits, basically bragging about how he’d kept a spreadsheet of what got how much karma and what kind of post he should focus on in the future.”
All of the r/relationships moderators can spot a troll post a mile away, Anne said. There are hallmarks.
“If I’m reading something and I’m not an active participant in the story and my immediate reaction is Oh, I’m upset, it was probably written that way,” Michael said. “Now that I have my antennae up, I’m looking at, How new is the username? How interactive is this person in the comments? Are they answering clarifying questions? Sometimes you have to let those things stay up for a while. And then you have to use your own discretion.”
The mods had a difficult time deciding whether to believe a story about a man who was attracted to his girlfriend only when she was grieving her dead sister, but it stayed up. Until it went viral, as did a story about a woman who murdered her boyfriend’s pet bird out of jealousy. And a story about a man who became convinced his girlfriend was cheating on him, because he found a piece of poop in her toilet that was, to his eyes, too big to come from a woman.
“There’s no shortage of weird scenarios people find themselves in,” Michael said. “With almost anything you can be like, Nobody would do that … would somebody do that? Somebody might do that.”
But Anne said she can’t even remember any good examples of wild stories. She’s read so many posts, it’s all a blur—every single thing a person might do to another person or because of another person, whether in reality or in imagination, has appeared before her eyes. This is maybe why she can speak so coolly of “assholes” and “bad behavior,” realities that she’s accepted in the way most of us might accept that it’s not always summer, or that our shoelaces have come untied.
This clinical approach creates some unsettling compromises. When posts about sexual assault come in, the moderators take them down immediately, with an auto-response suggesting that the poster go to a more specific subreddit that has counselors on its moderation staff.
“We don’t think with a subreddit this large that we’d be able to manage that conversation, and we don’t know if our subreddit has the expertise to actually provide helpful advice,” Michael said. “You normally would need some kind of trauma training or counseling training.”
Anne gave me temporary moderator access to the back end of r/relationships while I was reporting this piece. The first time I logged in was a Sunday morning around 8, and the first thing I noticed was that four posts about rape had been automatically pulled down in the previous hour alone. It made sense to me why Anne and Michael would say r/relationships wasn’t the best place for the writers to get adequate help, but seeing “removed – [rape]” repeated back-to-back in a running list next to formatting infractions and link takedowns still made me queasy. If you’re alone enough in a horrifying experience that your instinct is to write it up and post it in an enormous public forum, receiving an immediate, automated bounce-back can’t possibly help. If anything, it’s a very on-the-nose dismissal.
This isn’t the only situation in which r/relationships will exercise its right to sit your personal crisis out. Posts about abortion are typically removed because they tend to provoke vitriol that Anne said serves only to make the original poster “feel like shit.” Posts about open relationships, which tend to be met with derision, might not be removed but are frequently locked for comments. Additionally, the moderators regularly point people to r/asktransgender or r/LGBT, saying that this will result in better advice.
“Some people are like, Yeah, that makes sense. Others are like, Well, why are you telling me that I can’t post here? Those other subreddits are smaller; I’m less likely to get a wide response,” Michael said. “We stick to explaining that at the end of the day, we refer and remove posts as we deem fit; it’s in the sidebar as a disclaimer, and our decisions are final.”
The idea of asking 2.6 million people to deliberate on how one should conduct one’s personal life is, obviously, a chaotically optimistic one. And sometimes, the crowd just can’t be trusted to handle it, even if technically no rules are being broken.
“I’ll give you an example,” Michael told me. “The title of the post was ‘My brother has been asking to spend time alone with my daughter.’” I could see where that one was going: shut down, as soon as the team saw it.
“Even if that was a genuine question, the amount of division that would cause in the comment section would prevent that person from getting any usable advice. That was one where I was like, We got to nip this in the bud immediately,” he said. “That person did not appreciate having their post removed.”
This kind of hyperactivity in the comments of individual posts is also why he’d rather the popular Twitter account @redditships, which has been screenshotting and reposting r/relationships stories since May 2017, didn’t exist. Community is what makes r/relationships worth visiting at all, but paradoxically, too many visits can threaten the balance: While it may be strange to hear a group this large described as a carefully siloed community, there really is a sharp difference between a regular r/relationships post and an r/relationships post that goes viral elsewhere.
A recent post titled “My (f 25) boyfriend (m 27) got angry when I asked him if I could put a face mask on him” was posted to Twitter and retweeted just 161 times. But the average r/relationships question gets 30 to 70 responses. After the post accrued more than 2,000 comments, the thread was shut down with a note from a moderator: “This thread is locked because it got so popular it started attracting non-community members who don’t care about following the rules. I hope you got some good advice, [original poster]. Good luck!”
why does every r/relationships post start off like “me (21F) and my boyfriend (29M) of 5 years have been having issues lately–“
— Selena?????? (@moonseelie) September 17, 2019
The idea is that anyone following a Twitter curation of r/relationships isn’t actually helping, and the subreddit is explicitly about help. Most of the posts are boring, typical problems and FAQs about splitting finances and dealing with in-laws and asking for affection that’s being withheld. People on Twitter don’t necessarily care about that stuff. They’re probably not going to come tell some teenager how to deal with sharp, unyielding loneliness. They’re not invested, day after day, in the repetitive work of explaining what’s reasonable to expect from people who say they love you. “The OP is everything,” Anne said. “We can’t function without the OP. We have to protect them.”
The anonymous pair of friends who run @redditships see it less as an intrusion and more as a utility, one whose necessity was actually born in part of the very ugliness Anne and her fellow moderators are hoping to root out. “I have it in my head that this serves an archival purpose,” the account runner, who asked to go by Shal, told me in a phone call. “A lot of these posts get deleted immediately and sometimes it’s confusing, because they’re genuine questions or they’re just funny.”
@redditships, in Shal’s eyes, is a public service that gives people the chance to see these human stories without slogging through Reddit. Shal said, emphasizing that Reddit is for white tech bros, and that as a queer person of color, they’ve never felt that comfortable on the site. ““For the most part, the advice is good. But not if you’re part of a marginalized community or have specific issues that your average internet nerd wouldn’t know.”
r/relationships really is just like “i am engaged to the most terrible man you will ever meet. we are getting married soon”
— OR. …….Those Feratu (@tahoumarus) September 14, 2019
Michael estimates that 70 percent of the posts in r/relationships are about heterosexual couples. And this is, he admits, probably a result of the way the subreddit is moderated, combined with its reputation on Twitter, which influences “who knows about it, [and] who feels comfortable using it.” Even then, it’s hard to say exactly whom the subreddit serves best. Last year, the New Statesman scraped “hundreds” of posts from the subreddit and analyzed them for potential gender bias, concluding, “Reddit’s amateur agony aunts overwhelmingly support men over women in posts about heterosexual romantic relationships.”
But that finding doesn’t scan with Anne’s experience. “Compared to the rest of Reddit, which is a giant androgenic cesspool, we look biased in favor of females.” She estimates that women make up about 60 percent of the membership of r/relationships. They seem to post an even larger percentage of the questions there. This is presumably a big part of what draws “popcorn-eaters” and makes the whole thing so shareable. You’re not allowed to post “men are trash” on Facebook; generalized Twitter misandry is funny, but getting tired. But there are endless variations of a joke tweet about the extremely dysfunctional heterosexuality on display in r/relationships, most structured like this recent example:
girls on r/relationships: my boyfriend is a mass murderer and flawed but he has a really sweet heart. should i stay with him?
guys on r/relationships: my girlfriend painted her nails blue instead of the usual green. how do i break up with her in the most hurtful way possible?
Really, if you were looking for a conspiracy to sully the reputation of men, you might find one scrolling through the titles of posts in r/relationships. Some days, it’s a stream of situations so stereotypical of the jokes we make about the way men behave in heterosexual relationships, it’s almost surreal: a jackpot of evidence that things really are as bad and dumb as women say they are.
“My [26F] boyfriend [29M] spends all his time on his phone on communist meme Facebook pages and Twitter,” starts a recent one. An all-timer: “My (32F) husband (35M) disturbed a wasp nest and without saying anything to us, he immediately runs PAST OUR CHILDREN, grabs his dog (a small terrier) and runs into the house, and LOCKS THE DOOR.”
At the platform level, as Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly explained in a 2016 history of “the secret rules of the internet,” “the details of moderation practices are routinely hidden from public view, siloed within companies and treated as trade secrets when it comes to users and the public.” Twitter notoriously declines to comment on individual account suspensions, for vague reasons that make it difficult to know whether it even has a code of conduct that applies to everyone. Facebook is tiptoeing around accusations of anti-conservative bias while Republican lawmakers shout about free speech on commercial platforms. Maybe the first thing any living person would tell you about Reddit is that it has been glacially slow to combat hate speech, and that it is still unclear just what level of public disdain has to bubble up before the company takes action against particularly toxic communities.
A week after she left Reddit, Ellen Pao published an op-ed in The Washington Post suggesting that there is no solution to the problem of moderation:
Expecting internet platforms to eliminate hate and harassment is likely to disappoint. As the number of users climbs, community management becomes ever more difficult. If mistakes are made 0.01 percent of the time, that could mean tens of thousands of mistakes. And for a community looking for clear, evenly applied rules, mistakes are frustrating. They lead to a lack of trust. Turning to automation to enforce standards leads to a lack of human contact and understanding. No one has figured out the best place to draw the line between bad and ugly—or whether that line can support a viable business model.
But the rules that Anne applies to r/relationships are posted in full for anyone who’d like to understand them; they apply at all times. They are somewhat arbitrary, and some of them, you could argue, are pretty bad. At the very least they’re consistent, mostly unchanged for years—the most recent addition was more than two years ago, Michael said, when the mods decided to limit posts to one update each. (“It wasn’t the point for people to be following things like a soap opera.”)
The fact that these rules exist at all is a reminder of something we tend to forget about the internet, which is that we’re as responsible to one another here as anywhere else. Sometimes more. Nobody gets punished for expecting their girlfriend to cook all their meals or asking whether it’s that big of a deal to prank an arachnophobe with a jar full of dead spiders, but in Anne’s subreddit they can at least get dressed down by a chorus of totally PG criticisms. It’s the rare place with consequences, which come from a crude system, but one created by people who actually have to live within it—not people who are simply getting paid by the people who named the app.
About a month ago, Marie—a 28-year-old woman newly navigating the world of casual dating after years of serial monogamy—posted her first question to the subreddit. She wanted to know whether it made sense to keep dating someone who wanted to be exclusive and acted like a boyfriend and seemed, in most every way, to care, but still didn’t want a “relationship.”
By the time of her post, she told me, she’d already talked with all her friends about the situation. Far from a sprawling debate, what she’d really been looking for was some outside confirmation that it was okay to be unhappy with what she had, coming from impartial third parties who would tell her the truth. In the end, she dumped the guy.
“There’s a lot of deleted comments,” she said, looking back at the post. “I guess I’m grateful for the posters who defended me and my actions and the mods for keeping things sane.”