Social networking platform Reddit relies on volunteer moderators to prevent the site from being overwhelmed with problematic content – including hate speech – and to ensure it remains attractive to users. While this work isn’t remunerated, it’s very valuable to the company: It’s worth at least $3.4 million a year, or 2.8% of Reddit’s revenue, according to two new studies led by computer scientists at Northwestern University in 2019 corresponds.
Social media companies and technology platforms have gained an increasingly paramount role in shaping the way information is consumed and shared as they seek to expand their market shares, said the study’s lead author Hanlin Li, a graduate student the Northwest. When volunteer moderators’ posts are given a dollar value for the first time, it could help regular users moderate content with Big Tech.
“Big tech companies have introduced some harmful practices that facilitate the spread of misinformation and do not adequately support volunteers fighting the spread of harmful content online,” Li said. “Broadly speaking, our research is about thinking about it how we can redistribute decision-making power in the technology industry to engage users. This is a step in that direction.”
On Reddit, users are organized into communities called “subreddits,” which share and discuss content related to subject areas of interest, from humor to news, art, video games, and memes.
The subreddits are overseen by volunteers whose work is often described as an affair of the heart, something they do because they care about and are interested in maintaining vibrant online communities that Reddit hosts and provides to users for free provides what is considered a fair exchange.
But the studies raise an important question: Do volunteer moderators and other users give tech companies “free rein” by donating their time, data, and energy? After all, Reddit and Facebook — which also host groups organized around common interests — are for-profit companies whose revenue models are based on selling advertising to users.
On the other hand, volunteer moderators don’t realize how much collective work it takes to keep these online communities functioning and secure, and how much that work is worth to the company. Would it make a difference in negotiations between users and technology companies if you were armed with this knowledge?
“Pricing the work that people—in this case, content moderators on Reddit—have subsidized is a leverage those moderators could use asking platforms for better resources and tools to help them monitor more effectively,” Li said.
Li co-authored both papers with her advisor, Brent Hecht, an associate professor at the Northwestern School of Communication, and Stevie Chancellor, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
Hecht leads the People, Space and Algorithms (PSA) Research Group at Northwestern. The group’s overarching mission is to “identify and address societal problems caused or exacerbated by advances in computing.”
According to Li, a key part of the PSA Group’s work is redesigning user contributions to sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit as “work” — not passive participation in the online space — because companies leverage data and time that users do deploy to generate profits: to train their algorithms, better target advertising, recruit new users and ultimately generate more sales.
This reformulation led them to coin the term “data labor subsidy” when attributing a dollar value to the contributions of technology platform users. Both of the most recent Reddit studies were published as peer-reviewed papers at the International Conference on Web and Social Media, a high-profile computer social science conference where Li will formally present them in June.
In the first study, “Measuring the Monetary Value of Online Volunteer Work,” the authors worked with moderators on dozens of subreddits and calculated the time it took moderators to complete a variety of moderation actions such as approving posts, removing comments, and Perform bans on users based on the timestamps between different click actions and calculate the average time spent executing each action.
Li notes that her research, particularly in the second article, “All That’s Happening Behind the Scenes: A Data-Driven Analysis of Volunteer Moderator Labor on Reddit,” highlights that moderator activities are not strictly related to routine actions like hiding comments. They also involve more nuanced content maintenance, such as B. Tagging to facilitate user search.
In both studies, the research team considered both publicly available data and data provided by a subset of moderators whom they asked to participate (the respondents were randomly selected, although not a completely random sample).
In the first, they extrapolated from the time these moderators spent moderating each day to determine the approximate total time spent moderating on any given day by all active Reddit moderators (there are about 21,500 such currently moderators). In the second study, they described the activities of these moderators in detail.
They found that the entire population of Reddit moderators collectively spends at least 466 hours per day performing moderating actions on the platform. This is a lower bound estimate because The study could not account for every single act that could reasonably be construed as moderation. Using the US median hourly rate for similar paid services, as determined by freelance platform UpWork ($20/hour), they calculated the figure to be $3.4 million per year.
Currently, Reddit provides limited tools for moderators tasked with managing groups with thousands and sometimes millions of users – such as:
“Volunteer presenters are in such a disadvantaged position when it comes to asking for support,” she said. But, she added, the studies are now providing evidence that volunteers have done real work for the company that they can bring to the negotiating table.
“Our motivation is to put the necessary information into this type of transaction to ensure it is a fair exchange of value,” she said.