By Rachel Kraus
Reddit botched the rollout of a new feature that could have endangered some vulnerable users — and now it is eating crow.
On Wednesday, Reddit announced that it was initiating a limited rollout of a new group chat feature called “Start Chatting” that would allow subreddit members to speak directly with each other in chatrooms. It was originally positioned as a way for Redditors to connect with people during COVID-19 social distancing.
The problem? Not only was there no way for communities to opt out of the feature, but moderators also would not be able to, well, moderate them. In the over 1,500 comments to the original announcement, many mods quickly pointed out that this made the chat function ripe for abuse by trolls.
“We immediately started raising these problems and raising hell about it, honestly,” /u/StrawberryTea, who is a moderator of a popular college football subreddit and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of harassment, told Mashable. “As this continued to build, it became very clear that all of the moderators were bewildered or angry.”
After mass outcry and contentious interactions between moderators and Reddit Admins (who are employees as opposed to mods, who are user volunteers), Reddit has now rolled back the feature (as The Verge also reported).
A post from Reddit VP of Product and Community Alex Le conceded that Reddit “moved too quickly” to bring the feature wide. But that wasn’t the only problem: a glitch made the chat functionality appear on every subreddit — even support communities for rape and abuse survivors — where Reddit said it was never supposed to go.
That particular glitch was at the heart of some of the most salient criticisms of the feature, and uncomfortable interactions between Reddit moderators and Admins.
“In my one month as a mod I’ve seen incels arguing pro-rape, pervs and pedos creeping with DM-requests, people posting fake suicides, political shills and scammy new age ads promting snake oil against PTSD,” a moderator of the r/abuse subreddit wrote. “How am I expected to run a highly sensitive sub filled with traumatized minors when you guys implement a chat feature that I can’t interact with?”
In another instance, the moderator of a support community for rape survivors, r/rape, refuted Reddit’s initial claim that the feature would not appear on support communities with a screenshot of the feature. Le’s preliminary response to the moderator was to accuse them of creating a doctored image. Le subsequently apologized for the accusation, explained that they had just discovered the glitch, and conceded that “Ya, we fucked up.”
Reddit is claiming that the feature never actually went live on sensitive subs: “importantly, for all support communities, the button does nothing. Your users could never enter chats for this feature even in the rare case they saw the button,” Le said in one of his responses to the r/rape moderator.
“I wasn’t able to get the chat to open on /r/rape, but the banner overlay still displayed,” /u/TheYellowRose, the r/rape moderator, who also preferred to be identified by their Reddit handle, told Mashable. “I was able to get into an /r/offmychest chat though, and we deliberately set our subreddit topic to support with the admins months ago. We never should have had this enabled per their guidelines for the rollout.”
Moderators say that the mess is symptomatic of the larger less-than-communicative relationship between Admins and mods; the ordeal even sparked a whole new subreddit called r/KeepThemAccountable, described as “A subreddit to keep track of broken admin promises.” Strife between admins and moderators is a longstanding issue in the Reddit universe.
“It’s impossible to tell if what you’re getting is a tech response or a PR response,” /u/StrawberryTea told Mashable. “It’s this insane example of things we’ve gone through with them before.”
UPDATE: April 30, 2020, 9:48 p.m. EDT More information from /u/TheYellowRose was added to this story after its initial publication.