Social networking platform Reddit relies on volunteer moderators to keep the site from being overrun with problematic content, including hate speech, and to ensure it remains engaging for users. Although unpaid, this work is very valuable to the company: according to two new studies by computer scientists at Northwestern University, it is worth at least $3.4 million a year, which is equivalent to 2.8% of income from Reddit in 2019.
Social media companies and tech platforms have taken an increasingly outsized role in how information is consumed and shared as they seek to grow market share, the lead author said. study Hanlin Li, PhD student at Northwestern. Putting a monetary value on contributions from volunteer moderators for the first time could give ordinary users leverage over big tech content moderation.
“Big tech companies have introduced some harmful practices, facilitating the spread of misinformation and not adequately supporting volunteers who are fighting the proliferation of harmful content online,” Li said. how we can redistribute decision-making power in the tech industry to include users. It is a step towards that. »
On Reddit, users are organized into communities called “subreddits” that share and discuss content related to topics of interest, from humor and news, to art, video games and memes.
Subreddits are monitored by volunteers whose work is often portrayed as a labor of love, something they do because they care and want to maintain vibrant online communities, which Reddit hosts and makes available for free. available to users, in what may appear to be a fair trade.
But the studies raise an important question: Are volunteer moderators and other users giving tech companies a “free ride” by volunteering their time, data and energy? After all, Reddit and Facebook – which also host groups organized around common interests – are for-profit companies, with revenue models based on selling advertising to users.
Volunteer moderators, on the other hand, don’t know how much collective work it takes to keep these online communities viable and safe, and how much that work is worth to the company. Would being armed with this knowledge make a difference in negotiations between users and tech companies?
“Put a price on the work that people – in this case, content moderators on Reddit – have subsidized is to leverage those moderators when they ask platforms for better resources and tools to help them monitor more effectively,” Li said.
Li co-authored the two articles with his adviser Brent Hecht, associate professor at Northwestern’s School of Communication, and Stevie Chancellor, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
Hecht leads the People, Space and Algorithms (PSA) research group at Northwestern. The group’s overall mission is “to identify and solve societal problems created or exacerbated by advances in computing”.
Li said a key part of PSA Group’s work is to redefine user contributions on sites such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit as “work” – not passive participation in the space. online – because companies use the data and time that users provide to generate profits. : to train their algorithms, better target advertising, recruit new users and ultimately earn more revenue.
This reframing led them to coin the term “data labor subsidy” when assigning a monetary value to the contributions of users of the technology platform. The two recent Reddit studies were published as peer-reviewed articles at the International Conference on the Web and Social Media, a high-level 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 how long it took moderators to perform various moderation actions such as such as approving posts, deleting comments, and banning users. based on timestamps between when different click actions occurred and calculating the average time spent performing each action.
Li notes that their research, particularly in the second article, “Everything That Happens Behind the Scenes: A Data-Based Analysis of the Work of Volunteer Moderators on Reddit,” highlights that moderators’ activities are not exclusively related to routine actions like hiding comments. They also involve more nuanced curation of content, such as tagging to make it easier for users to search.
The research team incorporated both publicly available data and data provided by a subset of moderators whom they asked to participate (these were randomly selected, although they do not constitute a perfectly random sample) in both studies.
In the first, they extrapolated from the time these moderators spent moderating daily to determine the approximate amount of collective time spent moderating by all active Reddit moderators on any given day (currently there are about 21,500 moderators of this type). In the second study, they described in detail the activities of these moderators.
They found that collectively, the entire population of Reddit moderators spends a minimum of 466 hours per day performing moderation actions on the platform.. This is a lower estimate because the study could not account for every action that could reasonably be interpreted as moderating. Using the US median hourly rate for similar paid services gleaned from freelancing platform UpWork ($20/hour), they calculated the figure at $3.4 million per year.
At the moment, Reddit only provides limited tools – such as keyword filters – to moderators responsible for maintaining groups with thousands and sometimes millions of users, which makes moderators feel overwhelmed and ask frequently to the company more tools, according to Li.
“Volunteer moderators are at such a disadvantage when it comes to asking for help,” she said. But, she added, studies now provide evidence that volunteers have done real work for the company that they can bring to the bargaining table.
“Our motivation is to introduce the necessary information into this type of transaction to ensure that it is a fair value exchange,” she said.