Anyone who has spent considerable time online has probably heard the trusty old phrase, “Information wants to be free”.

People have used that phrase as justification for any number of diverse causes — from the John Draper and the original phone phreaks of the `70s, to Julian Assange and Wikileaks decades later. The United States’ Freedom of Information Act can (in theory) be used by citizens as a means of pressuring the government to disclose data that it might prefer to keep secret. Public records, and now, public data, can be obtained in order to hold police and politicians accountable and pull the balance of power away from totalitarian secrecy. In theory, anyway.

The modern-day idea of information freedom took shape back when the Internet was mainly the domain of nerds sharing technical information. Dial-up modems chirped and squealed across copper phone lines, granting nerds the power to make things that other nerds would think of as ingenious or cool. This was the kind of digital place that people like Steve Wozniack, Alan Kay, Bill Joy and even Aaron Swartz could call home, despite being generations apart in chronological age.

Freedom to make cool stuff was the reason why the Internet (in its post-ARPANET days) evolved the way it did — at least, until it became a platform for the mass surveillance we affectionately call “branding” or “advertising”. The fact that the Internet required technical savvy just to get online (much less to find or do anything interesting) filtered out anyone but those dedicated enough to brave the steep learning curve.

What happens when ordinary people get hold of this “urge for information freedom”? What does it mean to the Average Jane Doe or John Q. Unknown, as can be discerned from the ways that the general public make use of the phrase “information wants to be free”?

After approximately a year of being the moderator of a community on Reddit, here is what I’ve learned.

I allowed my Reddit community to be destroyed by trolls, because honestly, I was bored with it and had amassed enough new ideas to start over. These are my notes, and they may benefit you, too, if you ever contemplate starting an Internet-based hangout, meeting place or network.

Note that my niche on Reddit was science fiction. The people in your chosen subculture may be a little bit different, although I doubt it. You can pretend that you and your readers don’t fit into the categories below. Maybe non-scifi people are a special human breed who are better than the ones I encountered practically everywhere on Reddit.

Reddit 101

In case you know nothing about Reddit, here are the basics. Reddit is basically a superset of popularity-based bulletin boards. The Reddit homepage is a massive board that showcases the most popular topics from all of the smaller boards. The smaller ones are appropriately called “sub-reddits”.

In subreddits, anyone can post a new topic. The readers, called “subscribers”, can click one of a pair of arrows to vote “up” or “down”. Topics that receive more “up” arrows rise to the top of the list for a while until newer/popular topics replace them. “Downvoted” topics are pushed down the listings until they disappear from the front page. Each page of listings holds up to twenty topics; a topic can be a link to another website, or a relatively short posting that operates like a blog entry, in that you can write anything you want others in your subreddit to read.

Below you’ll find out what I learned the hard way over the past year or so as a Reddit community moderator.

Misuse Is The Norm, Because People Hate Learning

The RTFM Principle: The average person is completely thoughtless 99% of the time, and would rather misuse technology than take a moment to figure out how it works.

Reddit’s upvote/downvote arrows are completely misused much of the time. People use the arrows to express whether or not they agree with a topic, which is actually the purpose of being able add comments. Adding comments, however, requires more thought than clicking or tapping a button. Hence, button-tapping wins ninety-nine percent of the time, even though it’s the wrong thing to do.

Whiners, Whiners Everywhere

Principle: The average person loves whining, and will do anything to defend their right to whine and complain while contributing nothing of any value.

This is the most bizarre aspect of the whole Reddit affair. Across subreddit after subreddit, the phenomenon repeated itself: the vast majority of conversations would dwell more on what people didn’t like rather than what they found beautiful, inspiring or fascinating. The most popular science fiction subreddit contains topic after topic of people complaining vociferously about the flaws of Star Wars. The flaws of Battle Star Galactica. The evils of renaming the Sci-Fi Network to be the “Syfy” Network.

It’s basically a kielbasa festival of bitching and moaning about everything in mainstream movies and television. Heaven help you if you post an original piece of work there; Downvote Hell awaits.

On my own subreddit, it was amazing to see this “whining=freedom of speech” dynamic at work. Here’s an example:

There were well over one hundred posts on the subreddit at the time. Most had one or two upvotes, maybe eight at most. Then one day, in a fit of random curiosity, I posted a topic that lampooned the oblivious popstar Iggy Azalea. The post title poked fun at her idiotic blather about how the Internet was pure evil because people dislike her (for good reason) and hence troll her mercilessly on Twitter.

Needless to say, “idiot” is a word that applies perfectly to anyone who blames the Internet itself for the actions of trolls.

Azalea’s tweet reached me via a retweet from Taylor Swift. I absolutely adore Ms. Swift (no, not that Taylor Swift, although she’s not so bad, either). And so I created a silly conversation topic making fun of Iggy Azalea and professing an undying girl-boner for Tay-Tay (it’s all in how you phrase things, darling). Everything about it was so wrong that it could only be awesomely right.

Not only did it receive more comments than any other topic, we received more subscribers than on any other single day. The herd was so confused that the cross-talk built controversy; the controversy created “value” in the form of subscribers, and the subreddit appeared to benefit handsomely as we enhanced our appearance of popularity.

All this for a fake topic comprised of people whining about a fake Australian rap star, originally retweeted from a Twitter account that may or may not be written by the real Taylor Swift.

Ridiculous. Whining for the win. I’m still laughing whenever I think about it.

Where Lurkers Roam, Reading Is Verboten

Principle: The average person dislikes reading, and dislikes thinking even more.

Here’s a quick tip about the “Subscriber” numbers. You’ll find them prominently displayed in the sidebar of most subreddits. Here’s the truth about subscriber counts: the number means absolutely nothing. People routinely click the “Subscribe” button, and… disappear. They don’t upvote. They don’t downvote. They neither post nor comment. They simply vanish, or worse, they “lurk”.

Lurking takes place when a person confuses the Internet for a television channel and sits there waiting for something interesting to happen instead of participating in any way.

Lurkers comprises at least 99% of the Internet, and they hate reading.

Have a look at the Reddit homepage. Better yet, pick any news/entertainment website offering salacious click-bait headlines. Ignore the story itself and read the comments first. Then go back and actually read the story. You’ll find that in a startlingly high percentage of the time, most commenters have never even read the story. Other commenters, exasperated, might have pointed out this fact and told the ingrate to actually read the story before commenting — inevitably to no avail.

This phenomenon is even more prevalent if you expect anyone to click a link, head to another website, read an article, then come back to add their thoughts about what they’ve read.

On Reddit, reams and reams of conversation consist of preconceived opinions spouted as if they were relevant facts. In that light, it may be better that most people lurk; when they offer their insufferably precious opinions, the outcome is either whining or superfluous piffle that adds nothing to any conversation. I resist the term “mental masturbation” because it’s just too easy, and at least masturbation actually has a purpose. The average commenter on Reddit is simply stroking their own ego for no reason at all aside from the onanistic pleasure of accruing worthless-in-the-real-world-or-anywhere-else “karma points”.

Changing The World With Cynical Apathy and Casual Disinterest

Principle: The average person is utterly apathetic and disinterested in anything beyond reactions to his or her own opinion.

As a Reddit moderator, I realized that most people contribute zero real value to a given conversation. They offer no links to primary sources (could Google be any easier to use?) and no well-formed thoughts beyond repetitive sound-bytes imitating other Redditors who have more “cool points”, a.k.a. silly sums of fictional karma.

Question: Why on Earth would anyone waste so much time on Reddit, then, or the Internet more generally?
Answer: The vast majority of comments exist solely to provoke other bored egotists to react with their own comments. If a topic foments enough upvotes and empty chatter between Redditors, it may end up triumphantly posted on the Reddit homepage.

This is why the Reddit homepage is an adorable wasteland of kitten-and-puppy pictures, and Wikipedia-level trivia about everyone’s favorite celebrities like Keanu Reeves (although I must admit, better Keanu than Iggy). Every now and then you’ll see a scare-mongering news piece or rare nugget of information; mostly, it’s snarky neckbeard humour that circulates like stale air trapped in a pressurized cabin cruising somewhere high above terra firma.

In that respect, the users of Reddit are like characters in an endless webcomic created by the masterminds behind a hipster version of Seinfeld. Or maybe, an ironically post-hipster take on Friends. Or maybe, Sharknado with Samuel L. Jackson from Snakes on a Plane. Beware that Reddit-humour is infectious and you might mistakenly try to export it to the real non-neckbeard world. Would you really want to hang out with your unwashed hordes of aimless Reddit-friends in real life?

Grazing Reddit For Hours? Welcome To The Herd

Principle: The average human is a herd animal.

We now know that the average person is an apathetic lurker. We also know that he or she also loves to complain.

So who’s left?

The other creatures grazing Reddit for hours are the proud members of the herd.

The herd, more than anything else, is the functional downfall of Reddit.

The herd will only move as a single unit. Hence, inertia rules: a topic that has no upvotes will tend to remain so. A topic that gains upvote momentum will tend to skyrocket within a certain window of time. A topic that’s downvoted and complained about by one troll, will also tend to be gored and buried by the stampeding herd.

This dynamic completely destroys any pretense of “democracy” or “freedom of speech” to be found on Reddit. Instead, you have something more akin to mindless tribal gamesmanship or drive-by gang warfare tactics. On Reddit, the mob (or perhaps more aptly, the blob) always wins.

And this is why my subreddit was doomed — we tried to do something different. It’s practically impossible to change the way the game as played if people couldn’t be bothered to learn a new set of rules. Ultimately, you end up with the herd roving from pasture to pasture, whining about anything that isn’t “high-concept” enough to be instantly recognizable, while downvoting anything that doesn’t match their existing expectations. Then the inconsolable bovines of Reddit cry on each other’s hulking shoulders with fake outrage that there’s “nothing new left in the world” except blockbusters and remakes.

There would be no blockbusters or interminable strings of superhero reboots if not for the inherently hypocritical and mindless herd.

Information Should Be Worthless, I Mean, Free

Principle: The average person knows nothing about capitalism and therefore is willing to have his or her privacy destroyed for the sake of “free”.

Another feature of the herd is that they are easily led to believe easy lies at the expense of difficult-yet-obvious truths. The most important truth that I’ve learned is a reinforcement of the obvious fact that nothing of any value in life is free.

No one will moderate a community very well if they’re simply throwing time away to battle trolls and attempt to stir lurkers from their customary apathy. So the moderators on Reddit tend to do a poor job, arbitrarily censoring some content and allowing low-quality pieces to be posted. Some members are banned while some are allowed to continue bullying others.

When our subreddit made the rules transparent, trolls whined that the existence of rules was itself an impingement on their “freedom of speech” and began a downvoting campaign against us. When we stated why some posts were allowed and explained exactly what kind were not, the trolls whined louder about how a focused subreddit was the work of a “tyrant” who was trying to destroy the “freedom of information”.

Freedom of speech and freedom of information have been perverted to mean that idiots on Reddit can destroy any community by taking the “victim” role. They can then incite fake outrage for the sake of bullying into submission anyone who tries to do something different. The average person would rather be tricked and manipulated from behind the scenes (i.e. surveillance, I mean, “advertising”) rather than be told community rules and guidelines without sleight-of-mouth misdirection or intentional ambiguity.

Fixing Reddit. Is It Possible? Should We Scrap It And Start Over?

Reddit’s discovery features are also broken, so very few people even know when a new subreddit has been created. To counter that, I started sending private messages to readers of other sci-fi subreddits — one message only, saying essentially this: “hey, we exist. Come have a look if you want.” I also set up a Patreon account to take donations toward building a better website just for us.

Since any form of “spamming” is outlawed on Reddit, a troll complained loudly enough that our community was obliterated by the administrators. Without any other means of telling potential readers about us, the subreddit would never have grown at all — as is the case with the vast majority of Reddit’s communities. What Reddit has on its hands is a conundrum that they seem unable or unwilling to solve.

Two simple fixes would repair at least some of Reddit’s flaws:

1. Allow moderators to disallow downvotes in order to discourage trolls.

It’s baffling that this isn’t an option for moderators to turn on or off. The only plausible answer might be the fear of stifling “freedom of speech” and “freedom of information” which, as we’ve seen, are basically a sham at worst and a false argument at best. At the very least, this would give moderators the ability to shut out some of the noise that can ruin a subreddit at the click of the “downvote” arrow. Allow mods to do as they wish if they’d prefer to encourage upvotes rather than facilitate angry lurkers, perpetual whiners and hateful trolls.

2. Create an effective way to notify Redditors of new subreddits that match their interests.

When the herd receives a message from the site itself, it’s a “recommendation”, whereas a message from an individual is “spam”. Use the herd’s cognitive bias of blind faith in authority to help subreddits attain at least some visibility. From there, a subreddit can grow without the omnipresent spectre of complete ruin by the wrathful Gods of Reddit, who unknowingly are doing the bidding of trolls rather than assisting creative experiments in community-building.

The profiteering army of Steve Jobs-wannabes and cynical “hackers” like Mark Zuckerberg have, in a sense, equalized the playing field. Now anyone and everyone is on the Net, literally numbering in the billions. They are in many ways nothing like the ones who started the revolution in global communication, yet they often use the same terminology. Radical ideas have become “gentrified” as the “market sector” has “matured” and simultaneously devolved to the level of empty corporate marketing jargon.

Privacy, as a principle of self-protection, becomes gutted and pushed aside, derided as anachronistic in a public-relations war against anyone who “has something to hide” (which, incidentally, is everyone, including you). Sharing is no longer optional, yet people compulsively push themselves at each other in fetishistic obsession for the illusion of instant celebrity, driven by a new kind of social anxiety. Dissent now means being exiled from the worldwide monoculture of bland selfies and fashionably “edgy” behavior, quietly sponsored by whatever brand is crowding your eyes and clouding your mind with ads at the moment.

Reddit had the potential to do better than that. I have a feeling that Aaron Swartz would agree, and maybe even Wozniak, too (though definitely not Steve Jobs, as Jobs’ contribution to tech was that he turned computers into glossy high-status toys). Shills, trolls and the herd are the opposite of what makes the Internet great. Hopefully my notes can help you to see what’s happening from a different perspective and maybe even help create a better way. As for me? I’m still just getting started. My goals are still alive and my sense of purpose is stronger than ever. Maybe we can make something cool and useful together.