It’s interesting to watch the dilemma that Reddit is currently in. For those not up to speed, they’ve become stuck in a position of low cash flow, and they’ve asked for donations in order to hire more staff (beyond their current four engineers). This has been widely reported as “internet company begs for survival.” I think they’re in this situation due to one of the odder (but strikingly common) problems that befall internet companies : they listen to their users TOO MUCH.
How can that be? Customer focus is good, right? Except in this case, not so much. Customer focus has paralysed Reddit and put them in a near impossible situation. Many internet businesses hit this point as they grow – a pivot point that lies between simply growing their user base by catering to a desire/need of a group of users and making decisions about how to grow into a sustainable business. As the skills and behaviors required for each stage are different lots of companies reach that turning point and have a great amount of difficulty making the transition.
I remember working for Alex Garden at Relic, and one of the things that really impressed me was that he was able to work out when his early approach, the one that got the company off the ground and created Homeworld, was no longer useful to the growth of the company. He hired a couple of great people to run the business side, and slowly backed away from the day to day running of the company. Of course, that also meant that he got bored and began to follow other dreams, but it also meant that Relic grew into the strong developer that could give us Company of Heroes and Dawn of War.
In this case, it seems like Reddit has adopted a policy of not making any changes that would offend the userbase. So they make no changes at all, because the userbase isn’t a single individual, with likes and dislikes whose whims can be catered to. No. The userbase is made up of a mass of individuals and niche groups, each one with it’s own preferences and biases. There is literally no action Reddit can take that will not cause offence to some substantial portion of it’s customer base.
Bam. Stasis. Change meets with anger from a vocal userbase, so no change ever happens. Only the status quo is safe.
Reddit has painted itself into a corner, and especially so now. They’re no longer in charge of their own destiny, they’re driven by users. Users who most certainly do not have Reddit’s best interests in mind. As everyone knows, the surest way to make sure no decision is made is to form a committee. Reddit has this problem writ as large as possible. No matter what they do now, if it represents movement, there will be a public outcry. For fear of weathering that outcry, they do nothing. Doing nothing means eventual, slow, death.
The irony here of course, is that it’s precisely the users voices that has made Reddit strong through the first phase of their growth. It’s those voices (and the traffic they generate) that represent the unique asset Reddit has in the market. Without users, Reddit is nothing. To look to the future however, Reddit needs to make decisions that will undoubtedly anger some of those users, in order to better serve the rest.
What does this have to do with games? In a lot of ways, this is the same problem that can overtake large game companies with strong public fanbases. A sense of entitlement from the userbase means that even small changes are met with rabid online hysteria. The thing that key game studios have learned (and Reddit can profit from understanding) is that this hysteria does not necessarily represent the actual BEHAVIOR of their users. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t – and the only way to be sure is to try it and see.
For example, Blizzard is well known for not making key game design decisions (lets not touch RealID here, for a host of reasons) on the basis of their forums. If they did, they’d have to improve and nerf pretty much every character class simultaneously. Read a character forum, and everyone thinks their particular class is being hard done by. If you’re looking to gather an understanding of peoples subjective experience, forum information is great. However, if you want to balance the game, you need to look at the objective information – who wins and loses in PVP, how effective is this character in various scenarios, and so forth. Fortunately, this data is something Blizzard has access to enormous amounts of – and it figures into their decision making process substantially.
As another example of just how much these online perfect storms generally don’t reflect eventual user behavior, there was a huge furore over COD : Modern Warfare 2 and it’s lack of dedicated servers. It was the biggest news across a host of gaming sites for months, and people promised boycotts left right and center. Below, you can see the impact of the Steam boycott group, shortly after the games release.
Given that COD:MW2 went on to be the highest selling game of all time up until that point, you can’t argue that the users behavior reflected the intensity of their claims.
The real key to this piece is that there’s a simple way out of this problem for Reddit – however, it’s going to inevitably annoy some users. Placed against this outcome, the slow death of Reddit is a far worse situation for the great majority of users. So the people running the site need to take a step back from firefighting, and make some decisions about the long term direction and sustainability of Reddit. Most importantly, they need to be prepared to make some people unhappy in order to build the Reddit of the future. That means taking seriously a vision for a Reddit that’s financially sustainable and capable of growth. That doesn’t mean one that loses what’s best about Reddit today, but it does mean understanding what that is and nurturing it.
To be absolutely clear – doing nothing to make Reddit profitable, for fear of making some users unhappy, will absolutely and categorically destroy Reddit in the long terms. Making hard decisions and deciding what sort of community they want to build into the long term is the only way they’ll build something that’s right for the majority of their users.
The wonder of the internet, of course, is that users who happen to be unhappy with the new world order will represent a great opportunity for the next people who come along with a great idea on how to build a community. They’ll migrate there, and provide a strong evangelical userbase, which will attract new users until the whole thing suffers under it’s own weight … and then the cycle of life repeats itself.
An additional edit :
So, Reddit has announced they’ve got 6000 gold users and counting, and that makes their appeal a solid gold success. They may be right, but it really doesn’t change my perspective above. The trouble with this approach is that they’re now falling into the trap of doing what’s convenient (catering to the 6000+ with new features and building something like the Total Fark model) rather than setting a plan for how they want Reddit to develop and going there. They’re merely grasping at opportunities as they approach, rather than being strategic. I repeat again what I said above – this isn’t actually to the benefit of the greatest number of their users. Focusing on the sustainable business and userbase they desire would serve them best – and the majority (although not every one of) their users, too.
 It’s worth pointing out that Activision has done themselves some long term damage to their brand as a side effect of this decision. Exactly how much damage remains to be seen.