Every great once in a while, someone gets the idea to make a social media app that’s just their favorite app, but slightly different. Maybe the rules are a little different, maybe reposting old content is encouraged, instead of a faux pas. Maybe the rules about hate speech are nonexistent, maybe there’s nothing in the rules at all about moderators! Or, maybe it’s just like the worst parts of the site’s early days combined with the worst parts of its modern day experience, because none of the founders really know how to code or secure the platform from hackers. Is that what you wanted, when you left? Well, is it? Is it?!
Reddit has made…choices. When Digg made decisions that users didn’t like, the users could hold up Reddit as the shining example. “I’ll go to Reddit if they change X”. And users did! Reddit slowly accumulated most of the runoff from Digg simply by absorbing features that Digg shed. Digg eventually imploded.
No website can continue this pattern forever, and Reddit was facing pressure to disown certain communities. Even worse, if it wanted to be on the app store (and it did), it was going to have to ban a lot of content that it had let grow through inaction. Even if there was nothing legally wrong, Apple’s app store is notoriously Puritan.
Subreddits (a subreddit is how Reddit divvies up its forum topics) only get deactivated when the general public notices them, and trying to get in the app store had attracted public notice. If the public doesn’t notice, user complaints go unrecognized.
This is important to the story.
Hired a pedophile sympathizer as an admin? “Unnoticed”, until the public noticed. Widespread brigading goes unrecognized. Regular doxxing? Not a problem til the media reports on it. Some subreddits are allowed to ruin other subreddits because the admins simply don’t feel like getting involved, and if it doesn’t go public, they have no recourse. As a result, Reddit’s communities are entirely dependent on the mods that monitor them, but otherwise it’s pretty lax. Admins rarely step in to fix problems.
There is no censorship until a subreddit makes itself into a problem. And once they were in the app store, they went back to their old policy of “don’t touch it til it’s an issue”.
Two big events lead to major migration to VOAT: the banning of the subreddit R/FatPeopleHate, which is exactly what it sounds like, and the hiring/firing of Ellen Pao, who was used as a scapegoat to introduce much-needed changes. Reddit discovered that once it reached a certain size, the things Digg had done to itself made sense. They also realized people who had been there since Digg would recognize the hypocrisy. This left Reddit in the difficult position of implementing the changes and losing people, or implementing the changes and losing less people. They picked less, by using Pao. People were outraged! They wanted to leave, and make a statement on the way out!
But there was a problem. Leavers realized Reddit didn’t have any real competition, and that if they wanted their threats to have any weight, they would need another site to champion. A young and upcoming website known as VOAT became their champion, and people who left smugly waited for Reddit to suffer the same fate as Digg. They’d get to watch VOAT turn into Reddit, but better (for them)! After all, Reddit was “censoring speech”, and VOAT wasn’t – how could anyone ever enjoy such an oppressive website? It will inevitably start censoring all but the ‘right’ opinions, they said. Reddit’s going to go to the dumps, they said. Slippery slope, they said.
VOAT: A Drain Filter
Obviously, Reddit’s still here and VOAT’s not. And even better, Reddit’s age-old policy of “leave it to the mods, as long as it’s not breaching admin rules” works out more often than not. This hands-off approach allowed a lot of troll communities, but they fixed the issues those caused with policy changes. Or… ‘fixed’ it to Reddit standards, which was better than nothing. Generally, communities were allowed to self-police.
As said before, Reddit’s genuinely so lax it was causing issues publicly! It was never going to turn PG-E, and any pretense of being PG-13 were dropped after Apple accepted them. They only had to kick the subreddits that were failing to self-police anyway, and even if those problem subreddits didn’t self-moderate, they could still stay if they were quiet. “Just don’t get the news involved”. No dead bodies, no child-trafficking, no gore or NSFW content, and no actionable threats. Everything else could stay if it didn’t draw negative attention from the press.
There are a plethora of alt-right and conspiracy subreddits still open, right now, because they stayed quiet and didn’t brigade, dox, or harass outside subreddits. Extremists aren’t kicked, as long as they don’t cause problems. If the leavers couldn’t manage to coexist with other subreddits, then VOAT was welcome to have them, as far as Reddit was concerned.
After the purge, they could then give the reigns back to subreddit moderators and say “keep it within our admin rules”, and everything was fine for the people who stayed. The same can’t be said for new VOAT members.
Voat was supposed to be Reddit, if Reddit were even less censored. You know, the safe haven for the people who got kicked. ‘Hey, R/FatPeopleHate escapees, come here and continue to hate! Hey, R/Jailbait! Betcha missed posting pictures of underage girls! And ’ R/watchpeopledie, guess what? Dead body pictures are welcome!’
Notice a theme? Anything too hateful, pervy, or gory for Reddit, which only kicked them out because they were becoming a legal liability, got pushed into VOAT. And VOAT took everyone in. Since the regular Redditors weren’t getting hard-core harassed anymore, the leftovers of banned subreddits were all VOAT had coming. Understandably, VOAT’s advertisers were unhappy.
If you and a bully are getting into conflicts in the cafeteria, and the bully gets kicked out and heads to the gas station parking lot with the other “cool kids” who got kicked out, are you going to go to the gas station parking lot? Absolutely not. In fact, most of the other kids in your class are going to stay in the cafeteria, even the ones who sometimes agreed with the bully – the gas station parking lot has gotten a reputation, see.
The people who only sometimes agreed with the bully are okay-ish with just talking quieter, or more peacefully, so that they’re not associated with that guy. And that guy is VOAT. VOAT was not a place for moderates. People who headed there for “the principle” and “standing for free speech” soon discovered they’d have to assimilate with the far right that made up the majority of the platform. Or, if they wanted, they could stay quiet, because their moderate or centrist opinions were not welcome. Remember, the people who left were too much for Reddit.
That’s VOAT’s claim to fame. A separation of a bigger site’s problem forums to get into App stores. It eventually lost funding and had to shut down.
Tumblr’s Split Offs – The Opposite Side
Where people migrated to VOAT because Reddit stopped letting them misbehave, Tumblr’s mass-migration was caused by Tumblr re-defining what misbehaving was.
Tumblr ex-users left because the app wanted to water itself down to get in Apple’s good graces. Much like Reddit. However, unlike Reddit, there weren’t very many good alternatives, and no “anti-explicit” clause existed in it’s rules, like anti-harassment did for Reddit.
Blogging sites had existed forever, and Tumblr had so many users because it was a mix of all the good features with none of the bad. Tumblr was anonymous, follower counts were hidden, and the content feed was chronological, all common complaints for sites like Twitter or Instagram. Unfortunately, Tumblr felt that its platform was difficult to advertise on because of the explicit content it held. The App store could provide more reach, they thought.
Many of the users would prefer the website stay as un-advertisable as it always was. Tumblr’s owners decided they wanted to ban explicit content – and it’s a private platform, they can do what they want. However, most of their content creators had some kind of content that the auto-filter might consider explicit. They gave warning, but when the filters and new policies kicked in, people were upset.
‘Poor Filtration – Please Advise’
The people who wanted to stay were tasked with digging through years’ worth of their own posts to find and remove “explicit” content, which according to the filter, was anything that had too much beige and pink in it, things with visible water, art, or too much visible muscle. Artists and bodybuilders were all put out to find that every other post they made was getting flagged. It took manual review from an overworked human somewhere in the backend to get that post back up. Tumblr promised art would still be allowed, but the filter couldn’t tell the difference between explicit content and art that happened to feature nudity. Many didn’t bother trying to appeal their entire post history, and just left.
Additionally, posts featuring other content, like owls along the sides of the image, and images where the explicit content wasn’t centered in-frame, weren’t flagged even if they were obviously explicit – the filter hadn’t been trained enough before launch. Even worse, tagging a post as #SFW was effective content-filter evasion, and the bots plaguing users for years got a second wind once their programmers realized. Even more people left. Tumblr wiped out it’s advertisability, and didn’t get rid of other issues within their website. Believe it or not, Tumblr also had issues with alt-right communities misbehaving! And this didn’t get rid of them, only the explicit photos.
Other Art Scenes
A lot of Tumblr’s culture revolved around it’s easy-going art scene. They were a legitimate Wild West, as long as it wasn’t illegal, anything went. Just like Twitter, you could get into arguments over whatever you posted, but unlike Twitter, follower counts were hidden. People could weaponize their followers, but nobody on the outside looking in would know that they were “big personalities”. That’s what brought many of the artists to the site! And because it’s Tumblr, those artists produced a mix of content, but they lost the ability to when Tumblr decided it would trade its soul to be in the Apple App Store.
Instagram didn’t allow explicit art. Twitter was less anonymous. Deviantart allowed explicit content, but their poor discovery feature made it difficult to accumulate fans. Pinterest was a non-starter. Nobody could do what Tumblr did, so once Tumblr dropped a feature, nobody had a plan B. People made downloadable mod packs for the site to restore features, that’s how difficult it was to recreate Tumblr. Splinter sites that were explicit and did blogging like Tumblr were frequently completely explicit, and those fleeing artists were not welcome to make mixed content there, either.
Just like VOAT, a couple of people made websites specifically to siphon folks from Tumblr, but none of them ever even got close to VOAT’s initial surge and longevity. VOAT wasn’t great, but it was poised and ready to go – brand new websites that wanted to be Tumblr just weren’t. The splinter websites, unless they were already big, gradually plateaued.
Eventually, the users who stuck around switched to a mix of Patreon, Twitter, and Tumblr. This was A) better-supported, B) better populated, C) easier to use and D) less invasive than the majority of the alternatives. Tumblr’s value as a site was slashed to less than a quarter of what it was before the art ban, and the user count plummeted. No viewers meant no advertising revenue, and the website was passed around by buyers trying to ‘fix’ it.
What’s the long and the short of all of this? If a big website is shedding users because of a policy change, then the websites that try to get those users are going to be worse. Reactionaries do not a website make.