Rex Miller wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. It’s an old habit from his days as a trauma nurse, when he spent three decades triaging victims of domestic abuse, gunshots and the occasional knife fight.
His current job is not quite so traumatic, but it taps the same ability to assess a difficult situation and fix what’s wrong, which these days is more likely to involve stanching the toxic vitriol of online trolls.
Miller, 62, is a Reddit moderator, one of more than 20,000 who monitor exchanges on the online forum’s popular, often provocative, discussion sites. Redditors, as they’re sometimes known, are unpaid volunteers, and theirs is a generally thankless job. It attracts its share of detractors, which is why most Redditors maintain a low profile (none wanted to include a self photo in this story).
The Redditors’ nemesis is the troll — an online commentator who seeks to disrupt public discussions by whatever rude means possible. In that regard, Redditors are not alone. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow recently voiced her discontent over being hounded by trolls, purely out of meanness, which she called “dehumanizing.” Earlier this month, J.K. Rowling also became the object of a troll attack after she donated £1 million ($1.7 million) to the campaign against Scottish independence. News organizations have taken the brunt of vicious online attacks, too. Many outlets, including Popular Science, have shut down their online comment sections after troll and spambots hijacked conversations, especially on contentious issues like climate change.
Reddit is among the online message sites that attempts to minimize trolling through the use of moderators whose job it is to monitor wide-ranging exchanges of information on every conceivable topic, and to intervene when there is trouble, which is fairly often. Miller said the closest parallel to his role is an umpire. “You’re making calls one way or another and you’re pissing people off on a daily basis,” he said.
Another Reddit moderator, Daniel Allen, noted that the anonymity inherent in Internet forums like Reddit is the perfect breeding ground for bullying trolls to let loose, and because Redditors represent the closest thing to an authority figure, they are themselves frequently targeted.
“If you get a large enough group of people together, they will forget that you’re a real human with real feelings and just attack with no remorse,” Allen, a 32-year-old web designer from Chicago, told International Business Times.
Allen moderates for the Reddit sites /r/art and /r/crappydesign, and said that in December 2013, while moderating /r/conspiracy, he suffered an onslaught of online attacks. “I was getting hundreds of messages per day, either to my personal inbox or as comment replies in threads about me,” he said. The virtual attacks led him to resign as a moderator on that particular subReddit, as forums that grow out of other forums are known.
Whether it’s on larger discussion sites such as 4chan or in the comment sections on news articles, oversight is key to avoiding spammers, scammers or cyberbullies looking to use a conversation to their advantage or simply to damage or discredit others.
But turning the tables on trolls is only one part of a Redditor’s job. A big part is simply keeping conversations on point.
Reddit is one of the most popular social news sites, with more than 113 million unique visitors, and functions like a global web-based bulletin board. Community members post news items to sections, referred to as subreddits, related to every niche topic imaginable.
Since Reddit’s small, esoteric beginnings nearly 10 years ago, the site has slowly gained a more mainstream following, with President Obama, Bill Gates, Madonna and Al Gore all having contributed to conversations. Anyone can become a Redditor by entering a username and password to create a discussion page, or by being invited to create a subreddit by another Redditor.
The Redditor provides content for the site and must abide by each subReddit’s standards, known as “reddiquette.” Each news item gets more prominence based on how many users give it an up-vote or a down-vote — terms used to describe whether the submission is considered supportive or not toward a given topic. The most popular items get placed toward the top of the website’s homepage or subreddits.
For the most part, Reddit is self-governing and is monitored by Redditors who can ban offending users or websites. Reddit administrators oversee the site’s activity and reserve the right to intervene in extreme circumstances, such if a moderator exceeds his or her duties.
Unlike everyday users who simply post news items, photos, questions or comments, moderators must remain engaged on numerous levels within a particular Reddit community. They monitor their discussions for spam, objectionable posts, offensive language or anything that is off topic, and fend off the trepidations of trolls — online troublemakers who harass moderators and users, seek out arguments and attempt to derail conversations.
Miller monitors five subgroups and is among the older Redditors. He has been active on Reddit since its inception and is well versed in the lingo and culture.
When Reddit was founded in 2005, it was an Internet free-for-all with very broad pre-established subreddit categories such as programming, science, politics, entertainment and gaming. There was also a lot of porn. By 2008, contributors were allowed to start their own subreddits for any topic area they wanted. Today there are more than 300,000 subreddits, each with its own moderator or moderating team.
Miller, who lives in Tampa Bay, Florida, moderates the subreddit /r/frugal. He grew up in inner-city Baltimore, joined the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and afterward married into a life of relative poverty. Starting out, he and his wife drove a car they bought for $100 and lived in a rented mobile home. Like his background in triage nursing, his financial tribulations helped prepare him for running a discussion about how to get by on little.
“I didn’t really enter prosperity until my thirties, and in my mid-thirties I went through a divorce,” Miller said. “I found myself with $5,000 in the bank, a lawn chair in my living room, a 15-year-old portable TV on a cardboard box and a bed. That was the full content of my possessions and a full mortgage on a house. I’ve been those places where people struggle. I see the value of having that knowledge.”
Most moderators are similarly well versed in the topic they monitor.
“We’re passionate about a subject and want to fashion a welcoming place where it can be discussed,” Jake DeBacher, 22, moderator of /r/meditation, said. DeBacher said he developed an interest in meditation in college, when he lived as a monk in monasteries in rural Japan and China while studying abroad.
Allen started /r/crappydesign after a bad experience working as a web designer. “For seven months I was forced to conform to their crappy design standards. It was extremely uncomfortable to put design work out that I knew was bad,” he said. After failed attempts at sharing the world’s worst art on blogs, he found an opportunity to start a Reddit community that has since flourished with more than 61,000 subscribers.
Most Redditors are male and between the ages of 18 and 29, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. Miller, who is something of a village elder, was among the first 1,000 or so users on the site when he began to post tidbits that he thought were fascinating. About a year later, a Reddit administrator asked him to moderate /r/frugal, which was then a new subreddit created to help people use limited resources wisely. Typical posts range from questions on how to survive on $30 for the remainder of the month to suggestions on what to do after being thrown out of your house or how to balance bills with credit card and college debt.
Now with more than 300,000 subscribers, /r/frugal is among the top 50 subreddits out of thousands on the site. Usually, a section of its size has a team of moderators, and that has at times been the case with /r/frugal. Over the years, Miller relied upon as many as 10 people on his team, and ran it solo until very recently when he added another moderator to help him.
Such administrative changes are common in the subreddit community and oversight by Reddit employees is rare unless problems are reported.
Aside from the occasional encounter with overt hostility, the work is not exactly rigorous. “It takes about an hour a day,” Miller said. He rarely takes time off from his morning routine, and logs on even on vacation. He has read every piece of /r/frugal content that has appeared on the subreddit since its start eight years ago.
On average, /r/frugal receives 50 posts a day, about 20 of which are spam, comments made by trolls or unrelated content, leaving about 30 that are relevant. The content rules are listed on the subreddit’s main page. The /r/frugal subreddit gets close to 3 million page hits a month, much more than Miller’s local newspaper, the Tampa Tribune.
Miller said his protocols are straightforward. “On /r/frugal I’m very cut and dry,” he said. “Anything with an f-bomb in it gets taken out. My criteria is that even though you’re an anonymous person with a screen name sitting in your mom’s basement, that anonymity doesn’t buy you the right to be crude or hurtful towards people. I’m very sensitive to homophobia. My brother is gay. I don’t tolerate any of that kind of stuff – gay bashing— or any racism. Basically if you couldn’t say it to your mom standing in the checkout line at the public library then it doesn’t belong on my subreddit.”
Sometimes the Redditors get reprimanded, too, and attacked by trolls at the same time. In April, the /r/technology subreddit was downgraded after a user discovered that several moderators were censoring posts that contained controversial words and phrases such as “Bitcoin,” “Snowden” and “net neutrality.” Once the moderators were outed for laying a heavy hand on the forum’s content, Reddit administrators got involved, some moderators were reprimanded and a firestorm ensued.
Calimhero, a moderator for /r/technology who was not involved with the censored posts, worked during the crisis that ensued.
“I had to work full time for the subreddit, without even the time to take a shower, for three days,” Calimhero, a 41-year-old Frenchman who goes by his Reddit moniker, said. The work involved cleaning up the section from trolls that were flooding it with degrading posts.
On a personal level, Calimhero was harassed for several days: “Users PMing [private messaging] you constantly, insulting you in every way imaginable, asking you to kill yourself, wishing for your most loved family member to get sick and die and other stuff I will not mention, following you everywhere around the site, or around the Internet if you use your username in other communities,” he said describing what most trolls do.
Trolls can range from being a nuisance to full-blown bullies that track an individual’s every online move. Miller tends to refrain from dialoguing with trolls, but in some cases he bites back.
After being banned from /r/frugal, one troll wrote to Miller: “Thanks for banning me d***c***. /Frugal is filled with the stupidest people on the net and you know it. It’s the lamest subreddit I have bothered wandering in to. Being banned is somehow flattering.”
Miller’s reply: “Every day about 300 new people arrive on r/frugal. One of them will be abusive and call other people c***s. They get banned. Yesterday you were that person.”
In one case, a banned user re-entered /r/frugal 12 times using different usernames with the sole intention of dismantling conversations. In another, less intrusive episode, someone created a new subreddit, /r/frugal_jerk, for the purpose of making fun of /r/frugal posts.
Who are these people? Yair Amichai-Hamburger, director of the Research Center for Internet Psychology in the Interdisciplinary Center Israel, located in Herzliya, says that trolls may be antisocial, neurotic or self-centered; most are young men who crave attention and have time on their hands. They usually participate in several platforms, attempting to upset multiple discussions at once.
“The trolls are basically the kind of people that enjoy provocation,” Amichai-Hamburger said. “They try to bash the moderator. For them it’s like a game. It’s the best entertainment in the world.”
Reddit supplies moderators with tools to keep the trolls at bay such as spam filters and the ability to ban users entirely from a subreddit or the site altogether. “Those things are never 100 percent,” said Joseph Laviolette, moderator of /r/woodworking.”The spam filters catch legitimate posts and comments from time to time.” Users can easily create multiple online identities to circumvent any ban.
“In this way the moderator is a loner. He gets a lot of criticism but he doesn’t get a lot of positive feedback,” Amichai-Hamburger said. “You have to be a strong, tough guy. You have to be assertive. It’s a very demanding, challenging job in a world where people feel protected.”
While Miller has been moderating for nearly nine years, Brian Timmons has been doing the job for just nine months. The Texas native is one of four moderators for /r/woodworking where both professionals and hobbyists share tricks of the trade and their latest creations from their shops. In his relatively short time as a moderator, Timmons has seen trolls but also other forms of harassment between users. In one instance, he couldn’t let the conversation slide.
“/r/woodworking has been pretty civil for the most part, but we have had problems with online sexism,” he said. In one instance, a male user posted photos of cutting boards his wife created. Comments on the thread included profane references to his wife.
Timmons said the posts were so bad he felt he had to do something beyond his typical moderator duties.
“Most of the time my capacity as a mod involves silently greasing the gears and making sure things go smoothly, but I kind of went a tad ballistic in this case,” he said. The result was a public statement he made to the community about his reaction to the derogatory comments. He said he received numerous messages from female subscribers thanking him for taking a stand.
Beyond the question of why anyone would want to be a troll, why would anyone want to be a Redditor? Most of the moderators who spoke with IBTimes said their interest is in fostering, influencing — and, in some cases, controlling — the exchange of information, whether it involves woodworking or political debate. Whatever the topic, Redditors likely feel strongly about it and want to ensure discussions are productive.
Miller’s moderating strategy harks back to his past careers in public service.
“When I was a public health officer and to a large extent as an RN, you’re an authority figure and you have to tell people no,” Miller said. “I gave barrels of narcotics to people. I had to make the decision: This writhing pain-wracked person – is it safe for me to give them one more dose of hydrocodone or morphine? That’s a heavy thing to have to tell somebody no in that context. In the same way, being a moderator, you know you have to say no. You have to be the dad. And who wants to do that?”