The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

J. Nathan Matias: The Civic Labor of Online Moderators

J. Nathan Matias, Microsoft Research

Volunteer moderators of online platforms have done fundamental work to foster social relations for over forty years. Moderators create, support, and control public discourse for millions of people, even as their uncompensated labor upholds platform funding models. In this paper, I examine the “civic labor” of moderators on the social news platform reddit, where a strike by over two thousand subreddit communities in July 2015 forced the company to meet their demands. Scholarship on volunteer moderation has tended to view this work as digital labor, civic participation, or oligarchy. In mixed-methods research with over 52,000 subreddits and over a dozen interviews, I show how the everyday meanings of moderation work are negotiated as moderators face the platform, their communities, and other moderators alike. In disputes over moderator decisions, in the process of choosing moderators, and in the governance of wider networks of many subreddits, moderators must manage their position with all three stakeholders. I also show how the recognition of this civic labor brings clarity to complex moments of collective action like the reddit blackout. Volunteer governance continues to be a common approach to managing social relations, conflict, and civil liberties online. Our ability to recognize the nature of moderation work will shape our capacity to address those challenges as a society.

J. Nathan Matias