If I were an eccentric billionaire, I’d fund “the reddit mayors” of the world.
Not just on reddit, of course. I’m talking about the people doing journalism and high quality work, in the place where people actually are. I’m thinking about the mods of /r/askreddit, or people making incredibly good longform youtube video, or the people who write really long, thoughtful comments consistently on whichever platform. I call them the mayors (and reporters) of the internet.
When there’s a world crisis, or a big spot of news, or even just on a random day in response to a viral video, look for the helpers. The people who set up megathreads, or crowdsource amazingly detailed annotated maps, or triage a beautiful wikipedia article. They’re doing valuable, unpaid, and important work journalism and civil society. They’re the stewards of truly giant communities. Often, very real communities.
It’s beautiful that they are doing it for free (and many have been for well over a decade). But that won’t last forever.
Let’s look at subreddit moderators as an example. They do work as a labor of love, and that’s amazing. But what happens when they burnt out? What happens when they get old, and “retire”? Who will replace them?
I worry that the people who will replace the founding “greatest generation online” will be motivated not by the aughts-era patriotism of The Internet, but by ideological and financial motives. Not because the next generation will be composed of worse people. It won’t! But because the value of capturing a subreddit, or of being a star wikipedia editor, is so high, that it’ll be very attractive for outside organizations to subsidize their own people to do it. And the motivations of those outside organizations won’t be pure.
As /u/qgyh2 and other mods of /r/worldnews retire, who will they choose as their successors? Presumably the people they’ve found to be helpful, civic-minded, amazingly productive, and a pleasure to work with. An intelligence agency (for example), has the resources and motivation to pay a person (or team of people) to be that helpful star recruit. Normal people wouldn’t be able to compete. And once that agent is in, then they have access to a lot of power they can abuse.
Imagine what an intelligence agency would do with the control of a chunk of the default news ecosystem of tends of millions of people. Iran pushing articles in /r/worldnews that embarrass Israel or the US. India getting their mods in to push anti-muslim, or anti-China articles. Heck, imagine what a company would do. It doesn’t need to get outlandish — imagine Tesla secretly placing mods in control of /r/technology, or Sony eventually gaining control of top wikipedia editors.
It doesn’t take a lot of money to do this sabotage. Just some labor costs and patience.
That’s why we need an eccentric billionaire to stop this from happening. All they need to do is start paying a basic income to the mayors of reddit (and Wikipedia, and perhaps other platforms). Suddenly, we’re no longer depending on the goodwill of volunteers as our thin blue line. Suddenly, we have inoculated moderators from many of the temptations of corruption. And if that funding is stable and committed, potential future moderators can devote more time to doing good work, because they know there’s a payoff at the end.
There are still pockets of the good-spirited, volunteer internet left. They underpin so much of our society. But remember Heartbleed? Turns out that OpenSSL, a key component of a secure internet, used by billions of people and untold software projects was actually just maintained by two people. That system “worked” — until it didn’t. To disastrous effect. And now open source funding is a little bit better.
I don’t think we will have a dramatic wake up call for the mayors of the internet like we did with Heartbleed. Instead, things will get worse and worse, gradually and subtly. Until one day we look around and see that the last pockets of the civic-minded web have been corrupted away.