Kim Renfro/Tech InsiderLiz Crocker is a 33-year-old graduate student and the mother of a one-year-old. Her days are spent writing a dissertation, teaching a course to PhD students at Boston University, looking after her child, and — oh yeah — dealing with internet trolls.
Why? Because Crocker is also a Reddit moderator for the main science subreddit — /r/science, which has 9.8 million subscribers. Being a Reddit mod for /r/science is a title that only belongs to Crocker and 11 others, and comes with absolutely no pay.
We recently visited Crocker at BU in order to get a better idea of what being a Reddit moderator is really like.
The day I arrived to the BU campus, Crocker had arranged a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) with one of the professors of biological anthropology.
AMAs are a large part of the /r/science community, with notable researchers and scientists working alongside the moderators to cultivate massive Q & A sessions with hundreds of thousands of eager readers.
Crocker asked Dr. Cheryl Knott, a biological anthropologist specializing in Orangutans, if she would be willing to do an AMA. Knott obliged.
"There have been fires in the Indonesia region, threating some of the Orangutan population," Crocker explained. "I thought it was a good opportunity for her to be able to talk about what she does, and get some attention to what’s been happening."
Dr. Knott was totally unfamiliar with Reddit, so Crocker sat by her side to walk her through the process.
Redditors had already begun posting questions by the time Crocker and Knott sat down. Crocker explained how to decipher what kinds of questions were coming in and how to answer them.
The AMA thread was full of flagged comments waiting for either Crocker or one of her fellow mods to check them. Red meant the comment had either been flagged for review by a regular Redditor (anyone can report a comment to the mods) or someone had already deleted it. A gentle yellow highlight indicated the comment was in the clear.
Of course, disrespectful trolls had already begun posting inappropriate questions. "You get some real a--holes sometimes," Crocker said.
Crocker has plenty of experience when it comes to dealing with trolls.
Crocker said she has to move quickly when dealing with NSFW stuff.
During Knott's AMA, one commentor had asked if the professor "shaved her bush" and also inquired about when Knott had lost her virginity. In few swift clicks, Crocker was able to ding the comment before Knott noticed it.
Crocker showed me Reddit's "automoderator," which mods can use to automatically filter out really obvious trolls using specific keywords. "Everything from Star Wars spoilers to image hosting sites automatically get removed," Liz said. "We have banned domains, most of which are porn, but some of them are also just bad pseudo-science sites."
But as you can see with the pubic hair comment, not everything gets filtered.
Crocker and her fellows mods use the chat app Slack to stay in touch throughout the day.
"We happen to have a person on our team who’s just amazing with Slack," Crocker said. "They create a whole lot of integrations [between Slack and Reddit]."
One helpful feature includes a Mozilla extension for flagging bad posts. In addition to the 12 full-time moderators, there are close to 900 comment moderators. Those users don't have full permissions to make changes to the site like the full-time mods do, but they serve as an army of surveyors who can spot smaller offenses that might get past Crocker and her 11 counterparts.
In order to become a comment moderator for /r/science, you have to hold a Bachelor's of Science degree. "Then we’ll check and make sure they aren’t troll," Crocker explained.
When an approved comment mods flag an unsavory post, it automatically shows up in the Slack chatroom for full-time mods.
Crocker joined Reddit about three years ago. She first became a full-time mod on /r/AskAnthropology, a much smaller subreddit with about 25,000 subscribers.
"I got asked to moderate mostly because I was really active on that page," Crocker said. She was invited to join the /r/science team when the lead moderator there, a user named Nallen, decided they needed a social scientist.
"They get a lot of social science stuff that comes through,"Crocker said. "It can be hard for someone who has a chemistry background, for instance, to answer those kinds of questions."
By having active mods with different science backgrounds, the team is guaranteed coverage on all types of discussions that may crop up on the subreddit. Crocker is the team's experienced anthropologist.
Meanwhile, Crocker and Knott continued to do the AMA.
Crocker says the amount of time she spends modding amounts to more than she wants to admit.
She checks the site in the morning, between cooking breakfast and getting ready. "I do a lot on the T [Boston's transporation system] which is very convenient. It’s something I do in between things, like waiting for a class or a meeting to start," she said. "It’s always in the background."
Nallen, the head moderator (Crocker called him their "fearless leader"), has given the team a clear philosophy. "He says Reddit should always come second," she said, repeating his mantra. "Don’t ever let anything happening on Reddit be so stressful or upsetting that its impacting your real life."
If you want to be a Reddit mod, it really has to be something you're passionate about, because you're never going to get paid for it.
According to Reddit rules and regulations, all subreddit moderators must be unpaid and work on a volunteer basis. They cannot even crowdsource funds to go to meetups or conventions, as it would be viewed as accepting compensation for their efforts. For this reason, the team is very flexible with allowing new volunteers and existing ones to cycle in and out of their duties.
Crocker recently traveled to her hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana to spend time with her mom and there was no issue with her taking some time away from her mod job.
Sometimes things get overwhelming. One especially tough day was when a professor did an AMA about preventing sexual assaults on college campuses.
"It got so heavily brigaded by people who were just really upset,"Crocker said. "This one was really difficult to moderate." Brigading is a term for mass downvoting/harassment concentrated on a post by a single group, usually from an outside subreddit or website.
The AMA was focused on Professor Laura Salazar's efforts to minimize on-campus sexual assaults, but the conversation quickly derailed into men's rights.
Crocker still enjoys using the site herself. Her dissertation focuses on voodoo religions, so she keeps an eye on /r/occult.
Despite her love for Reddit, and her dedication to maintaining the scientific integrity of her moderated subreddits,Crocker realizes there are downsides to the herd mentality of Reddit.
"You don’t want Reddit to be something you're neccesrarily embarassed to admit you participate in," she explained when I asked about its lackluster reputation. This past July, the Reddit admins banished several distasteful (if not illegal) subreddits dedicated to fat-shaming, transphobia, and "creepshots" of children.
"There are obviously little spaces of the site that are amazing and wonderful and great things happen there, and then there are spaces where horrible things happen,"Crocker said. "When those two meet, it’s not pretty."
If you want to become a moderator, you have to start at the bottom.
"Once you figure out a lot of the jokes and references that are happening it’s exciting because you’re 'in' and then you really start realizing you can make more of a contribution,"Crocker said.
The smaller subreddits are perfect for this because they often foster a more friendly sense of community. As Crocker pointed out, more people are likely to see your comment if there are less voices in the forum.
Becoming a mod or comment mod in these smaller subreddits can be as easy as providing several detailed comments and receiving an invitation from an existing moderator. Others actually have forms you have to fill out, just like applying for a job.
"For /r/anthropology, you have to put examples of quality comments that you’ve made, or give them some kind of background, who you are, why you want to become a moderator, how many hours per week you can dedicate,"Crocker explained.
For now, moderating keeps Crocker plenty busy along with her academic studies at BU.
"To pay bills, I am a graduate reasearch assistant at the Division of Emerging Media Studies, and I co-teach a course for the PhD students,"Crocker explained.
She's completed her entire PhD program with the exception of her final dissertation, a study on "Haitian Voodoo practitioners in the greater Boston area and the way they are attempting to tap into the framework for public American religion."
To reap the benefits of her (and her fellow mods) hard work, follow their AMA series on /r/science.
And don't forgot to downvote the trolls.