In this post I’m going to share my experience with r/androiddev subreddit and provide feedback to its moderators.
If you don’t care about r/androiddev, or you’re only interested in technical content, or you don’t like a bit of Reddit drama, then don’t read any further. There is nothing useful or interesting for you this time.
Why I Write This Post
Following recent events (which I’ll describe later), I had been contemplating whether I should share my opinion and decided that I shouldn’t. See, even though my name was all over these events, I wasn’t really involved in them as I had been experimenting with getting off social networks at that time. In addition, I wasn’t even sure my input will be taken into account.
However, moderators of r/androiddev explicitly asked for our feedback and I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt and summarize my thoughts. However, the current climate on that subreddit is unpredictable and I suspect that part of my feedback will constitute a violation of the current rules. Since I don’t want to invest hours of my time and then risk all this text being removed by mods, I decided to provide the feedback on my own terms. That’s what you’re about to read.
My Experience with r/androiddev
For the past two or three years, r/androiddev has been my main source of information about Android development. There are many experienced developers from all around the world there and the depths of technical discussions on that subreddit are (were?) unparalleled.
That said, my time on r/androiddev wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. I’ve been called all kinds of names. My opinions and predictions were ridiculed. Several users seemingly declared vendetta on me and were constantly writing nonsense replies to my posts and attempting to drag me into personal arguments. These were unpleasant experiences, but I don’t consider myself a victim and I surely wouldn’t want mods to step in to “protect” me.
Now, I’m sure that I also contributed my share of unprofessional content. Some developers even took offense in what I wrote.
Most notably, I know that one person is still mad at me for this “penis joke”. To be honest, I still think it’s very funny and it’s also a great analogy, but it was indeed unprofessional. Apparently, at least one developer thinks that it was a real “dick contest” and that I indeed know the length of my instrument. Am I the only one who finds this hilariously funny? Well, I’m a flawed human being.
All in all, for me, personally, participation on r/androiddev was extremely positive. In addition, I got to meet some of the members of that community in real life, which is as good as it gets. Slight bumps here and there aren’t something I’m concerned about because conflicts are the reality of life and I don’t really expect internet to change that.
Harassment and Toxicity
Recently, I started to notice the words “harassment” and “toxicity” being thrown around by moderators and regular users of r/androiddev quite often.
As I wrote above, I did have some unpleasant interactions on that subreddit. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m one of the most “harassed” users there (or even the most “harassed” one) because I hold quite a bit of unpopular opinions. However, I don’t consider myself a victim and I don’t think that the overall atmosphere on r/androiddev is much worse than what I experienced in heated face-to-face discussions before.
There is also a concern about new developers feeling unwelcome or something like that. I can totally relate to the general sentiment, but I believe that the extent of this specific “problem” is way smaller than many well-intending developers would estimate.
All in all, honestly, I don’t understand what people imply when they proclaim “we’re against harassment” or “this place became toxic lately”. As far as I can tell, this usually means “I don’t agree or like <something or someone>”. In other cases, people seem to just over-react to singular events.
When people from different cultures come together, it’s always a recipe for misunderstandings and conflicts.
For example, when I work with folks from US, I’m constantly on my toes because when they say “it’s fine”, it isn’t necessarily fine. It’s totally possible that they are just being polite. When they smile, they aren’t necessarily having a good time either. And, surely, if these are my clients, I better be careful expressing my opinion, especially if it’s negative. On the other hand, the same lengthy, polite and indirect approach that works so well in US might be seen as offensive in other parts of the world where direct communication is a sign of respect and trust.
Is US culture of communication bad? Of course not. It’s just different from the one I’m accustomed to. I’m also pretty sure that it’s not really a single culture either. US is very big and it’s very probable that different places in US differ on a cultural level quite substantially.
There are also different hierarchical structures of varying importance in different cultures. In Israel, an entry-level employee at a big corporation can share their feedback with CEO directly during happy hour or any other encounter. In Russia, the chances of an entry-level employee to even just meet the CEO are much lower, and I can hardly imagine a situation where it would be appropriate for the employee to start a conversation first.
The above are just basic examples, but their implications are profound. I could list additional factors from just my personal experience, like religion, geography, education, etc., but I hope you get the point. Cultural differences are real barrier to communication.
On online forums, however, the issue of inter-cultural communication becomes practically unsolvable because there are too many cultures there and you don’t even know where most of the participants come from. Is it possible to distill a common universal denominator of “non-offensive and inclusive” communication from all cultures? Theoretically, yes. However, I haven’t seen anyone manage to get there in practice and these attempts seem to backfire quite often. In addition, this surely creates a lot of frustration because many people will inevitably feel that they are being censored, or, at least, that their manner of communication is seen as lacking or even inferior.
Now, let’s get back to r/androiddev. It’s an online forum where developers from all around the world meet. Therefore, it’s only natural that there will be tensions and misunderstandings due to solely cultural differences. Is it moderators’ job to be responsible for “flattening” cultural differences and do they have the tools to achieve that goal? I don’t think so.
But they still seem to attempt to do that. Otherwise, I can’t explain this:
I guess the mod felt that this was a reasonable remark in that situation, but it left me speechless when I saw it.
See, my standard for online communication is simple: don’t post online anything you wouldn’t tell in face-to-face conversation. To project the above situation onto the real world, imagine yourself standing with a group of colleagues (or even just random devs) and discussing why a prominent dev left their previous employer. Now imagine that another colleague (or a random dev) comes along and says that it’s not OK to speculate like that. In my country, that colleague would probably be called party-pooper and/or laughed off. If they’d try to exercise any kind of authority to force compliance in this context, that would lead to… not sure. I can’t even imagine this. But if this would happen, it would end up in a major conflict.
Yet, this mod apparently thinks that teaching manners to adults whom they don’t even know is acceptable. This must be a matter of cultural differences, right?
Banning of Zhuinden
Now I want to share my opinion about the situation around the ban of user Zhuinden (real name: Gabor Varadi) from r/androiddev. These events took place when I was on a self-imposed distancing from social networks, so I had to catch up with what had happened post-factum.
As far as I understand, a new rule (number 10) was added that stated: “Be respectful and engage in good faith”. Sounds pretty reasonable on the surface. However, Gabor immediately identified a major flaw in this rule:
I fully agree with Gabor here. “Bad faith” is such a subjective and culture-dependent definition, that this rule was destined to either be ignored, or cause major tensions between regular redditors and mods. Especially when they wouldn’t come from similar cultures, which is, probably, the case in many interactions.
Then, this interaction took place in comments section of one post:
Now, even though I’m perfectly aware of cultural differences, I can’t understand how the first “violating” comment is “bad faith” in any reasonable cultural framework. Gabor just repeated professional claims by another developer and made it clear that he doesn’t agree with them. In his opinion, the integrity and quality of someone’s technical recommendations over time should be factored in when you decide whether to take another advice from them. Sounds damn right to me. I’m really curious how mods expect developers to discuss technical topics if they can’t criticize others’ opinions.
Or, maybe, the mod took issue with the quotes themselves? If that’s the case, does it mean that you’ll have to provide formal references when you quote others and mods will fact check every single comment starting now? Sounds “a bit” unpractical.
And what exactly “piling on an individual” means? I would imagine a group of people attacking a single person, but that’s not what happened here. Instead, there are just two experienced developers here warning others that they should approach another dev’s opinion with caution. Sounds reasonable to me. What’s the reason for this restriction and how it will be enforced anyway? For example, if I say something really stupid, like “there is no need for native Android development anymore”, will mods disallow other developers to “pile on me”: “Sorry folks, only one critical response allowed, no matter how stupid the original claim was”. Yeah, sure.
In addition, when reading mod’s warning, I once again feel uncomfortable because observing someone teaching other adult manners is just awkward and even cringy.
All in all, as far as I’m concerned, the first violation in this case isn’t a violation at all, but either bad mod’s mistake, or something worse than that.
Second “violation” is a bit more nuanced. I can understand how that Gabor’s statement might’ve read offensive to someone coming from a western culture. However, I can also see how it wasn’t meant as that.
If you think about it for a moment, “it literally only seems to exist in the head of the mod who defined the rule” means “mods seem to have a clear picture about this rule in mind, while we don’t have any means to access that information”. It’s basically a criticism of not being transparent about this specific rule and an invitation to elaborate its definition. Could Gabor phrase that better? Undoubtedly. Is this something you should be banned for? I don’t think so.
This second violation is all about cultural differences and language barrier in my opinion. Most redditors aren’t native English speakers and that’s something that must be taken into account. I can speak only for myself here, but, personally, I constantly use the wrong words and idioms.
For example, I once gave a presentation on a delicate matter to COO and VP R&D of a company and concluded with “thus, I rest my case”. I wanted to say that I finished my presentation and would like to hear their opinion, but, instead, I watched two pairs of eyebrows raise so high that I immediately understood that I fucked up. Luckily for me, we’ve already had a relationship by that point, so I was given a chance to clear things up.
In my opinion, anyone who is involved in any global community should give non-native speakers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to interpretation of what they say. Heck, not just non-native speakers – everybody should be given the benefit of the doubt. Poe’s law, for example, is a real phenomenon. This kind of good will is especially important for people who have the power to affect others, like moderators. If they judge others too fast, they will also act too fast.
For instance, I wouldn’t be surprised if “exists only in one’s head” is an idiom in Hungarian that Gabor translated to English. But even if that’s not the case, I’d guess that he didn’t try to offend by saying that, but rather tried to provide important feedback about a completely new rule to the mod. Once again, Gabor could put his feedback into a better form, but I don’t see how complaining about unclear rules should result in a ban.
In response to these two “violations”, Gabor was banned for a week. He received this message from the mods:
As far as I can tell, up until this point, this incident had been entirely mod’s overreaction. This was a new rule. It was (and still is) unclear. There was seemingly no valid basis for the first “violation”. The mod (I guess that it’s the same one) did not extend to Gabor the benefit of the doubt, appropriate for non-native English speaker, and interpreted criticism of rule’s definition in personal and the most negative way. I just don’t see a valid reason for that temporal ban.
Apparently, after he was temporally banned, Gabor took his frustration with this decision to other subreddits and Twitter. This led to him being banned permanently.
The fact of perma-ban was communicated to Gabor in the following manner:
Now, I don’t know whether what Gabor did was against Reddit’s rules, or whether he took his criticism too far, or whether he indeed “harassed the mod over Twitter”. What I do know, however, is that reading this mod-mail now, weeks after the events took place, makes me angry.
Let’s go over what’s wrong here.
First, mods claim now that Gabor “tried to slander non-present person with some misleading, uverified quotes”. Really, mods? Who the hell decided that the quotes were misleading and how exactly would you expect Gabor to verify them? Seems like mods imply that Gabor should’ve provided some kind of reference when he quoted that dev. Is this the standard that’s going to be applied to every single quotation going forward on r/androiddev? And what exactly “non-present” has to do with it? If I’d like to disagree with something Uncle Bob said in the future, do you expect me to invite him over and wait before he announces his presence? There is also a question of how exactly did mods know that someone wouldn’t be present in the discussion, but it’s really the least important part here.
All in all, I’m simply amazed how mods managed to pack so much nonsense and absurd in this one single sentence.
Then we have the “lashed out at a mod” part. As I already said, Gabor could surely phrase his criticism better. However, even assuming mods come from the most polite and indirect culture, I still can’t see how Gabor’s response was “lashing out”.
Then mods wrote: “appearing to imply that you were some sort of a victim”. I’m sorry, what? What?! It must be a cultural difference, but this reads to me as a direct, personal and serious insult. In my culture, we say “never again” to acknowledge a specific victimhood event in the past and assure ourselves that we’re not going to be victims again, ever. Being accused of playing a victim for me is the same as being accused of weakness, inability to take care of yourself and sneakiness. If mods would write me “you appear to imply that you’re a victim”, I would probably lose my shit immediately.
But even if mods come from a culture where “playing a victim” isn’t a big deal, is this form of communication valid? After all, that’s just their personal, subjective judgement. Is it acceptable for mods to share this kind of judgements with redditors when they ban them for life? Is it even withing mods’ obligations and rights to share any personal judgements?
But it gets worse, because mods actually accused Gabor of “playing a victim” twice in this message. I better stop discussing this point now because it makes me too angry, but I hope you got the idea how bad of an insult they inflicted on a person they perma-banned in my opinion.
Then we have the “harass a mod over Twitter” part. What does this even mean? Are we talking about just posting the screenshots from Reddit on Twitter? Or, maybe, tagging someone who explicitly associated his Twitter account with mod activities is a harassment now? What specifically do mods mean by “harassment” here? Somehow, I suspect that what actually happened wouldn’t fit even the strictest definitions of “harassment”. Mods should’ve really specified the facts that led to this ban, not their subjective interpretation.
And then the last part: “we’re unsure what your expected outcome was”. I’m not even sure why mods decided to add this statement, but it reads horrible. What I see here is some kind of triumphant announcement: “mortal, we were watching your meaningless efforts, but now we’re done with you and you get to see the power of gods”. Alright, maybe I exaggerated a bit, but this last sentence really reads as some kind of triumphant announcement from the higher-ups. It leaves very bad taste.
All in all, if you’d ask me to design the most insulting, provocative and condescending perma-ban announcement, I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything better than the above mod-mail. In my opinion, it deserves to be adopted by Reddit as the prime example of how mods shouldn’t communicate with other users.
You’d think that it can’t get any worse than this, but, surprise, surprise, it got much worse than that.
After being perma-banned, Gabor wrote an article summarizing his view of these events. The contents of this article are largely irrelevant. To be honest, when I read it, I just got an impression that Gabor was very angry. Summarizing this topic now, I can see why that would be the only reasonable outcome.
Anyway, someone shared that article on r/androiddev (Gabor obviously couldn’t do that) and it exploded. I honestly can’t remember any other post which would get that many medals (however these things are called) on this subreddit. More importantly, the feedback from the community was as uniform as it gets on the internet and can be roughly summarized as: “WTF?!”. I don’t really believe that moderation decisions or even policies should be decided by majority vote, but it’s still an interesting observation.
What followed, however, is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever came across on Reddit (including that story of a guy who lost a candy in the wrong place at a wrong time, if you know what I mean).
At some point, mods posted this sticky comment in that discussion:
This is plain character assassination attempt on an individual redditor by the moderation team.
It’s a major violation of their own rule 10 with all the slander, piling on, etc. nonsense. In addition, I think it’s also a violation of some unwritten moral code. You’ve just banned an active contributor for life, announced it to him in the most egregious manner, and now you add insult to injury and go after his character?! Even if the statements in that comment would be true, which I doubt (more on that later), I don’t think it’s appropriate for moderators to attempt character assassination. They could say that they decided to ban Gabor due to specific events, they could specify the facts, but “has a tendency for online doxxing behavior”?! Who the hell mods think they are, commission of psychologists?
Now, I’ve had many discussions with Gabor online and even met him in real life once. I think I can call him my internet friend, but I can’t vouch for him personally because I don’t really know him. However, what’s described in that mods’ comment goes contrary to what I’ve seen from Gabor over past couple of years. If I wouldn’t know they’re talking about him, I’d assume they refer to some really despicable person.
As far as I can tell, there is at least one misleading claim in that comment: “no one gets banned for asking about rules”. Gabor had been literally temp-banned for criticizing the lack of transparency with rule 10. Yeah, he didn’t exactly “ask”, but the fact remains: he got banned just for that.
I suspect that “doxxing” accusation by mods, which is extremely serious matter in general, wouldn’t stand a closer inspection of facts. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that “doxxing” in this case is analogous to me referring to Zhuinden as Gabor in this post, and later tagging him on Twitter to make sure he read it. I can easily reach to him and ask whether he’d mind me making this association, but I don’t see any reason to do that because Gabor explicitly and openly associates his activity on Reddit, Twitter and StackOverflow. I don’t disclose anything about him here which he haven’t already disclosed himself, many times. Am I doxxing him now? I don’t think so.
And, of course, the horrible smell around this mods’ comment was made so much worse by the fact that they used mod tools to pin it to the top and basically hijack community discussion. I guess every single redditor who entered that post read mods’ opinion about Gabor. That’s something that goes far beyond online forums and can hurt Gabor’s real-world reputation and employment prospects in the future. It’s so disgusting and immoral that I’d recommend everyone involved in that comment to take a very close look in the mirror.
The feedback mods received for that comment was quick, short and uniform. It can be summarized as: “these accusations are so serious that you must support them with evidence now”. I haven’t seen any evidence so far. Furthermore, at some later point, mods decided to remove that discussion entirely (you can still see it using a direct link).
All in all, in my opinion, the events around Zhuinden’s ban can be summarized as moderation fiasco and abuse of moderation tools to carry out full-blown character assassination of a banned user.
Differential Rules Enforcement
Must moderators enforce the rules equally? I’d guess that they are. If that’s the case, the current moderation team might be failing in this regard.
Zhuinden was the first one to make me think about this issue. In one of the edits of that comment which got him temporal ban he noted that it’s strange that mod instructs them not “to pile up on individual”, while the entire thread is kind of pile up on me. To be honest, I don’t see it that way, but Gabor’s mention did stick with me. Then, after Gabor had been banned, several redditors asked mods for clarifications on what seems to be different level of enforcement of the policies around me and him.
Now, that several people pointed that out, I started noticing a pattern. For example, in the same mods announcement where they ask for our feedback, the “best” comment contains this paragraph:
So, I’m an ass sometimes and a real jerk too.
Interestingly, at least two moderators replied in this comment’s thread, but, seemingly, none of them had any problem with these statements. I understand that they wouldn’t want to remove valuable feedback after they asked for it, but they could easily ask that user to edit that out. None of them did.
Let me make it crystal clear: I don’t have problem with this statement and I, personally, wouldn’t like mods to step in for me here. I see the context and understand that this user just said that as part of another claim. They probably didn’t even realize that anyone would see these statements as offensive. In addition, after a while on Reddit, you start noticing active users and get to know them a bit. I don’t remember this user to be “bad faith” player, even though we disagreed quite a lot. Therefore, I’m absolutely sure that if I’d just write a short comment stating that I don’t like this manner of speech, they’d remove that and apologize. But, again, given the context, I don’t mind.
However, given what Gabor was banned for, the fact that none of the mods had issue with these statements is puzzling. Maybe in their culture it’s alright to call people you don’t know “ass” and “jerk”, but I doubt so. In addition, given how hard they pressed Gabor for “unverified” quotes, I’d expect them to at least ask that commenter to support their claims in some way.
Do mods have something against Gabor and/or me personally which makes them treat us differently? I can’t tell for sure. When Gabor said that his ban is a personal matter I thought: “you’re just angry, mate”. However, now that I see how mods overreacted to Gabor’s criticism, how they pressed him, the way they communicated with him and how they went after his character, it doesn’t sound too crazy anymore. Combined with what looks like turning a blind eye to attacks on me, this looks even more plausible.
By the way, this discussion of me being an “ass” reminded me of something from the past. A user posted the results of his work on r/androiddev and one of the mods replied with this:
Remember the term “lash out” that mods used in their communication with Gabor? In my opinion, the above mod’s comment is an example of “lashing out”, as opposed to Gabor’s criticism. This was so out of touch with what I saw as a great job and it felt so personal that I immediately responded to this mod. The discussion that followed contained this exchange:
In light of what happened to Zhuinden, the above mod’s reply didn’t age well.
The original comment has been deleted since, so I guess this mod realized that they were in the wrong here, but it still raises a question whether mods should be subject to the same rules and held up to the same standards as other users.
My Feedback to Moderators of r/androiddev
In light of everything you’ve read so far, I can say the following.
There is real leadership and moderation crisis on r/androiddev and it’s not something you fix with tweaking the rules a bit. Therefore, the fact that mods ask for our feedback on the current rules won’t improve the situation in my opinion.
For me, personally, the main question now is whether mods on that subreddit are trustworthy and whether they possess the basic human decency. That attempt at character assassination they carried out against Gabor is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen on Reddit and it’s not something you can shove under the rug.
As I see it, mods must do either of two things now: provide rock-solid evidence for their claims against Zhuinden, or publicly acknowledge their mistake and apologize before Zhuinden, and then before other r/androiddev users.
If they choose the first route and there is indeed such evidence, it might get Gabor banned from Reddit entirely. I’d be sorry if this happens, but now it’s not about Gabor, me, or even the entire moderation team anymore. It’s about the future of that subreddit where thousands of developers exchange ideas on a daily basis.
If they choose the second route, they must make sure that their apology is at least as prominent and as visible as the original attack.
Before either of the two happens, I don’t think I’ll be able to trust any of the mods on that team anymore.
By the way, issuing an apology to Zhuinden wouldn’t mean he must be unbanned. These are two orthogonal concerns. The resolution of character assassination attempt is important for the integrity of the community and the moderation team. The status of Zhuinden is something that mods team can discuss after they get their act together and restore the trust of the community.
If mods can get past the point of mistrust, the next logical step would be to define who are the target audience of r/androiddev. Are these the experienced devs, or the new ones? Corporate employees, freelancers, or indies? This decision will make it clear for whom that subreddit will be optimized. It’s also possible to go for the largest possible group of developers, but, then, everybody will need to compromise on their experience a bit (I’d vote for that).
Then there is a question of moderators’ role. If mods think that they should teach other users manners, and they’ll be micro-managing our discussions and removing comments left and right, I am, personally, going into full read-only mode. Not interested to contribute on these terms. In general, I don’t trust people who push “be nice, polite, inclusive, etc.” narratives because even in the best case it looks like these people just try to force everyone to comply to their specific culture. Worst case we’re talking about people who just enjoy controlling what others can or can’t say.
In my estimation, if moderation team will be able to get out of the hole they dig to themselves, clearly define the purpose of that subreddit and also realize that other redditors are mostly adults who don’t need babysitters, the questions about rules will resolve quickly and naturally.
That was my feedback to moderators of r/androiddev. I’m sure it’s not exactly what they asked for, but, as I said at the beginning, I provide this feedback on my own terms and also give them the benefit of the doubt. After all, I believe that there are no universally bad people here and most of these issues boil down to cultural differences.
Will r/androiddev die if the current problems aren’t addressed? Probably not, because it’s past the critical point of inertia. However, in my estimation, the mistrust towards mods and the fact that they feel entitled to teach us manners will discourage participation from the most active members in the foreseeable future. I’m sure that we all wouldn’t want that to happen.
Lastly, I’d like to remind you to keep things in proportion. After all, we’re still talking just about a single internet forum here. Even if we’ll lose it, it’s really not the end of the world.
Thanks for reading. You can leave your comments and questions below.