Interview with r/UCSD Moderator Team

With nearly 50,000 members and growing, r/UCSD has become a hub for everything UCSD-related: advice, memes, news, and more. Behind this success is a dedicated team of moderators, who gave The UCSD Guardian a peek into what goes on behind the scenes of UCSD’s largest online community.

This was not your typical Zoom call. Upon joining, each participant edited their display names to include their Reddit usernames in parentheses. From then on, they referred to each other by their usernames: Kavhow, cry-ton, Aber2346, ImperialRedditer, absolutelycurtainss, and tornato7.

For the moderators of UC San Diego’s subreddit, r/UCSD, this interview was their “face reveal.” They had previously only communicated through Discord messages. At a school with over 40,000 students, it turned out to be a small world. Aber2346 and cry-ton had attended the same high school, and absolutelycurtainss and Kavhow recognized each other from a Making of the Modern World (MMW) discussion class. 

Making up this team of five active moderators and one former moderator are a third-year Computer Science major, a fourth-year Mechanical Engineering major, a third-year Electrical Engineering major, a third-year Cognitive Science major, a Mathematics-Computer Science graduate from 2018, and a Physics graduate from 2017. 

Before becoming moderators, they actively answered questions and posted memes on the subreddit. Eventually, they joined through various ways: cry-ton and Kavhow asked to join the team, ImperialRedditer and Aber2346 were invited onboard, and absolutelycurtainss attracted attention with her memes. All of them wanted to improve the state of the subreddit. 

r/UCSD began in September 2009, when a user named robotmermaid claimed the subreddit’s URL. However, the team credits another user named spleeyah as the subreddit’s founder — he became the subreddit’s moderator and made its first posts in October 2010. Today, spleeyah is still on the moderator team to address emergencies. Most of the other currently active moderators joined the team more recently in 2019.

As of January 2021, the subreddit boasts over 47k members — a huge leap from the 10k subscribers from January 2018. This gain in traction, which, coincidentally or not, coincided with the onboarding of moderators like Kavhow and cry-ton who revamped the subreddit in 2019. The largest contributor to the subreddit’s growth was the transition of Reddit from a “nerdy platform” to one that everyone, not just gamers and memeable options traders, began to use, speculated Kavhow. The anonymity of having a Reddit account also boosted success. 

“You’re judged based off of the content of your character and the things that you post, rather than any preconceived notions of who you are,” absolutelycurtainss said. 

Additionally, the subreddit filled an information gap in the online UCSD community. According to cry-ton, the Facebook Group “UCSD Memes for Sleep Deprived Teens” — UCSD’s other major online community — was “a little too informal and decentralized,” and official UCSD webpages didn’t provide a personalized resource of students’ perspectives and advice. Meanwhile, r/UCSD allowed students to ask questions about classes and the university. It eventually became a collective of different topics, ImperialRedditer explained, whether it was drama from one class or key issues at the university.

“I think there are a lot of people who check the subreddit more than they check their UCSD emails,” Kavhow said. A visit to the subreddit’s front page shows upvoted posts that have been “vetted by your peers for how important it is and how noteworthy,” bypassing the “extra stuff that you get sent everyday.” The subreddit also helps in spreading petitions, promoting club events, creating study groups, and connecting official organizations and departments at UCSD to the student base. UCSD groups like the Police Department, ITS, and Associated Students have made Reddit accounts and worked with the team to establish their presence.

Thanks to its unique and valuable services, the subreddit has evolved into a gathering place for UCSD community members — students, applicants, alumni, faculty, staff, and even a provost — to post memes, share grievances, and discuss news in an “unbiased setting.” In a way, r/UCSD has replaced Library Walk during quarantine. 

“In March [2020], we had like 4 million page views,” Kavhow said. “We have more subscribers than there are students at UCSD now.”

To organize this activity and ensure the safety of the online community, the team described its approach to moderation. As a group, they strive to create clear rules for posting and apply objectivity to their moderation decisions. In cases of confusion and unclarity, they take to their Discord server to deliberate — “Do we remove this post? Does this user get a ban? A one-week ban, a permaban?” explained Kavhow. The team tries to “democratize it internally.”

This conscientious process helps the moderators in dealing with controversial posts. Two examples of such posts, both from the past month, come to mind. One is about a student’s comment on Piazza in COGS 9, which spurred a flurry of “duplicate” posts that quickly swamped the subreddit. To keep the subreddit on-topic and organized, the team redirected all posts about the Piazza comment to a megathread. The other, Aber2346 described, is an image post of “somebody who was at a Starbucks in the UTC area wearing some kind of motorcycle shirt, and it had the SS logo on it.”

“It was completely unacceptable to be wearing that in public,” he said. “So it was up to us to decide, like, okay, how do we want to monitor this? Do we want to keep the post up, or do we want to lock the comments? [We want to] allow students to share their outrage over this post, but also while not leading to a witch hunt.” In the end, the team’s official decision was to leave the post up and monitor it closely, banning comments that used slurs and went against subreddit rules.

Another moderation challenge has been handling the subreddit’s influx of negative posts over the past year. 

“We don’t want to censor, and for a lot of people, our subreddit is one of the only places they can come on and vent,” absolutelycurtainss said. “But, like, in November [2020], it was really difficult because we would have a post that just said, like, ‘I’m depressed, bottom text,’ and then it’d get 300 upvotes. And it was just that over and over again.” This widespread negativity was difficult to deal with as a moderator. “I don’t want it to be a super negative place, but silencing people’s feelings won’t really help the situation either,” she said.

Other moderators agreed that this past November was a strenuous time for UCSD’s online community. “You had the election, you had quarantine,” explained Kavhow, along with finals and news that Winter Quarter 2021 was going remote for most classes. 

“Normally people would go to their friends and vent about things directly to them,” cry-ton added. “But that obviously isn’t really much of an option right now.”

However, absolutelycurtainss highlighted a distinction. “Even the negativity we do have, for the most part it is directed in a very constructive way — less towards fellow students and more towards systemic problems. For example, the pass/no pass,” she said, alluding to the student body’s successful petitioning of the University to allow for P/NP petitions for Fall Quarter 2020, which had garnered strong support through r/UCSD. “So I definitely see it as a very positive community [with] students looking out for other students.”

Posts by struggling, stressed-out students often meet an outpouring of support from the subreddit community. Commenters typically share similar stories, advice, and information for UCSD’s Counseling and Psychology Services and other mental health resources. 

“College can get hard, and I think the communal aspect of the subreddit does tend to shine in certain situations,” observed cry-ton. “And it’s good to be reminded that, you know, despite how the reputation can get sometimes, this school really does have a lot of kind-hearted people who just try to look out for each other.” 

Much of the positivity on the subreddit is the result of the moderation team’s staunch efforts to crack down on hate and trolls. One thing that surprised the moderators when joining the team was the amount of Nazism they encountered. While not common on the subreddit, the team sees instances of it every few months. 

Some moderators also recalled the “worst” things they have experienced while moderating. tornato7 recounted an incident in which someone had “made probably like 100 different accounts,” left “nasty messages,” impersonated him, and “threatened to track [him] down,” which eventually ended by involving official Reddit administrators. Aber2346 shared the time when somebody posted information of where their ex worked and threatened to post “a revenge clip.” “That was really disgusting,” he recalled, mentioning that the incident prompted him to take a break from moderating. 

Other moderators have also taken mental health breaks due to the overwhelming amount of work that accompanies running the subreddit. tornato7, who is also a moderator on the subreddit r/BuyItForLife which currently has 875k members, claimed that running r/BuyItForLife “takes one-tenth the moderating that r/UCSD does.” There were over 2,000 posts on r/UCSD in December 2019 alone. “A lot of times, I just want to just read the subreddit and not have to worry about it,” admitted Kavhow.

The team’s work is often left unappreciated, and even sometimes faces backlash. Some years ago, a parody subreddit called r/UCSDHate was created by a group of banned users. Luckily, the r/UCSD team took control of the subreddit and made it private. More recently in the summer of 2019, cry-ton becoming a moderator and making changes to the subreddit sparked an outcry from the online community. Several users made posts attacking him and his moderation decisions, with the common criticism being that he was “over-modding.” Eventually, he stepped down.

“It’s weird to look back on just the 12 months that I spent basically connected directly into the collective subconscious of the University,” cry-ton confessed. “I will say it wasn’t all what I would describe as fun times. But, you know, I feel like I was able to maybe do my part as a member of the community, and I do hope that people who use it now sort of look back on the changes that were positive.”

Other moderators defended cry-ton’s impact on the subreddit. “You can divide it into two eras,” Kavhow argued, with the “pre-cry-ton” era being “a lot more toxic.” Aber2346 agreed: “He definitely had a really long, positive, lasting effect on our subreddit … Looking back at things, I think the subreddit was just unfair to cry-ton, to a point where [the criticism] was boiling over to [the rest of the team]… The subreddit kinda can join together and form an army fighting this one guy… It’s not just cry-ton.” He referenced a 2018 incident with Susan Marx on Piazza that circulated throughout the subreddit. The publicity captured the University’s attention and arguably contributed to Marx’s retirement.

This incident was among one of many other subreddit critiques about the school that range from campus parking to tuition changes and grading policies. Do the moderators think that the subreddit’s complaints and criticism directed toward the University were representative of the student body? The team believes so, thanks to Reddit’s upvote system, which makes popular posts and sentiments known. “It does accurately represent the UCSD community,” stated cry-ton, “but maybe also amplifies the extremes of people’s thoughts and emotions on certain topics.” tornato7 agreed, explaining, “The subreddit will definitely amplify the problems that happened. Like one class will have some drama, and then all of a sudden, everybody’s up in arms about it, [including those who have] never even heard of the class.”

But criticisms and questions like “Is this class schedule doable?” and “What college is the best?” are not the only kinds of posts on r/UCSD; memes of raccoons and Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, as well as picturesque photographs of Geisel Library and La Jolla Shores, make up a (much-appreciated) large portion of the subreddit’s posts.

Among the team’s favorite memes is the infamous 32% post, where a student complained about UCSD’s acceptance rate. It quickly became one of the subreddit’s beloved copypastas. Another noteworthy meme is “UCB,” which began when a presumed student from the University of California, Berkeley posted that “referring to Berkeley as UCB is disrespectful.” The team responded by creating a custom bot that automatically comments “Please refer to UCB as UCB on the UC San Diego subreddit.” whenever a post or comment on the subreddit mentions “Berkeley.” While not a meme, another favorite post is a photograph of someone’s 26-year-old chalk drawings on the ceiling of a Muir College apartment balcony. The team also enjoys its own jokes: on April’s Fools 2020, it temporarily turned the subreddit into “Khosla Academy,” a nod to UCSD’s shift to virtual learning and “Khan Academy.” To the amazement of the moderators, these posts — as well as the subreddit’s top posts of all time — arose about a year ago or less. Last but not least, the team reminisces fondly upon a copypasta of a certain Piazza post on professionalism.

With the subreddit’s and the university’s continued growth, the team declared their intention to do more AMAs (“Ask Me Anything,” or Q&As) and social activities. More importantly, it plans to scale up its moderation team. The two main ways of becoming a moderator is either by the team reaching out to a user who is active on the subreddit or by a user reaching out to the team. Sometimes there is an open application for moderators. After this step, the team will run a 90-day “mod-in-training” process for its prospective moderators. 

As for the current moderators, most plan on continuing in their roles throughout their time at UCSD until they graduate and become too busy. Aber2346, an alumni, sees “retiring” from the team as natural: “It’s up to us passing the torch down to others because as new students come in, they have a different insight on what’s happening at UCSD.”

And if the moderators could tell one thing to everyone on the subreddit? Most have advice of goodwill.

“Consider the person behind the screen,” Kavhow said. “Treat them how you want to be treated, and that will basically remove 90% of the workload that we have to do.”

“Don’t take things too seriously,” absolutelycurtainss added. “Even all the serious stuff that’s going on, it’s nice to see that sometimes people just make memes.” 

“College is just the beginning of your life,” Aber2346 said. “Focus on the future. Don’t let the little things get you down.”

And most importantly, declared ImperialRedditer, “Post more raccoon memes!”

Photo by Jason R. Woods, edited image courtesy of Hemmy Chun.