From pioneers to “landed gentry”: exploring the community ownership conundrum

On platforms like Reddit, users are free to create their own “subreddit” communities around a location, topic, idea, really anything (e.g.,, etc), and as long as the community name in question is not taken, they can “claim” it. But with this ability to create a new community comes interesting implications — how much ownership can the founder have over the community they form?

Ownership Example 1: The “trivially obvious” communities

Let’s assume you were on Reddit in the early days, and the ability to create new subreddits is now available to everyone (I believe when Reddit started, they had only “static” communities in place). If you decide to create a subreddit around a topic that is a trivially obvious topic, location, or genre (e.g. /r/games, /r/newyork, /r/sports), are you allowed to say that you are now the “owner” of these communities, just by being first?

On the one hand, early adopters of a platform have always had some “squatters” rights — mainly around username creation. If you were one of the first users on a platform, you could secure a short or memorable username (e.g. /u/scott) without needing to append numbers or special characters to the end (e.g. /u/scott-the-cool-123), which made sense because users never knew which platform would take off — and so while a short username would be very valuable if the platform became huge, if the platform remained small it was a nice “trophy” at best.

So similarly, why can users of discussion platforms not be able to take “trivially obvious” communities at the start of a platform’s life? They similarly don’t know if the platform will take off, and so “owning” these communities are only valuable if the site and the community become large. Why not, then, still allow them to get the “trophy” of these valuable communities just like we do for usernames?

I think a lot of it comes down to identity, and how much you can claim something is purely yours. In the username example, “scott” is who I am, and so no one can rightfully claim to be more “scott” than me. But if I had registered my username as “bill-gates”, even if I was an early adopter, I think at some point if the platform got large someone would relieve me of my username, as I cannot really claim that I am more “bill-gates” than the actual Bill Gates.

I think the same is true of communities — even if I am the first to register the community /r/sports, and perhaps sports is a huge part of my life, I don’t think I can claim to be more of a sports fan than anyone else. Same thing with location communities like /r/newyork — I doubt anyone could claim to be “more” of a resident/fan of New York than anyone else.

Ownership Example 2: When communities overtake their founders

The example I mainly had in mind here was what happened with /r/WallStreetBets. In a nutshell, someone founded a non-trivial community (e.g. they were not “squatting” on something simple like /r/wallstreet, they had created something unique), and after the community exploded with popularity, the original founder was ousted for a myriad of reasons (including allegedly trying to monetize the community, attempting to trademark “WallStreetBets”, etc).

Assuming he did all of the above, wasn’t it his right to do so? He had created and curated a unique community, can he claim no ownership over it? Imagine he had also paid to manage this community on an ongoing basis (e.g. $10/month), similar to how charges organizers — does this change his ability to monetize and claim ownership? In a nutshell, how does one’s ownership over a community related to the amount of investment (either monetarily or time or both) that they put into a community?

The answers to the above questions are far from settled, but I think in general it’s hard to argue that any one person can completely claim ownership over the community that they’ve founded. Even if they spend 24 hours a day moderating and curating their community, and put immense capital into fostering that community, at the end of the day the collective output of the community will always outweigh the effort of one founder. That isn’t to say that the founder should get no ability to profit off their effort, but merely that if they don’t balance their personal interests with the good of the community, they shouldn’t be surprised when the community moves away from them.

Ownership Example 3: When communities and business collide

There are a wide variety of communities that exist on Reddit and other platforms that revolve around things that have definable legal “owners”, for example:

To what extent should these be allowed to be claimed by founders who are not the original owners of these topics? Is it enough to claim that you are a “fan” of the Apple corporation, and so that allows you to manage a community with their name, or do you need to be someone working at Apple? What if initially Apple the company is fine with a fan managing their community, but then the fan allows a sensitive topic that Apple wants taken down (e.g. a leaked schematic from a new iPhone) — what is Apple’s rights to then claim ownership, and what are the rights of the fan founder to reject that claim?

To some level, even Reddit warns against choosing an “owned” community as a topic when you create a subreddit:

“[…] Avoid using solely trademarked names, e.g. use “FansOfAcme” instead of “Acme”. once chosen, this name cannot be changed.”

In general, however, I believe the answer similar to Example 1 revolves around a founders claim to “ownership” of these communities. E.g. in the same way we outlined that it would be hard to claim that I have any rights over the username /u/bill-gates, I think it would be hard to argue that as much as a fan a founder is of the Detroit Lions, they are not as big an owner as those that actually own the Detroit Lions, and so thus should not be able to claim ownership over /r/detroitlions.

I also believe we could take the same ideas that domain registrars have had regarding squatting and ownership — if you have a have a legitimate claim to the domain you are creating (e.g. see the long-time legal battle that Nissan Computers and Nissan had regarding, you cannot have your domain taken away from you. But on the flipside if a business already exists (e.g. “Best Buy”), and you somehow can register the domain and are using it in a tech or electronics related way, it’s going to be ruled that you are squatting on or attempting to impersonate this topic, vs being able to say you have a legitimate “claim” to use.

Axioms we’ve established about community ownership

With the above examples in mind, let’s now outline any axioms we’ve identified:

  1. Trivially obvious communities (e.g. ones that would have always been created eventually) should not have any one founder or owner.
    • “…Ideas outlive men; ideas outlive all earthly things.”
  2. Fans / enthusiasts / lovers of companies / persons / things will never be able to claim a larger ownership of a community vs the actual companies / persons / things themselves
    • “Possession is 9/10ths of the law”
  3. Founders of communities, no matter what their personal level of effort and contribution, will never match the output and contribution level that a community generates
    • “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”
  4. Founders will be able to profit off their communities ONLY to the extent their community allows it. This will be determined by how well a founder leads their community and make it happy, along with how hard it is for that community to kick out the founder, or migrate away from the founder.
    • “The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.”

…But what does “ownership” of a community even imply?

Given the above axioms, we’ve established under what conditions someone can claim partial or full ownership over a community. But even with this ownership comes many caveats:

  • “Ownership” of a community will always be in reference to the administrative role in leading a community, and being able to establish the rules that govern that community. But leaders and founders will never “own” the content generated by their community — that will always belong to the community members themselves.
  • Regardless of whether someone or something can definitely “own” something else (e.g. how the Ford family might own the Detroit Lions), they cannot “own” the fandom, along with the content and discussions that come out of that fandom, and so there needs to always exist a discrete space that can set the distinction between the property / company / person and the fandom that surrounds them.

Final takeaways

As we look towards building new community platforms, the subject of community ownership will come to a head quickly. In fact, just recently, Reddit’s CEO has compared some founders / head moderators of communities as being “Landed Gentry”:

“If you’re a politician or a business owner, you are accountable to your constituents. So a politician needs to be elected, and a business owner can be fired by its shareholders,” he said. “And I think, on Reddit, the analogy is closer to the landed gentry: The people who get there first get to stay there and pass it down to their descendants, and that is not democratic.”

Steve Huffman

Having established some axioms and caveats above, hopefully both new and existing community platforms will be better equipped to handle community ownership with grace.

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