On Jono Bacon’s discussion of Reddit karma

Last week, Jono Bacon published a YouTube video discussing the karma system used by Reddit. It’s worth 28 minutes of your time if you’re thinking about a reputation system for your community. I don’t have any disagreements, but there are a few “yes, and”s that popped up as I watched it.

What’s karma for?

A fundamental problem with karma is that it applies to posts/comments, not to accounts. Yes, Reddit displays a net karma score on account profiles, but it doesn’t do anything with it. A large number of upvotes will move a post or comment toward the top. A large number of downvotes will hide a comment behind a “wow, do you really want to see this crap?” (my words) link. But apart from removing a posting frequency speedbump for new accounts, the account’s karma doesn’t actually mean much.

Karma is non-specific

Another big issue with Reddit karma is that it’s the same across the entire site. Jono talked about using karma as a metric of credibility. If you narrowly define “credibility” as “knows what the community likes”, then that works. But I might earn a bazillion points for my insightful open source posts. When I go to post in an small engine repair subreddit, my karma comes along with me.

Just because I can successfully participate in one subreddit, that doesn’t mean I can in another. And it’s certainly not a measure of expertise on a topic. Jono alludes to this by talking about how karma doesn’t distinguish between funny and helpful, for example.


You can’t buy karma. That’s one of the benefits of Reddit karma. But you can buy accounts to apply karma. Whether you pay money to a bot farm or just wield your influence on another platform, you can drive upvotes or downvotes to an account of your choosing. Since karma is mostly meaningless at the account level, the direct harm of this is fairly small. But brigading is always a concern in online communities.

Okay, so then what?

Reddit karma has its downsides. But it is very simple, which is a huge benefit. I tend to favor the more account-centric systems like Discourse trust levels and StackExchange reputation. Sites like ArsTechnica have an up/down vote systems with an optional tag to explain why you’re giving the vote. If Reddit’s karma was per-subreddit, it would be more useful as a measure of credibility.

The inevitable burnout

It seems to me that most sysadmins who have a lot of customer interaction tend to burn out quickly.  Some people are great at working with people, some with technology, and it seems like rarely do the two meet.  Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being social.  I like making friends and hanging out with them, but that doesn’t mean I like supporting users.  I did that for 5 years at McDonald’s, I’d like to think I’ve served my time.

Of course, it isn’t just users that can lead to burn out.  Management and co-workers can contribute their own share.  I’ve found my other full-time colleague to be professionally uninquisitive and I feel like I can’t discuss technical matters with the people I work with because I have to explain too much to them so that they understand what it is that we’re even discussing.  I think my wife has a better technical grasp of what I do than the people I work with and for, and that is not a good thing.

Ever since our Computer Support Manager left and I became the de facto manager, the Department Head has had little interaction with me.  On the whole, I take it as a good sign.  If I’m not getting feedback, that generally means people are happy.  Still, some interaction from time-to-time would be helpful, and for a young and growing sysadmin such as myself, it is vital.

And so we come to the crux of the matter.  I feel my growth is being stunted.  When I took my job two and a half years ago, I had no sysadmin experience.  I didn’t even have a lot of Linux experience, but I had worked in the department on our weather data server, and I knew the science that the faculty worked on, so the thought was that I could learn the technical skills that I needed.  I’d like to think I’ve learned them pretty well.  I feel confident enough to make my own decisions and know that they are sound.  I’ve made improvements to the way things are done to make them more reliable, more complainey when they fail, and more flexible for future use.  Oh yeah, and I’ve written and overseen untold pages of documentation, which was nearly unheard of when I came onboard.

So here I am 30 months later and I’ve reached the limits of my position.  There is no path for advancement within my department, since I became the lead after less than a year on the job.  The training funds are hard to come by because the economy stinks.  I’ve mastered the services that we provide, and other groups provide the rest so I’m limited in the new services I can add.  I’m in a very small box and I’ve grown to fit it.

Someone posted this blog entry to the Sysadmin sub-Reddit the other day (I think it was Matt), and it really spoke to me.  Now the author of that post has a lot more experience than I do, but he was also in a bigger box.  There’s a difference too, in the type of burnout.  He wants out of sysadminning, and I want more into it.  I’d be much happier in a role where I played with servers and let others handle the customer-level interaction.  At least I think I’d be happier in that kind of job.  There’s only one way to find out.

As much as I love being the big boss man, I think I need more time at the low end of the totem pole.  Not so much because my leadership skills aren’t up to snuff (I like to pretend that I’m a pretty damn good leader), but because my technical skills need to be developed, and it’s hard to do that when you’re at the top of the pyramid.  I’m trying to re-learn the C that I learned well enough to pass my programming class 5 years ago.  I’m also hoping to pick up some MySQL and PHP so that I can at least have enough skill to include it on my resume.  And I’m looking for jobs where I can be exposed to more things so that I can figure out where I want to head.  For now, that’s to bed.