“Repentant abusers”: roll20, reddit, and an object lesson

Most people here probably aren’t familiar with roll20. It’s a website that provides a sort of shared space for people to play tabletop roleplaying games (like Dungeons & Dragons) online. It’s built well-enough, and has become quite popular; it’s a great way for groups of people who took up the hobby together to keep in touch and continue to do something they enjoy as the demands of life scatter them across the country or world. It’s not without its bugs, though, and that opens the door for a bit of internet drama that should serve as a much wider warning.

Like just about everything these days, roll20 has a subreddit. Reddit, for those who aren’t familiar, offers an endless series of user-created “subreddits”, essentially community-moderated forums to discuss the given topic. Because there are subreddits for everything imaginable, the more controversial ones sometimes make the news (r/TheDonald is the Donald Trump subreddit and… it’s… not a good idea to read things there), and reddit drama isn’t exactly a rare thing. 

A couple of days ago, a poster with the online handle ApostleO was banned from the roll20 subreddit by one of its moderators, seemingly for having made comments critical of the product.  The first part of the problem is that the moderator in question was actually Nolan T. Jones, co-founder of roll20. People aren’t supposed to be moderators of a subreddit if they have a vested financial interest in its topic; r/roll20’s moderators are all employees of roll20, essentially using the third-party platform as a free advertising venue. That’s not explicitly disallowed, but it certainly earns a naughty finger-wagging. In any case, ApostleO asked for some clarification, and was told by Jones that his handle was similar to one Jones had banned about a year ago.

Spoiler alert: They weren’t the same person, as the actual reddit administration eventually determined. 

ApostleO protested his innocence and asked for the subreddit ban to be lifted. Because it was the actual roll20 company’s staff responsible for this, he also contacted the company’s customer service. As this escalated, ApostleO suggested that he’d be taking this poor customer service experience to wider social media if the wrong wasn’t corrected. He was told to pound sand; even if the initial ban was wrong, he would now be banned for having made a big deal out of it. The details of this story are here.

Nolan himself eventually weighed in, claiming that it didn’t matter if ApostleO were innocent or not, because he’d been vocal about his mistreatment, and that meant he was probably an abusive personality online, so banning him was “erring on the side of caution”. Oh, and went on a criticism-deletion rampage. Needless to say, Nolan’s victim-blaming response is currently the 2nd-most-downvoted post in reddit history, and the effects on the roll20 business model are… too soon to tell, but certainly their investors aren’t having a good day.



So why does this matter here? Why does reddit drama and inside baseball involving tabletop roleplaying moderation have anything to do with wider politics? Because Nolan T. Jones was supposed to be an example of a “reformed” online abuser. In a 2016 interview with Cybersmile, Jones admitted that he had “contributed to online toxicity” and “crossed borders” but that he was very sorry for having previously engaged in online harassment and abuse.

But two years later, given the chance to wield power for his own perceived benefit, he did exactly that. 

People can change, and some number of people who are abusive — either online of off — can have a moment of revelation and experience real regret for what they’ve done. They can become better than they were. But it’s far more likely that someone who was a bully, a harasser, an abuser… doesn’t stop being that person and won’t hesitate to take those sorts of actions again when it’s to their benefit.

That might make Nolan Jones a bad businessman; it certainly makes him a terrible moderator. But it’s also the problem at the core of the Republican Party, which is all too willing to lift up abusers of all sorts over their victims. It’s why standing up against “asshole culture” matters, whether the venue is an internet forum or a Supreme Court Justice nomination.