What is a subreddit of 100,000 subscribers worth?
Image: Flickr/Jeff Keacher
To an outsider, r/Frisson is a subreddit about nothing in particular: a mishmash of songs, pictures, text, and videos. A post with over 400 upvotes—a photograph of a plaque in memory of a bereaved mother—reads, "[This] gave me the chills." That's vaguely what it's about: things that give you chills.
It might sound like an insignificant subject matter, but r/Frisson has over 100,000 subscribers, making it the 328th most subscribed subreddit. So when the subreddit's founder suddenly decided he was going to kill it for fun, the subscribers were understandably pissed.
As user eddiemon wrote in a thread on r/Frisson, "The shutting down of a subreddit should not be subject to the whim of whatever random asshole happened to click a button to make the sub." But that's just how Reddit works. What happens when you have a considerable amount of power over something you do not care about? And what's your power worth?
Turns out, the moderatorship of a subreddit with about 100,000 subscribers is worth about $1,000. Or at least that's what Theo Thimo, r/frisson's founder, sold it for. That is, before the whole situation went awry.
"It's like if you have a child, and you give the kidnappers money, you're not buying your child."
Not surprisingly, Reddit doesn't want moderators to sell out their communities like this. "We don't allow people to sell their accounts," Kristine Fasnacht, Reddit's head of community, explained to me in an email. "This policy is in place to ensure that people are moderating their subreddits in a way that's community oriented and not financially motivated."
Try telling that to Thimo, now 21, who created r/Frisson when he was a senior in high school. After someone posted a link to r/Frisson in a front page Reddit post that asked, "what's your favorite subreddit that doesn't get a lot of attention?" Thimo, 18 at the time, found himself moderating a subreddit with over 100,000 subscribers.
Frisson, the French word for shivers, "is similar to ASMR, which is when your head tingles," Thimo told me. ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is a pleasurable tingling sensation in the head and scalp. These days, you can get this sensation from videos of people whispering on YouTube.
"Frisson involves the spine and the back shivering," Thimo tells me. ASMR is perhaps the head high to frisson's body high. The first link Thimo posted on his subreddit was Aerosmith's "Dream On."
"It originated from people who were really into emotive songs that would climax into a thing that would become euphoric feeling," Thimo says.
Thimo told me that a video of Charlie Chaplin delivering a speech in The Great Dictator with the Inception theme playing in the background is "probably the most widely recognized frisson inducing thing lol."
Whatever frisson is, it's in the eye of the beholder.
If you take a look at r/Frisson today—now that Thimo no longer moderates—you'll find a mishmash of music, comics, illustrations, and videos of political speeches. It doesn't seem sure about what frisson is or what causes it. What is frisson if both a New Yorker article about Megan Phelps-Roper and Aerosmith's "Dream On" can provoke it?
"For a while it was kind of cool, it was a good sister subreddit to ASMR," Thimo said, but as he became less involved in posting links to music that made him feel that elusive sense of frisson, the Reddit became clouded with random posts. "It was getting so bad, like someone would post a picture of an old person and be like 'this gave me frisson.' Like that's not what you get frisson from," he said.
In September 2015, bored and sitting on a subreddit with over 100,000 subscribers, Thimo wrote in a group Facebook chat to his friends:
"Should I send a message to the moderators of r/frisson making the executive order to alter the way the subreddit works for nothing but my own amusement?"
Then, for no reason other than to mess with people, Thimo came up with a better idea: "what if instead of messaging the moderators, I just made a public submission saying that I'm going to remove the subreddit in 48 hours."
With Thimo's ultimatum, r/Frisson began to collectively freak out. Somebody immediately archived its top posts, others valiantly helped the cause by telling Thimo to kill himself. Still, he was pretty set on shutting down the subreddit, destroying an online community many people were deeply involved in, strictly for funsies. Replacement subreddits like r/Shivers, r/Frisson2 and r/PalpableEmotion began to pop up.
"So it just occurred to me how many ppl 100,000 is," Thimo wrote in chat. "A medium sized city," his friend replied. "Small city I guess."
Thimo was ready to leave a city-sized community of Redditors in the dust, but then he received an interesting proposition from a person who wished to be identified only as George, who runs a frisson-inspired website:
Thimo emailed George requesting a non-negotiable sum of $1,000. In exchange, he'd hand over the moderating rights, which meant George would have complete control over the subreddit, the ability to add new moderators, and create new rules.
"Reddit gets to feel like they won and I got to go to Miami," Thimo giggled.
As stated above, the deal between George and Thimo violates Reddit's moderator policy. "The health of our community is very important to us, and moderators are integral in establishing and maintaining healthy communities," Fasnacht told me. "We want moderators' decisions to be motivated by having their communities' best interests in mind, rather than for the chance to personally profit from it."
But in an economy where having mod-rights for a subreddit of 100,000 or the right Twitter handle is essential, these transactions are bound to happen. After all, as you can see in how the r/Frisson transaction went down, it's a pretty easy deal to make behind closed doors.
However, things quickly went awry with Thimo and George's deal.
Thimo handing over moderatorship to George looked suspicious from the start, especially because George wasn't an active member of r/Frisson.
"I'm a lurker," George tells me over the phone. "I always browsed r/Frisson. I fully wanted to support it. I did everything I could to stop this from happening."
George objects to the claim that he bought the moderatorship of r/Frisson from Thimo. Instead, he prefers to frame it like it this: "It was a ransom, not a purchase. It's like if you have a child, and you give the kidnappers money, you're not buying your child."
George also told me he never wanted to be a moderator. He planned on reinstating the former moderators, and going back to lurking. He simply had the means to save one of his favorite subreddits, and he did what he had to do.
Reddit and the current r/Frisson moderators didn't comment on how exactly they regained control of the subreddit. All we can say for sure is that r/Frisson currently has seven moderators, and that neither of them are George or Thimo.
According to Thimo, somebody reported his deal with George to Reddit and Reddit shadowbanned both of them from r/Frisson, meaning they can look at the site but not post.
If we frame it in one way, what Thimo did was an abuse of power: threatening to shut down a community of over 100,000 Redditors for fun. At the same time, Thimo was dismayed with the direction r/Frisson had gone in: he didn't think the subreddit was about frisson anymore, but rather a smattering of links that made the poster feel in one capacity or another. Does he have the right to kill something he created when it didn't go his way?
Ironically, at the end of the day, no one lost. George had the means to save r/Frisson and he did. "Frisson is the center of my work [and] super important," he said. "That's why I was willing to step up. I'm not a moderator type or contributor type. I think Frisson is a beautiful thing when you can provoke it."
He told me he doesn't mind being shadowbanned, because he never posted to r/Frisson in the first place.
"No good deed ever goes unpunished," he said.