Reddit – Something IS going on here

by Tim Batt

2000px-Reddit.svgSomething rather big happened to the internet the other day.

Reddit, longheld as a bastion of online discussion (and despite what you may have heard, formerly also a bastion of open slather free speech) decided to institute some changes and shut down five of its hosted communities (called subreddits) which were undeniably dedicated to hate speech. The five communities shut down (out of the thousands which exist) related to fat shaming, fat bullying, racial stereotyping and worse.

For the uninitiated, Reddit is a website that looks like a never-ending list of single sentence descriptions, which are hyperlinked. The links are either external content, be it videos, still images, music or news links connecting to any other site online or internal message boards – often huge conversations that can involve thousands of ‘Redditors’ at once. All of the content and comments on the website are submitted by Reddit’s users. The content and comments are then voted on by users on a simple up/down system. The higher ‘upvoted’ content/comments are, the higher up the list it appears and more immediately other users will see it. You make a profile, pick which subreddits you want to subscribe to based on your interests and soon you’ve got a massive page of links that changes hour to hour based on voting.

Reddit is huge. Last month it had about 18.5m unique visitors generating 157m page views. It went live in 2005. I’ve been a member for 6 years and it’s very much a part of my online life and where I go for entertainment and information on a daily basis.

The reaction from the five subreddits being shut down has been rather spectacular. Externally, the event has been reported on with no small amount of glee by the likes of tech sites including The Verge, Techcrunch and culture sites like Salon.

That glee is initially easy to understand. It seems pretty simple to be happy at assholes being silenced. But for me, there’s an unsettling satisfaction in the simplified commentary. My first gripe is that huge groups of people are being painted Reddit ‘trolls’, a label which is being extended to anyone disagreeing with the ban decision. The bloggers’ hand-rubbing delight at the vocal annoyance of these hateful nerds has been palpable. Salon even characterised users as “mouth-breathing basement dwellers”.

Internally however, the issue has been used as a lightning rod for long-bubbling criticism against Reddit’s Interim (since last November) CEO Ellen Pao.

Pao is a fascinating figure. Depending on what you read she’s an icon of female leadership in Silicon Valley and a feminist warrior taking on her former law firm in a gender discrimination suit (which she lost and is currently appealing). But read some of the darker writings on the web and she’s characterised as opportunistic, vindictive and a bully in the workplace. One thing is clear: Ellen Pao has an agenda for Reddit to become a diverse workplace and safe platform for online participation.

Reddit was created as a free market of ideas and discussion. That appears to be changing.

After the five sub banning event, images of a sinking Titanic dominated the front page, calls for everyone to move to other user-generated content sites actually took down with the influx of interest in an alternative and Pao was repetitively racially mocked as Chairman Pao in various upvoted artwork.

Reddit, in its defence and explanation as to why these particular five subreddits had to go, cited ‘behaviour’ not ‘ideas’ as the determining factor. According to the site’s admins, these subs had engaged in harassing behaviour and using internal survey data as justification, they believe Reddit’s users agreed it was the right thing to do. A rather solid rebuke of the survey data from a user was submitted a month ago from u/rwbj and this caught my interest.

Over the last several months I’ve been watching post after post in the ‘conspiracy’ subreddit about people’s accounts and comment history being deleted without a trace when they mentioned Pao or her husband Buddy Fletcher, who is facing civil fraud charges over his hedge fund which included $100m of cops and firefighter’s pensions was bankrupted and found to be diverting funds for personal gain. The conspiracy sub is a weird place to hang out, to be sure. But the sheer volume of these stories just leaves me feeling weird.

The simplified characterisation of what happened online (as being universally good and a win for the internet) is missing a very large discussion coming from Reddit’s own userbase about what Pao’s direction means for legitimate free speech online. It’s easy to dismiss the protesting group as perturbed school boys spending too much time online and back up those claims with examples of useless, racist, sexist language about Pao’s direction – it’s easy cause that ammo definitely exists on Reddit. But it belies a more nuanced and important discussion about cherry-picking who gets the talking stick on the web and what Reddit is these days.

Because after ten years of letting its user base self-police lawful discussions it has online (warts and all) it IS changing and a lot of people have legitimate reason to be uncomfortable with that.


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