Reddit bills itself as “The front page of the Internet.” That “front page” is crawling with troubling content and users prone to harassing others. Until recently, Reddit’s corporate leadership’s typical response to questions about the content on some subreddits is to note that freedom of expression is one of their core values.
According to this argument, Reddit doesn’t necessarily support content like the “Chimpire” (a violently white supremacist set of subreddits — I’ll refrain from linking, thanks), or subreddits for covertly taken upskirt photos and sexualized pictures of underaged girls, but would nevertheless defend to the death redditors’ right to post that content.
This argument was of course blown out of the water back in 2012 when Adrian Chen of Gawker outed user “violentacrez”, moderator of the r/creepshots and r/jailbait subreddits, among many other disturbing subreddits, as Michael Brutsch. Chen also discovered that Brutsch was not just a lone wolf moderator, but was closely connected with Reddit’s administrators, who benefitted greatly from his knack for both encouraging material that was almost-but-not-quite illegal and diligently deleting all actually illegal material from his subreddits.
Last month Ellen Pao, Reddit’s relatively new CEO, announced her intention to limit the presence of subreddits devoted to harassment. On June 10, Reddit administrators acted by removing five of the most egregious offenders. Two of these have names containing racial slurs, two have names containing homophobic slurs, and one — the largest of the removed subreddits, with 150,000 subscribers — bears the charming and straightforward name “r/fatpeoplehate.” This now-banned subreddit devoted to identifying, shaming, and harassing people over their appearance was sufficiently widely used to even elicit a letter to Slate’s Dear Prudence from a woman concerned about seeing it in her fiancé’s browser history.
As a reaction to the subreddit removals, supporters of the idea that Reddit should be a safe space to harass others have launched a wildly successful campaign to fill as much as possible of /r/all (the subreddit that displays the most popular stories from all other subreddits) with attacks on Ellen Pao…
… like this insightful political cartoon, which, unlike most of the attacks, does not contain any misogynist slurs.
As a result of the removal of r/fatpeoplehate, a large number of Redditors— including the moderators and many of the members of the GamerGate hub r/kotakuinaction — are threatening to decamp en masse to a Reddit clone named Voat, a site that bills itself as a “no censorship” Reddit alternative.
Unfortunately, the owners of Voat badly underestimated the number of people in the world actually too awful for Reddit, and so the site has displayed nothing but “down under heavy load” messages since r/fatpeoplehate went down.
Most likely the attempt by Pao to reform Reddit will be unsuccessful. The Reddit conception of how to make free speech possible — more or less “throw everyone in a room and let them work it out for themselves” — doesn’t actually work. Instead it results in a situation wherein the people with the loudest voices (typically voices belonging to straight white cismen) and the greatest willingness to be deeply unpleasant (typically ditto) get to say what they want, and no one else can challenge them.
There are decent subreddits, and it’s tempting to argue that the presence of the good ones justifies the existence of the overtly nasty ones. However, we can’t give ourselves the luxury of talking about things like r/creepshots and r/fatpeoplehate as being just a few nasty people hiding in the corners of the room, out of the light. This is because this type of subreddit is what you find at the center of Reddit — nastiness is mainstream there. As a result, unless subreddit administrators use aggressive moderation to keep the Reddit base out of their forums, the quality of discourse rapidly degrades.
r/fatpeoplehate wasn’t a forum hiding in the dark corners of Reddit — it’s the Reddit mainstream. Meanwhile, the (relatively) good things on Reddit — the subreddits like r/math or whatever — end up the hiding in the corners, trying to distinguish themselves (as best they can) from Reddit’s real user base.
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