This afternoon, some indeterminate yet undoubtedly enormous number of real human beings gathered around their computers to watch newly minted Reddit CEO Steve Huffman propose a new — and desperately needed — content policy for the site. In Huffman’s sizable post and in follow-up questions from redditors, he laid out a few seemingly concrete policy changes. If adopted, Reddit will reclassify offensive content, putting NSFW labels on things like pornography and other material that “violates a common sense of decency.” It will also ban the following outright:
- Anything illegal (i.e. things that are actually illegal, such as copyrighted material. Discussing illegal activities, such as drug use, is not illegal)
-Publication of someone’s private and confidential information
- Anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people (it's ok to say "I don't like this group of people." It's not ok to say, "I'm going to kill this group of people.")
- Anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people (these behaviors intimidate others into silence)
- Sexually suggestive content featuring minors
On the surface, these sound like material changes. For one, there are more guidelines than ever before, and they are far more explicit.
But as Huffman notes at the end of his post, these rules are a work in progress and not, as he later clarified, “an official update to our policy.”
So where does that leave Reddit? Pretty much where it was this morning, it seems.
As far as purges of contentious subreddits go, Huffman’s post suggests that a complete clean-out of Reddit’s underbelly is out of the question for all but the most extreme communities. “Sure. /r/rapingwomen will be banned,” Huffman wrote, alluding to the site’s three-and-a-half-year-old pro-rape community. “They are encouraging people to rape.” But r/coontown, Reddit’s virulently anti-black forum, will be reclassified. “The content there is offensive to many, but does not violate our current rules for banning,” Huffman explained.
Under the Huffman administration, r/coontown will exist, but only for registered Reddit members who are logged in to the site. By doing this, Reddit is protecting passersby from its most contentious communities while making the latter a de facto membership feature of the site. The rampant racism and sexism will still be there, only now it’s opt-in.
Perhaps the most vexing part of Huffman’s proposed reclassification of Reddit's unsavory content is his characterization of it, borrowed from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: It's “difficult to define, but [you] know it when you see it." Difficult as such material may be to define, Huffman attempts to do just that, calling it “content that violates a common sense of decency." And while he admits it is offensive, he also concedes that “that alone is not justification for banning.”
While Huffman’s proposal semantically qualifies as a new content policy, this vague line of reasoning is hardly a new one for Reddit’s leadership. And, more critically, it fails to address Reddit’s very real harassment problem. Huffman’s prescription — “it's ok to say ‘I don't like this group of people.’ It's not ok to say, ‘I'm going to kill this group of people’” — is largely a restatement of former CEO Ellen Pao’s dictum: “Ban behavior, not ideas.” And not only is it equally precarious, it suggests that despite numerous public meltdowns, petitions, threats, and executive leadership changes, Reddit’s latest quixotic vision of online communities is no different than the ones it described two or six or 12 months ago.
Under the proposed policies, Huffman explicitly states that Reddit will not tolerate “anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people (these behaviors intimidate others into silence).” On the surface, this suggests Reddit will do everything in its power to make the site a safe place for everyone. But the complexities of Reddit’s myriad online communities and its poor record of managing such behavior in the past suggest it will be a daunting task indeed. ,The forum Huffman effectively pardoned this afternoon ,r/coontown, has on numerous occasions brigaded and harassed different subreddits. And overt and direct harassment aside, there’s a compelling case to be made that groups dedicated to the subjugation and hatred of another community explicitly “intimidate others into silence.”
Huffman and Reddit’s choice to further a policy that waits until harassment scales Reddit’s walls and bleeds into the physical world is precarious — and potentially reckless — but it’s also nothing new. Similar to Pao and her predecessor, Yishan Wong, Huffman has decided to continue to put faith in a vision of the internet where communities, when left largely to their own devices, will veer toward “open and authentic discussions when they aren't worried about the speech police knocking down their door.”
But that’s not the internet we have now. Just ask Ellen Pao, who wrote today in the Washington Post that balancing "free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet. But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.”
Huffman’s policies seem to bear this out. While the new CEO explicitly stated that r/rapingwomen will be banned, that subreddit appears to be composed mostly of online trolls dedicated to over-the-top and overly sensational headline-grabbing behavior: individuals who care far more about offending people than they do about condoning rape. The r/coontown subreddit, however, is a well-known and active community built around hate and dedicated to amplifying those messages, which is to say that it’s arguably just as potentially abusive, if not more so, than overtly violent, purely trolling communities.
Of course none of the work of making the internet safer is simple. The discussion of policing and controlling harassment inside online communities doesn’t just contain gray areas — it is a gray area. And in a way, that’s what makes Huffman’s proposal for Reddit so disheartening. Providing some semblance of safety for women and minority groups of all kinds is difficult, sometimes arbitrary work that requires definitive policies that were nowhere to be found in Huffman’s post today.
Instead, Huffman continued in the tradition of past Reddit leadership, offering yet another declaration of values and ideals — an ideological framework from which the company can operate. But today’s AMA was not some constitutional convention. Reddit is a vast, vibrant community that contains thousands of smaller, idiosyncratic communities, not some newly bordered, land-bound nation begging for new founding ideas on virtue and justice. Nor is it a 21st-century internet morality consortium. Reddit is an important online home for millions that is crying out for clear-cut laws and practical solutions by which to safely govern its community. Today, it received nothing of the sort.