Reddit Is A Shrine To The Internet We Wanted And That's A Problem

Today, at Reddit, nobody wins.

Reddit has a problem. It’s a well-documented problem, which, oddly, is a big part of the problem. Every six months or so, from the depths of the sprawling site’s underbelly, a network of disparate communities which seem to feed off of bigotry and perversion rise into the greater public’s consciousness. For many people, this is their only exposure to Reddit.

Last summer it was "The Fappening," the crudely named leak of hundreds of hacked nude celebrity photos. Before that it was a series of communities dedicated to and formed around topics like taking surreptitious and sexually suggestive photos of women (r/creepshots), photos of underage girls (r/jailbait), and stolen photos of women from the website Photobucket (r/photobucketplunder). Each instance resulted in considerable heat for Reddit for failing to prune its most toxic offshoots.

Now there’s a scandal yet again. But this time things are a bit different. Reddit’s problem stems from an executive decision to ban five subreddits for abusive behavior and harassment. It’s the flipside of its usual travail — precisely because it did attempt to prune those toxic offshoots, the site’s odious nether regions are once again getting dragged into the spotlight. And that’s largely because the community has reacted so negatively to the pruning, which it interprets as censorious; anathema to its ethos of free speech. And that’s the problem in a nutshell. The site is loudly committed to the free and open exchange of ideas. Yet that commitment means that utterly horrible things will be said and done there. This was fine in its early years — or at least OK. But as Reddit has become a cornerstone of the internet — or even the front page of the internet, as it likes to call itself — its problems become everyone’s problems. What we now see in Reddit is the crash of internet utopian idealism against the rocks of human reality.

Last week, the site shut down r/hamplanethatred, r/transfags, r/neofag, r/shitniggerssay, and r/fatpeoplehate (FPH), which alone boasted over 150,000 subscribers. (150,000!) The ban was a rare attempt by Reddit’s leadership, which has set out very publicly this year to curb harassment and revenge porn, to stop a problem before it is publicly pressured to do so by the media. Yet Reddit argues that this was not a clampdown on speech.

In the words of Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, the idea was to “ban behavior, not ideas,” meaning that, while there are plenty of atrocious subreddits still in operation (the racist community r/coontown has 13,000 subscribers), the banned communities created a toxic environment of harassment that bled from Reddit’s forums into the real world. Multiple women have reported being antagonized and threatened by FPH redditors on YouTube, and others have watched as photos tracking their weight gains were posted and used to publicly mock and harass in front of tens of thousands of commenters.

But Reddit can’t win. In response to the ban, scorned redditors flooded the site, using the site’s voting mechanisms to post crude racist and sexist comments disparaging Pao. Renderings of the CEO as a communist leader quickly hit the site’s front page. Subreddits like /r/PaoYongYang and /r/EllenPao_IsA_Cunt popped up as well as petitions calling for her resignation. FPH members took to other subreddits to overwhelm new communities with FPH content. And it’s not just the creeps; redditors with no connection to the unsavory subreddits who see the site as an exemplar for free speech on the internet are confused by what they believe is an arbitrary ban. A vocal minority have threatened to leave Reddit altogether. Others believe the bans are the beginning of the end for the site. In an earnest effort to make the site safer, Reddit has kicked a Mountain Dew–fueled hornet’s nest, making the wider network even more volatile.

So, where does that leave us? Nowhere good, it seems.

In the wake of last week’s bans, BuzzFeed News spoke with the moderators of three notable subreddits — all far removed from the creeps and the controversy, and all of whom expressed concern with the site’s executives and strategy. “I think the leadership does have a terrible problem with unity and direction,” one moderator of a popular subreddit who wished not to be named told me via email (the moderator also noted he was pleased with the executive decision to ban r/fatpeoplehate).

“I am concerned with the leadership or lack thereof such that I may ease off my interactions on reddit,” one moderator, who goes by maxwellhill, told me. Maxwellhill maybe knows Reddit as well as anyone. This user has been on the site for over nine years and moderates 13 popular subreddits, including /r/worldnews, /r/humor, r/Economics, /r/travel, and /r/environment, and was the first redditor to achieve 1 million link karma points.

“Right now reddit is floating aimlessly in an ocean reacting to the wind and tides without a captain steering it out of any troubles it may encounter,” maxwellhill said of Pao’s tenure as Reddit’s interim CEO. In a series of private messages on Reddit, maxwellhill also expressed concern with the recent bans, “despite their unsavory behavior.”

Maxwellhill noted that “in the early days the founders were experimenting so it's understandable that they changed their directions as they moved forward not knowing what to expect. But the last few years since Yishan [Wong, the former Reddit CEO] the owners must have a clear idea where they would like be and when. That should be the strategic direction for the CEO to guide his people and the communities but I fear this is now unclear.”

“Reddit as a company is terribly run,” another popular moderator, who wished only to be identified as Alex, told me. “The community management side of reddit has been poorly handled for a long time. The people who dealt directly with the community were not the people who seemed to be making policy decisions.”

While Alex admits that there are now more Reddit employees than ever before tasked with community moderation and rule enforcement, it still seems to be insufficient. “It's not uncommon that my mails are not answered. Many people don't get their mails answered,” Alex said. “People are constantly reporting rules violations to the community managers and hearing nothing back. And that's just what gets reported. As far as I can tell, Reddit does not have enough community managers to enforce its own rules and never has. So why do they keep adding more rules?”

Alex’s frustrations are common. In fact, in Reddit’s sea of disparate communities, frustration appears to be the one uniting sentiment. For Pao, founder and current chair Alexis Ohanian, and Reddit’s still modest staff, there’s the frustration of watching as the site’s majority of upstanding, or at least innocuous, communities are eclipsed by the actions of a depraved minority. For Reddit’s investors, which now include some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, there’s the frustration of watching a company that has failed for a decade to turn a meaningful profit continue to sour in the eyes of the media as well as potential advertisers. Similarly, it’s hard to see how to continue to get presidential candidates to come and do AMAs when there are communities dedicated to the subjugation of women and shaming of fat people and creepshotting children.

And for users, especially those who spend countless volunteer hours moderating subreddits, there’s the frustration of essentially living and working in a larger community that is often regarded in the public eye as bigoted, immoral, and deeply creepy.

“I never really bring up that I browse and mod on Reddit to other people because of some of the stuff that other communities have pulled. Despite being a fun place to be, the things Reddit has been known for (for people who don’t use it) some of the worse parts like /r/Jailbait and the 'search' for the Boston Bombers,” one anonymous moderator said.

Such comments are anecdotal and by no means indicative of any kind of consensus, and yet it’s difficult to see how Reddit’s current position as both a safe haven for any and all ideas, however heinous, and a public-facing media entity with prominent investors is tenable. The site’s problems over the past few years and especially of late seem to suggest that its backers, administrators, and users are beginning to fray at the edges.

In many ways, Reddit exists as a monument to the optimistic internet mind-set of the early 2000s; a quixotic vision of online communities that exist outside our now-accepted understanding that the internet is real life. Today we know better.

The internet, like the rest of the world, is full of people making beautiful, valuable things, and it is full of people doing horrible, unspeakable things. It's terribly weird and sometimes it helps to change the world for the better. Even when it's not anonymous, the internet can be terrifying because people can be terrifying.

Which is why so many of the internet’s largest communities rely on some form of curation in the form of algorithms or standards in order to keep those protected by the veil of anonymity from poisoning the greater experience. Few do this perfectly, but most seem to do it far less cryptically or arbitrarily than Reddit. Instead, Reddit exists in a strange kind of limbo. The company’s long-running slogan suggests that it wants to be “the front page of the internet,” while last week Reddit’s executive team stated that the site’s “goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform.” There’s a disconnect there that may not be possible to join.

As anyone from almost any era of publishing would attest, a front page suggests curation. It suggests the best; more specifically, it suggests that which has a universal appeal. Reddit’s very own front page suggests the company knows how this works. But the Reddit that “enables as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform” looks much different. Last Wednesday it looked like this:

The front page of /r/all at Reddit right now

To some, that characterization might not feel fair. But it's not to suggest that Reddit is exclusively some kind of godless wasteland. It's to suggest that Reddit is a reflection of our shared humanity, which is frequently broken and awful.

So where do we go from here? There’s some evidence to suggest that Reddit is committed to growing up earnestly and to letting its users, advertisers, and investors know that it is a place where women, minority groups of all kinds, and the underage can feel some semblance of safety. That’s a difficult road that involves redefining the site’s identity and, in the process, could alienate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of devoted and often vindictive users who built it into what it is today.

Or the site can lean into its adherence to a particular definition of free speech and openness at all costs, providing a haven and organizational structure for communities dedicated to incubating hateful ideologies and celebrating depravity. It can continue to cling to the belief that any speech or expression, even that which intends to infringe on the freedom and safety of others, is the inalienable right of any and all redditors. It can continue the arbitrary, difficult, and incredibly precarious job of policing hate only when it manifests into harassment outside Reddit’s walls and hope upon hope that, when the crackdown comes, it’s not too late.

But for now, Reddit exists as a shrine to the early internet’s naïveté. A reminder of the disconnect between the internet we wanted and thought was possible and the internet of our current reality; the world that we want, and the world we have got.

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