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Reddit's Awkward Teen Years

The site's recent turmoil says a lot about how outcast web cultures come of age.

Posted on October 15, 2012, at 2:29 p.m. ET

This post originally appeared on Joel Johnson's excellent Mote & Beam blog; it is reposted here with his permission.

This is my theory: outcast cultures, formed by those who feel a shared exclusion from the mainstream, must survive an awkward adolescence before integrating fully back into the culture from which they are spawned. And like most teenagers, there is a lot of whining, misfired blame, and crying about “never asking to be born” before those cultures realize that despite their memory of an idyllic second childhood, everyone must eventually grow up.

In particular, I speak of the nerds. (Or the geeks. For our purpose here, I’ll use both interchangeably. And occasionally “dweebuses.”) I’m 34, and consider my generation the spearhead of the mainstreaming of computer culture; when I was a child, it still caused furrowed brows to be overly enamored of technology. (I really should not have worn that t-shirt with the “Prodigy*” logo on it to middle school. I was asking for those ass-kickings.) Now, with middle age maybe just one or two hills away, I’m not only not looked down at for playing video games or being found enraptured by the inner workings of a cell phone tower, but I make a tidy living sharing my enthusiasm with the world. Over the last decade, the liminal space between nerddom and the mainstream has become more diffuse–witness a seemingly planetwide interest in Apple, the “rise of the brogrammer,” [^1] or the fact that a sterile, introverted web forum like Reddit can be populated by millions of people.

Reddit itself is going through a spot of puberty this last week in response to an exposé by Gawker’s Adrian Chen, who exposed the real name of Reddit user ViolentAcrez, a man who for years made hateful comments and self-acknowledged “creepy” pictures of young women his hobby. Reddit moderators–free volunteers from the userbase, not employees–preemptively reacted to foreknowledge of Adrian’s feature by blocking Gawker Media domains from a wide swath of Reddit forums (“subreddits”). Reddit employees have, so far, kept the issue at arm’s length, maintaining a policy that espouses “freedom of speech,” up to the point of exposing the identity of Reddit users.

Which, whatever. Reddit and its users can do what they like, obviously and ultimately. Just as Gawker can publish what they like. To get into a weights-and-measurements squabble about the relative ethics–especially any argument based on the notion of free speech, which has everything to do with government and nothing at all to do with what is legal or proper on privately owned web sites–obscures the transformation, or opportunity for transformation, that’s in front of the Reddit community, and perhaps the culture of American nerd culture as a whole.

When nerds gather together into peer groups, they often model the behavior of the establishment from which they felt initially cast out. We have a tendency, after being picked on or ostracized, to repeat the pattern of abuse. I’ve seen it a dozen times (and participated in it often): “I’m a sci-fi nerd,” I might say, “but I’m not, like, a cosplayer.” Fast-forward a few years and I still might not be cosplaying, but I have accepted that many people are into that sort of expression and it doesn’t make me feel the need to draw another line to separate myself from cosplayers.

But fan-fiction writers…

Once you see this sort of line-drawing behavior within your outsider culture and recognize you’re just passing the bullying buck on, it’s easy to try to short circuit it by becoming radically inclusive. Everyone is okay! We accept all freaks of all stripes. One of us, etc. It seems to me that’s where Reddit–and the perceived “real majority of the internet” that its current constituency believes it represents–is today. It wasn’t that long ago that Reddit’s official tagline was “the voice of the internet.” (It has now taken the much less presumptuous mantle of “the front page of the internet.”) The millions of people who currently frequent Reddit believe that they are an outsider culture, but one that, by accepting all sorts of obsessives, geeks, nerds, and others who define their culture as being expressed not “on the internet” but fully “of the internet,” has drawn a circle large enough to include every last internet outsider.

It takes only slight change in perspective to unmurk that myopia: the internet of ten or twenty years ago may have been primarily the domain of white, male Americans (many of whom created and maintained the early internet) and the attendant outside subcultures–sci-fi, anime, video games, pornography and fetish–who are often the first to flock to new mediums, but the internet today is simply the internet of everyone, the whole planet, most of whom are not represented in a place like Reddit, not because Reddit could not serve them, but simply because their own local or provincial nodes of the internet cater to them better than Reddit ever could. 4chan was modeled after Japan’s 2chan message boards; there’s not a big Chinese, or Indian, or Russian contingent on Reddit simply because people in those cultures–from their local variant of nerds to their local variant of the mainstream–are served very well by other message boards and web forums. (Or probably even more commonly, their own forms of dark social: shared email, SMS, or other “old” protocols.)

What I’m trying to get at is this: there comes a time when every outsider community has to realize that they can’t define themselves entirely by inclusion without becoming part of the culture they first felt cast out from. You can’t be “not those people” while also being “for everyone.” Reddit won’t stop being Reddit by acknowledging that some content–like creepy, if technically legal photographs of minors, or the anonymity of the people taking or sharing those sorts of sleazy images–aren’t worth defending. It’s not a question of whether or not people should have a right to put those images online. It’s a question of whether or not Reddit wants to be the home for that sort of behavior.

Reddit mistakes itself for representing the internet. (A mistake compounded, for good and for ill, by its founders.) By any measure, it does not. Or does not fully. The internet is by and for everyone. The internet is even for people you may not agree with. And if the Reddit community–or its official, paid employees–decide that they want to take a stand for free (even if sleazy) expression as a reflection of the ideals they think represent the internet–and probably do!–they should also accept a more objective, nuanced, and inclusive view not just of the self-defined outcast community they have built together, but for the actual internet at large. Which means taking their lumps when another part of the internet–Gawker, in this case–criticizes them, discussing the matter among their own community, instead of sticking their fingers in their ears and attempting to draw yet another line between themselves and the people who write a site like Gawker, a site that is more akin to Reddit in taste and demeanor than most Redditors seem to be aware. (Also a site, compared to Reddit, that is very aware of what it is–a tabloid journalism outlet–sometimes to a fault.)

One of the things about finding your place in the world is realizing that compromise is never fun. But as you grow up, you find out things about yourself and your ideals that don’t always jibe with the way you wish the world operated. And as an adult (if I may wax condescendingly parental), I’ve learned that empathy and graciousness are almost always the brighter path, which is why I hold hope that the people who make up the community at Reddit will recognize that they can choose how they define themselves as a community by choosing what sort of behavior they want to endorse. I hope they’ll take a moment to think about the possible ramifications of being the subject of a “creepshot” for young women who are also still figuring out how they will interface with the world. I like to think Reddit will understand that for the young women exposed there is a lot to lose by being objectified, and that to repeat the marginalizing behavior that caused nerds–often white, male, American nerds, although I mention that only as a baseline matter of perspective–to seek camaraderie and solace on the internet is to become the very self-hating bully we all have run from in our pasts.

Reddit as a community takes a lot of merited pride in keeping the government from regulating the internet or speaking out against hate speech against non-mainstream beliefs like atheism. It’s not impossible for Reddit to understand that with that freedom and request for tolerance comes choice. A Reddit with less overt misogyny may not reflect every possible viewpoint that can be espoused online today. But that’s not what Reddit, at its best, is anyway. The hivemind is a feature, not a bug.

Reddit should not be a place where the last throes of old internet entitlement have safe harbor; it could be a place where (some of) the once outcast voices of the internet finally understand the dense interleaved social contracts that exist in the world, fairly or unfairly, and choose to err on the side of patience, consideration of each individual as a human being, and the sort of tolerance that was not afforded to all of us evenly when we were younger.

[^1] Or more specifically, the rise in the interest in the phenomenon of the brogrammer, which may or may not actually be a new thing in my experience. White male programmers drinking beer is only a new thing in relation to the fact that white male beer drinkers are now not the only programmers.


Joel Johnson tweets here, and blogs here.