Reddit Is Facing an Existential Crisis

What comes of this crisis will not only define the "front page of the internet" as a company, but also this particular moment in digital history.

by Devon Maloney
Jul 18 2015, 4:00pm

Image via Flickr user ficusdesk.

Reddit, one of the internet's largest and most successful discussion platforms to date, is undergoing a monumental existential crisis. What comes of this crisis will not only define the "front page of the internet" as a company, but also this particular moment in digital history. As we navigate this paradox: How can the internet stay fundamentally "free"—and more importantly, safe—for all its users while still, you know, making money?

This all started about a week ago, when Reddit forced the resignation of its interim CEO, Ellen Pao. During her tenure, Pao (who is sort of a totally a supergenius badass) oversaw the reasonable ban on things like revenge porn. In response, a certain subset of Redditors began whining extra loudly about "censorship" and "free speech," which was somehow being hindered by the site's newfound lack of revenge porn (check this sublimely whiny thread from May, following Pao's move to ban harassment). It escalated into a full-blown moderator blackout during the first week in July, in which users shut down parts of the site in protest, hemorrhaging huge chunks of advertising revenue in the process. (J. Nathan Matias, a ph. D. fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote a great scientific breakdown on that fun moment.)

There are many theories circulating among the Reddit and tech communities as to why Pao finally stepped down. The biggest one, though, is the unceremonious firing earlier this month of Victoria Taylor, a popular and high-profile Reddit employee in charge of facilitating the site's most beloved subsection, the AMAs (Ask Me Anything, a forum for community Q&As with famous, important, and otherwise fascinating individuals).

People saw Pao's resignation as her taking the fall for that decision—problem is, former CEO Yishan Wong alleges that Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, a white guy, was actually the one to give Taylor the boot (he "didn't like [her] role") and stayed quiet while Pao, an Asian-American woman, was being eviscerated by the Reddit community instead of speaking up and taking the heat created by his own decision. The other Reddit co-founder, Steve Huffman, has taken over for Pao as CEO.

When Reddit was spun out as its own entity under Condé's parent company in 2011, the board, which includes its founders, hired Wong as CEO; Pao was hired in 2013 and promoted to interim CEO when Wong quit in 2014. In a suspiciously plausible "joke" post, Wong (who's been on a pretty magnificent tear, openly criticizing his former colleagues and spilling unpleasant details about the way the company operates) recently mused that this was part of a larger plan by the cofounders to distance Reddit from the publishing giant Condé Nast. Condé acquired Reddit in 2006, and shifted the site over to its parent company Advance Publications in 2011 (at this point Reddit is technically independent, though the site readily admits Advance remains the largest shareholder).

In response to the community's continuing battles about free expression and harassment, Huffman announced he'd be doing his own AMA to address their concerns (while also claiming that Reddit was never supposed to be "a bastion of free speech"). That happened Thursday, and resulted in this new policy, which Huffman says will be official soon:

Screen grab via Reddit.

Reddit is a prime example of the mentality that has made Silicon Valley "thought leaders" (to use a gross buzzword) both very successful and borderline sociopathic. The site was launched in 2005 as "a place where honest and open discussion can happen," as Huffman described it recently; in practice, that claim has mostly played out over the past decade as a Randian, Wild West model that has been heralded by its users as "a bastion of free speech."

Hardcore redditors fell in love with the site for its libertarian, self-policing model. Wong has repeatedly used a (somewhat inaccurate) "city-state" metaphor to describe Reddit's administrative approach: in ten years, its subforums (i.e., "subreddits") have proliferated to terrifying breadth, from basic topics like humor and world news to incredibly niche stuff like this one devoted to Space Jam theme song mashups, all largely thanks to the fact that the site's admins cede most of the day-to-day governing power to volunteer moderators in their own individual subreddits. All of this ostensible self-regulation means that vile, hyper-specific, and potentially dangerous communities can pop up at will.

Image via Flickr user Torley.

Let's humor Wong's city-state analogy for a moment: If Reddit were a city-state, its government (the owners) would have a responsibility to its citizens (the community and, to an extent, potential future users) to limit criminal activity (the hate subreddits, since on the internet all "crimes" are essentially speech, and law enforcement doesn't currently take text-based crimes on the internet very seriously) in order to better the quality of life in the community as a whole. Limiting "speech," therefore, isn't necessarily censorship in this case. Also, Reddit profits off these users, so in this metaphor, it would be a pretty corrupt city-state if it were to keep the criminal activity around for profit.

The "feeling that harassment must be rooted out and solved," as tech writer Sarah Jeong recently put it, comes mostly out of the fact that communities and communication on the internet are far bigger and more consequential, respectively, than they were before the digital age. Bigotry online has birthed doxxing (the practice of releasing intensely personal information—or dox, short for documents—about a person, such as their social security number, address, and bank account information, usually as revenge for a perceived affront), revenge porn, and straight-up hate crimes in far greater volumes than those offenders could have ever achieved in the offline world alone.

White supremacists and misogynists are more potent online, because it's so much easier for them to ruin lives and cause harm with the internet. When the Westboro Baptist Church wants to stage a protest, they affect people at one or two events at a time. They have to drive from miles away to gather and spew their hate. Meanwhile, members of Reddit's so-called "chimpire"—the collection of anti-black/anti-POC subreddits dedicated to the most vile brands of racism humans can muster—can gather freely and easily, and potentially violate countless people's civil and human rights from the comfort of their homes.

And then there's the whole "profit" thing. The internet, in theory, is an agnostic space. It doesn't care what you use it for. It's just there. Individual websites, on the other hand, are regulated by those who own it. Those are the people who determine what behavior is and is not acceptable.

Hatemongers tend to mistakenly interpret the tenets of Thing A (the unregulated internet) as Thing B (privately owned websites whose owners decide what's OK and what's not). "Free Speech" is a constitutionally protected right, but only in the context of Thing A. Reddit is not telling these people they don't have the right to monger hate, it's just that now, they may no longer do it on their platform. The whole jumping-off point for Redditors' outrage about banning vile subreddits fundamentally contradicts their sense of entitlement for unfettered, uncensored free speech at whatever cost.

On Motherboard: What We Learned from Reddit CEO Huffman's AMA

But herein lies the issue: online platforms, unlike traditional offline businesses, are "communities" as well. In Reddit's case, that means that rules are subject to discussion among consumers. Web platforms are not countries or "city-states"; they're not public utilities. But it is in owners' best interest to make them as accessible and safe as possible for every potential consumer. Silence, the maxim goes, is consent: You have to answer for what your consumer base says and does under your roof in the court of public opinion, even if your user agreement protects you from legal retribution. Especially when those consumers deny the humanity of your other consumers.

In that respect, Reddit's leaders still seem profoundly uncomfortable with their own collective sense of right and wrong, even in the wake of Huffman's AMA yesterday. They seem unable to trust themselves to define hate speech or unacceptable behavior, let alone forbid it. With the new policy Huffman outlined, many of the most garbage subreddits—including the particularly infamous /r/CoonTown—are free to go about their shitty business, recruiting followers and validating some of the most hideous crimes of our era as they continue to unfold and multiply, safe behind a Reddit log-in page.

What Huffman and Co. are saying by allowing what they've termed "offensive" content to remain on their platform is that racists, misogynists, fatphobes, homophobes, and the rest of their ilk are too precious a consumer base. Reddit profits too much from these bigots to lose them—as well as those who refuse to see why their presence is a threat to the equal playing field Reddit purports to be—as "customers."

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the steady shitstorm that has been raining down from the piebald cloud that is Reddit these past few months is not the trolls. Again, they're a known quantity: Hate is everywhere, on-and offline, in every corner of the web. The real problem is that we still see the internet as something divorced from the "real" world, something hypothetical and less serious. What matters now is to shift how we as a culture understand how our analog values must evolve in order to translate into a digital future.

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