Reddit knows it has a problem with misogyny, racism, homophobia, and various other forms of bigotry. But Alexis Ohanian, its cofounder and current executive chairman, has few answers, other than to say those who promote hate speech on the site are "deplorable."
Wednesday at TechCrunch Disrupt in New York City, Ohanian was taken to task by Techcrunch's Alexia Tsotsis for the company's handling of "The Fappening," the series of hacks on celebrities that resulted in nude photos of dozens of actresses being leaked to the internet. Reddit was one of the few places that didn't immediately delete the photos.
After several days and hundreds of millions of pageviews, the company finally changed its policy to disallow the photos, though they are still being uploaded in various subreddits.
He said that once he returned to help run the site with Pao, the company's response to the Fappening was "at the top of the list for us."
"Reddit missed an opportunity to be a leader when that happened," he said, adding that his discussions with Pao led directly to the site eventually banning revenge porn.
"These are things I can't even empathize with as a straight white dude."
More generally, women, people of color, LGBT people, and other minorities are often abused on certain parts of the site. And, even with the revenge porn ban, there's little to suggest that Reddit is going to become the "safe space" that the company said today it wants to be.
Recently, Reddit's interim CEO, Ellen Pao, who lost a gender discrimination suit against her former employer Kleiner Perkins, has been the subject of intense abuse in the comment section of several subreddits (as an aside, Ohanian said he hoped Pao would become the site's permanent CEO).
"Why is the internet so hard on women?" Tsotsis asked Ohanian. "Why is the internet predisposed to railing on women in a way that's inhuman?"
"I would go further to say it's not just women but people of color, LGBT issues, unfortunately, the list goes on," Ohanian said. "The internet as a technology is incredibly liberating because it lets anyone anywhere have a megaphone."
"I really do believe the reasonable voices will win."
"But why do they use that megaphone to tell someone they look fat when they have a photo posted online?" she asked.
"It is deplorable," Ohanian said. "The vast majority of the time, the people using these platforms are good."
Ohanian framed misogyny as more of an internet-wide problem, which, it obviously is—but didn't give any concrete details about what Reddit would be doing to crack down on it. Instead, he buys into the idea that the problem will eventually sort itself out from within.
"I really do believe the reasonable voices will win, but, yes, it's extremely hard, and these are things I can't even empathize with as a straight white dude," he said. "I hope though that we can continue to get better at this. It's going to take a collaborative effort."
Reddit's very ideals are somewhat at odds with each other: In a post today, Reddit said that its "core values" are to "champion diversity" and "give people voices" by "creating a safe space to encourage participation." Meanwhile, the company values the anonymity it bestows on its users and it also wants to "allow freedom of expression" and "be stewards, not dictators. The community owns itself," the company wrote.
And that, in part, is the problem. Reddit is such a huge conglomeration of miniature communities, some of which have values that are overtly racist, homophobic, misogynistic, or creepy. Some of these communities are outright hate groups, and Reddit not only allows them to flourish, but, in fact, believes that they're part of its massive success.
Tsotsis asked Ohanian why Reddit was able to take down Digg, one of its early rivals. His answer was telling—not because it was wrong, but because Reddit's success is built, partly, on allowing people to do whatever the heck they want. He said that Reddit's subreddit system, in which communities can grow more or less under the purview of whoever happened to start it, gave users a more personalized experience.
He said Digg became "way too much noise" as it was all sequestered under one homepage. But Reddit's subreddit system has allowed communities like /r/coontown and /r/gasthekikes to flourish under "moderators" like "GreatApeNiggy," who also runs or moderates no fewer than 90 racist subreddits. Meanwhile, hubs of misogyny like /r/mensrights are moderated by a handful of people who moderate other places that are unsafe for women.
Ohanian is right when he says there's lots of good that happens on Reddit, and often the more mainstream subreddits police themselves (not always though, of course). But if he's going to extol the flexibility and virtues of the subreddit system, he's also got to notice and address its shortcomings: Hateful, abusive content is posted and celebrated constantly on the site, and it often seeps onto the front page—is Reddit going to do anything to stop it? Does it even want to?