Reddit’s foundations are crumbling. Disturbances are happening within the headquarters and the leadership. The frontpage of the internet is in anarchy.
(Addendum: 2,5 years after I wrote this post, I came back on a lot of the opinions expressed in this post. The world had changed and I had been too naive to notice. I realized the value and necessity of interference from above, and how it’s necessary to keep the community healthy by banning certain subreddits. I still stand behind what I said about the beauty of the political system that is Reddit, and how interesting it was when the community carried out digital civil disobedience in the Great Reddit 2015 Blackout, but I realize now I was on the wrong side of the fence. Interference should always be scrutinized, it deserves transparancy and democratic oversight. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen.)
As most of my friends know, I’m often on Reddit. that massive forum that calls itself (often rightfully) the frontpage of the internet.
I love observing the community. I enjoy how it resembles a real society so often, how it is a digital political entity.
It has its own rules. Its own leaders in the form of moderators. Its popular places in the form of top subreddits. Its own celebrities. Its obscure and dark corners. Its own scandals and corruption.
Better than a real live community, It allows anyone to be anonymous. to choose where they belong, and what parts they want to belong to. To pick an identity and roll with it.
I love how it has a certain authenticity, but also how there is uproar when said authenticity is damaged. But lately I’ve been feeling like things are about to change, and the end of Reddit as we know it is in sight.
Change of Leadership
There’s been a lot of turmoil with Reddit lately due to its change in leadership in the real world – Ellen Pao, an MBA with zero previous affinity has become CEO and leader in charge of Reddit. A change that is transforming this community which I’ve grown to love.
What directly led me to write about this today is that one of Reddit’s most beloved employee was fired for reasons unknown. Victoria was the direct communication support for celebrities doing an AMA. On the wildly popular subreddit /r/iama, celebrities appear and allow redditors to “Ask me Anything” (AMA), a very down to earth Q&A that almost ‘everyone who’s anyone’ has done. Even President Obama has done a historic AMA.
Victoria not only helps the celebrities with AMA’s, who usually have never browsed reddit before (a website which can come across as very user-unfriendly for a first time user) but she is the helpline and direct contact point within Reddit’s administration for the users. When subreddits, like /r/science or /r/books want to organize an AMA for a celebrity from their niche, Victoria would help set this up and guide the moderators of such subreddits. Victoria was highly respected in the community and very committed to her tasks.
/r/iama has gone dark as a protest since it cannot function without her, and a whole bunch of other default subreddits (the most popular subreddits) have gone into private mode as well.
Why Victoria was fired is as of yet unknown, but it is yet another sign on the wall of how reddit’s owners have stopped caring about its community, and have taken over command.
The first legitimately concerning occasion in my opinion was when a few weeks ago a bunch of subreddits were banned for being too offensive. Previously the website had banned subreddits (rightfully so) that encouraged illegal acts, such as the spread of childpornography and revenge porn.
But banning subreddits for being offensive is walking on a thin line, bordering on and (perhaps in this case already crossing) censorship. Those who have objected against the bans, regardless of their intentions, have been shadowbanned. Sent to Siberia.
The community at large previously decided what is offensive by self-moderating. Inappropriate behaviour was banned to some dark subreddits, where offensive people could talk to offensive people and they could just take it out on each other.
But now the higher command has taken over.
The 5 subreddits banned are the rather small subreddits /r/fatpeoplehate, /r/hamplanethate /r/transfag /r/shitniggerssay and /r/neofag.
These bans has proven to be a very arbitrary decision, seemingly based solely on personal dislikes of the CEO. I say this because there are hundreds of small subreddits with a equally offensive message who were not banned. Among those:
/r/BeatingTrannies, /r/RapingWomen, /r/PhilosophyOfRape, /r/StruggleFucking, /r/AbusePorn2,
/r/AntiPOZi, /r/SlutJustice, /r/CoonTown, /r/CuteFemaleCorpses, /r/SexWithDogs, /r/SexWithHorses,
/r/CandidFashionPolice, /r/GreatApes, /r/NecroPorn, /r/DeepThroatTears, /r/Painal ,…
You can imagine the kind of content going around in those subreddits…
Such a decision to ban was like chopping off the hydra’s head; if you ban those 5, then there are many, many more that should also be banned.
Now that pandora’s box is opened, they can’t close it anymore. To avoid hypocrisy, they should ban every other subreddit that is offensive (who will decide on this?) and not banning one would implicitely say that those subreddits are “alright” since they have the power to ban, but don’t.
Other than it being a hypocrite decision, the bans seem bad for the community as a whole. Those subreddits serve as containment. Banning the sub wouldn’t get rid of the idea…it just removes the container.
Maybe the really shitty individuals who are genuinely upset that such content disappeared will now leave Reddit. But most will probably just stay and spew their hate on subreddits which were healthy.
(addendum: a study performed 2 years after this ban showed that many former members of /r/fatpeoplehate and /r/coontown either left Reddit indeed, but those who stayed also slowed down significantly on their hatespeech. the subreddits that the former members migrated to did not receive much more hatespeech. in other words: Science proved me wrong!)
It’s an tough question whether Reddit should offer a forum for shitty people. It’s kind of the same question whether we should try to rehabilitate paedophiles into society. In any healthy society you will have rotten apples. But with this decision Reddit HQ decided it does not want to reflect a real society, which deeply saddens me.
(addendum: I no longer stand behind this flawed analogy. Studies have shown that paedophilia is a sexual preference that cannot be cured, we can only refrain pedophiles from acting upon their sexual desires. Hatred CAN be cured and should not be condoned because “it reflects society”)
Corporate interests crushing a community
It’s maybe insensitive to the people who feel offended by such hateful subreddits, and maybe it’s dramatic for a community to react to a website that is changing a few things, but really think of this community as an actual country, population: 36 million accounts. They don’t just see this as a website changing its policy, they see it as their internet-country shifting political direction.
A lot of money circulates in this website thanks to this community. In the end this decision to monitor the content is there for the advertisers. It’s a corporate decision, not a social decision. Such bans will make marketeers less ashamed to be advertising on a website when hateful subreddits are deleted. Decisions made for money will always break the social bonds and are inevitably hurting the community.
(addendum: now that I’ve come to agree that these were good decisions, I see how commercial interests are powerful incentives to keep a community healthy when the community itself is not able to see its systemic errors that produce toxicity)
The decision to fire Victoria might have been a corporate decision as well. Maybe she wasn’t complying with new guidelines the company was giving? Maybe they wanted her not to let the celebrities reply to hard-hitting questions?
It is interesting to see how the community is really fighting this change. The idea to turn off the lights on the big subreddits is a striking example of civil protest against political leaders, comparable to a public service strike. They’re hitting the administration where it hurts the most: slowing down traffic and inevitably making them lose money.
What direction the administration will go with this situation is open for debate. Likely they’ll take over control from the moderators (who are not paid, and are just simple redditors) and make sure none of the big subreddits can’t go dark anymore. To appease people, maybe they’ll restore Victoria, or replace her with someone who does the job just as well, and we’ll all “forget” this ever happened. But the scene has been set and Reddit no longer belongs to the community, so it seems.
Some redditors feel like they’ve landed in a real dictatorship, fleeing the website as if they became refugees. They feel like political prisoners for being silenced and shadowbanned when uttering critique. Those in the leadership that disagree are exiled, or fired in this case.
(addendum: comparing the new CEO to Mao was typical for Reddit’s unbridled way to show its discontent and feeling of oppression, but is (and was) widely inappropriate)
Most redditors are accepting these decisions, muttering under their breath and just telling themselves that at least a lot of the daily life is still the same, where there are still funny cat pictures and interesting factoids…
Hopefully the underbelly will keep trying to make its management listen to the community by shutting down popular subreddits, reducing traffic and upsetting the advertisers. Hopefully we can reclaim back Reddit for the people. But as long as its owners are profit-oriented, I’m afraid all is already lost.