Is Reddit Poised to Fail?

The site that calls itself “The Front Page of the Internet” may be about to collapse. Not because of censorship or any legislative act or any aggressive move by litigious corporations, but simply because serious people will abandon them. The recent ouster of CEO Ellen Pao in response to her efforts to clean up some of Reddit’s more puerile and offensive threads is a good thing. I don’t say this because I lack sympathy for whatever frustration Pao may be feeling but because I am glad to see Reddit as an organization reveal itself for what it is; and in that regard, I cannot in this moment articulate what it is any better than Sam Biddle writing for Gawker, thus:

“… an overwhelmingly male group of very vocal power-users whose understanding of progressive politics is limited to the idea that their pirated ecchi torrents have just as much a right to bandwidth as Netflix, few things are more offensive than being told what to do by a woman. And when harassment was banned and their fat-hating subreddit was shut down, they plugged their ears and screamed and stomped and spammed swastikas until they got their way. (It obviously didn’t hurt that their way also happened to align with the interests of the site’s founders.)”

As Biddle implies in his article, the adolescent mob rule that forced the resignation of Pao may be a sign that the site as a business—because it is a business—cannot afford to mature without losing a large portion of its user base. And it will soon become clear that the serious people who give Reddit the credibility it has earned as a platform for real discourse—advertisers, prominent guests for the Ask Me Anything forums, and of course the publishing conglomerate that currently owns the site—will come to view Reddit’s ruling mob as a liability rather than an asset. If this happens, the site could disappear altogether or simply disintegrate into another 4Chan. To quote Biddle again:

“For Reddit to become something resembling a viable business, it has to make money, and that means making the bigots and stalkers and imbeciles feel less welcome—how many firms will do business with the company that pays to keep /r/GasTheKikes running? Any outside CEO is therefore facing an impossible job: fumigate Reddit sufficiently for advertisers while placating a hostile militia of superusers that can’t seem to distinguish between mild rules and a prison sentence on Robben Island.”

Just a couple of posts ago, I wrote the following in regard to Reddit’s hosting hate forums like watchniggersdie and rapingwomen:

“…when the owner of a site or a publication makes a judgment call to moderate or even delete material that is both offensive and useless, it’s called editing, not censorship. It is the difference between a mature grasp of the contours of freedom and an adolescent penchant for anarchy. Anarchy is an illusion of freedom in which nobody is free except the monsters.”

Reddit is a sad parable for the enlightenment we promised ourselves we would make of the digital age. Its founders—progressives like Alexis Ohanian—have presumed themselves to be relevant voices, speaking on behalf of the cybernetic phase in the evolution of civil liberty; yet they cannot seem to extricate themselves from the adolescent mob of trolls, racists, misogynists, anti-semites, and general goons whence their political clout is derived. Or maybe they don’t want to.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to regular reader John Warr for this update from The Register. Says current CEO Steve Huffman, “The overwhelming majority of content on Reddit comes from wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities. That is what makes Reddit great. There is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don’t have any obligation to support them. And we also believe that some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all,”

© 2015, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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7 comments

  • Apparently Pao was holding back the axe from the offensive reddits. Now that she has gone the CEO has said that the axe will descend.
    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/07/15/reddit_cofounder_uturn_free_speech/
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-33536930

  • Will the “wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities” port over to more restrictive and controlled sites? My guess is…no… If they can no longer post on Reddit, a new Reddit will come along that’s just like the old one.

    The aura of political correctness that pervades society these days and demands to stick its nose everywhere is foaming at the mouth in anticipation of more places to bring to heel if Reddit goes down. It’s just like the Freedom of Speech cliche…if you want free speech, you have to be willing to tolerate that which you don’t want to hear. For my money, Pao is clueless on so many levels…,

    • Personally I hardly ever look at stuff on reddit. I’ve yet to find these “wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities” there. Just one big yawn of gobshitery. If it keeps the racists, and losers out of my way all well and good. The problem is that they don’t stay in their boxes but ooze out across rest of the web where they think that their stupid behaviour is the norm.

    • David Newhoff

      I disagree that free speech is an issue here. Nobody questions the right of people to behave like pigs. There is no government agency looking to shut down Reddit. Hell, there’s a measure of convenience for the FBI when the prospective Dylann Roofs congregate somewhere on the web. The point is that Reddit is a business and one that at least claims to be relevant. Just because people have a right to shit-talk does not mean any particular entity is obligated to provide them with a platform, and it doesn’t mean society will view their shit-talk as relevant. Free speech really doesn’t come into play here at all, and neither does excessive political correctness. There’s a world of difference between people who are too PC to talk seriously about sensitive issues and a bunch of drooling adolescents getting their rocks off by typing out racial slurs and rape fantasies.

  • “Its founders—progressives like Alexis Ohanian—have presumed themselves to be relevant voices, speaking on behalf of the cybernetic phase in the evolution of civil liberty; yet they cannot seem to extricate themselves from the adolescent mob of trolls, racists, misogynists, anti-semites, and general goons whence their political clout is derived. Or maybe they don’t want to.”

    These trolls, racists, misogynists, anti-semites, and general goons reflect the dark side of human nature and represent a very small fraction of Reddit and the Internet community in general. Reddit didn’t create these people; they’ve always been around. And whether or not reddit provides the platform, somewhere else will.

    Of course, there should be boundaries on speech, and certain subreddits absolutely be censored (and yes, there is no question that it is private censorship- you can call it editing, but it’s still suppression of speech on moral or “politically correct” grounds). The problem is when reddit seems to be so tied to its corporate sponsors that it no longer cares about the user community. It’s not just the fact that several offensive subreddits were taken down, it’s that they were taken down with pretty much no notice or communication, and several popular staff members like Victoria (who’s long been the liaison for the AMA’s) were fired (who, by the way, was a woman on the reddit team who the “overwhelmingly male group of vocal power-users” protested the firing of) with very little notice. If reddit was willing to do all this under Ellen Bao’s direction, who knows what else might have been done?

    Do you really think users give a crap that /r/gasthekikes was taken down because a majority of users are anti-semites that want reddit to provide their forum for hating on jews? Of course not. But when a company that was created on the idea of providing an open platform for users starts getting rid of large amounts of content with little prior notice, very clearly doing so to appease corporate advertisers at the expense of users, it makes it look like reddit doesn’t care about its users. And generally, when a company appears to not care about its consumers, it looks bad for that company.

    • The larger question I think is whether or not Reddit is a business and whether or not it can be. And what I find interesting is Reddit having to deal with the real-world conflict between its interests as a business and its founders often naive — or at least overinflated — sense of importance as a new era in free speech.

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