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,”

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