Reddit prides itself on its decentralized meritocracy —"subreddits are a free market. Anyone can create a subreddit and decide how it's run," it says. So far this model has been very successful in launching sites: there are tens of thousands of subreddits on any imaginable topic, with an endless supply of new forums open for the taking, all which rise and fall based on the desires of the community. Reddit generally polices just five basic rules, one of which is "don't post personal information." Other rules include no spam, no cheating the system, and no child pornography — a rule that expanded just seven months ago to include "no suggestive or sexual content featuring minors" after a subreddit completely based on that kind of content gained national infamy from mainstream voices like CNN's Anderson Cooper. And while the expectation of anonymity is a powerful part of Reddit's ideology, as the community's most powerful moderators learned this week, that protection doesn't extend to the world outside of the site's control.
Reddit's most controversial community members, creators and contributors to predatory communities like r/jailbait and r/creepshots, have long enjoyed the site's official system-wide shield of anonymity. But earlier this week when Gawker's Adrian Chen threatened to unmask the infamous Violentacrez, one of Reddit's most unsavory subreddit owners, several of Reddit's most powerful moderators began to systematically censor and ban all of Gawker's content. (Indeed, it was a bad week for anonymity on Reddit, and Jezebel's call to unmask the posters of r/creepshots was met with similar ire). Reddit's reactive censorship, spearheaded by the leaders of massive million-member subreddits like r/politics, attacked Chen for "threatening to publish" the real-life identity of one of its most controversial users. In the days since, Reddit's moderators have scrambled to control the damage of Violentacrez's leaked identity.
"We don't get involved unless it has something to do with rules."
Given recent events, Reddit's leadership structure looks problematic on the surface. While Reddit's official caretakers insist that the community model is carefully conceived, major decisions — and confusion about the site's policies — end up trickling down to its de-facto rulers: its moderators. In the past few days, those rulers have grappled with the balance of speech and privacy in Reddit's major forums. Nowhere are moderators required to accept content in their fiefdoms, and they're not prohibited from banning it as they see fit: the expectation of free speech is merely a norm, whereas privacy of personal identity is baked in to the site's limited set of formal rules. And while privacy is a rule the site's admins take seriously, it doesn't apply to journalists who disseminate information in the public interest outside of Reddit.
This distinction surprised Reddit's secretive, powerful group of moderators, who have been rallying around the site's clandestine culture. They too are afraid of having the curtain pulled back, evidenced by a leaked chat between high-profile moderators and Reddit's admins:
So when I go to http://reddit.com/rules and see that rule #3 is "Don't post personal information," yet I see personal information that the admins have left up, I along with many others, get worried.
[Reddit Admin] deleting things that link to bad links is not sustainable. what if it were in a wikipedia article, should we ban that whole domain?
ok, do you see where this gets us though? this puts us in the position of wondering what happens when it's one of us
redtaboo: we can't control things that aren't on reddit. they could just as easily dox any of us admins too. fundamentally, they will have to face the consequences of their own actions and we can't control that.
The question comes down to this: how should moderators deal with links to sites that play by a different set of rules? With Gawker revealing personal information on Reddit users, should mods ban all links to the site?
Burn After Reading
Before Chen ran his piece on Friday, outing Violentacrez's real-life identity, Violentacrez deleted his Reddit account, and the subreddit at the center of the storm — a place where people anonymously post covertly-snapped, sexually suggestive photos of women in public — was banned. But Violentacrez's departure and the banning of r/creepshots aren't a consequence of proactive leadership from Reddit's admins.
The ban on r/creepshots was a suicide, not a hit from Reddit's admins
As he was leaving Reddit's 10-day long Internet 2012 bus tour, Reddit GM Erik Martin told me that the creators of r/creepshots requested for their subreddit to be closed, and that it was not banned for violating any of the site's rules. Martin had been dealing with the ordeal for days, after news of Gawker's upcoming story first hit Reddit. (The news broke thanks to Reddit user "Potato_In_My_Anus," whose user page has also conspicuously disappeared from the site).
Martin's claim that r/creepshots requested its own closure seems to be backed up by evidence of a threat issued to the subreddit's owner. According to a leaked private message, r/creepshot's moderator (user CreeperComforts) allegedly received a threatening private message demanding for the subreddit to be closed, or else their identity would also be revealed:
Please don't go to the trouble of denying your identity. We have archived a great deal of evidence to confirm it.
Today you have a choice between two options.
Option 1. *Shut down r/creeptshots. *Unmod all the other moderators. *Delete every submission. *Delete your own creepshots from Imgur. *Leave only one post up: a public apology from you to the women of Toronto and to women in general for what you've been doing...
Option 2. Use your imagination.
We advise you to choose option 1. Clean up your mess, change your behavior, and move on with your life. You have 48 hours to decide.
A Reddit moderator claims the private message is authentic, and the subject matter doesn't require a stretch of the imagination: a subculture of vigilantes have been fighting against r/creepshots and its predecessors for some time, routinely attempting to shed light on the dangerous nature of these communities.
But Martin remains bullish about the company's approach to its community structure, and distances the site from the actions of its moderators: as he told Betabeat when controversy over r/creepshots mounted, "moderators are free to moderate their subreddits as they see fit. They can ban all usernames that start with the letter g if they want." Martin later told BuzzFeed that "we don't get involved unless it has something to do with rules." Reddit did appear to intervene in solidarity with its cabal of power moderators initially, when a site-wide ban on Gawker's content appeared on the site. Martin said that "the sitewide ban of the recent Adrian Chen article was a mistake on our part and was fixed this morning."
Reddit the dinner guest, Reddit the knave
Out of many, there's Reddit. There's r/IAMA, where the President of the United States felt comfortable enough to field questions from the public in the same forum that draws interviews with porn actors. Countless other weird, uncouth, or morally ambiguous juxtapositions define Reddit's platform. And Reddit's multifaceted image is a part of the site's culture that its keepers fully acknowledge and embrace: discussions about the site's seedy and offensive corners among Reddit's Internet 2012 tour guests drew the equivalent of shrugs from Martin. For all of the eye rolling and skeptical conversation about r/spacedicks and its peers, Reddit's admins ultimately treat these communities as a fact of life — a feature of the platform.
Reddit gets a lot of credit from supporters for this hands-off philosophy, especially from those who find impositions on speech unconscionable: the fact that subreddits packed with despicable comments, gore, bestiality, and other unmentionables don't get banned on the grounds of moral queasiness is a testament of Reddit's indifference to objectionable content. But in reality, Reddit's admins wield limited power over their own creation: by the admission of the site's own co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, the company parades its non-interventionism in content matters like a political talking point. Unlike Digg, we don't fuck with our users.
"I'm not OK with the idea that my sister / girlfriend / goddaughter should have the ever-present concern that their actions in public may be recorded."
Responding to the outburst of censorship this week, Ohanian sympathized with r/creepshot critics, but deflected the controversy, pointing to the fact that creepy bad behavior isn't unique to Reddit. "Just as social media and ubiquitous smartphones have enabled people to document and share police brutality (a positive for society)," he said in an email to The Verge, "they also enable reprehensible behavior like taking and sharing these 'creepshots' (an obvious negative for society)." Ohanian said that he's "OK with the idea that police officers should have the ever-present concern that their actions in public may be recorded, yet I'm not OK with the idea that my sister / girlfriend / goddaughter should have the ever-present concern that their actions in public may be recorded." Ohanian said he thinks we should change the behavior of people who run communities like r/creepshots, but he said "that's going to mean changing people's attitudes, which is a discussion we the internet public should have."
When asked about the risk that Reddit's fractured moderation structure presents to the community, Ohanian towed the site's ongoing policy on moderation and subreddit creation. Reddit's own about page is explicit about bad moderators: it tells users that "if you are unable to resolve your grievances with the current moderation team of a subreddit, the best response is often to create a competitor and see if the community follows you." Ohanian says that "improved subreddit discovery will help this," so in other words, your best bet is to still to pack up your belongings and find a new home.
"Statistically, one percent of traffic is always going to be doing the heavy lifting of subreddit creation and moderation," Ohanian said. He's optimistic that Reddit will continue to grow on its existing model, and believes "it can be stable as tens of thousands of subreddits continue to grow. This will go a long way toward making the 'subreddit market' even more fluid than it is." Whether Reddit should continue with it's hands-free model or implement clearer policies from the top is a discussion sure to split the community, but for now it seems like Reddit's leadership seems happy to maintain its present course of staying out of the way.