Thanks to its 40 million loosely moderated users, Reddit has achieved massive growth with a minimum of regulation. Its hands-off approach is strongly libertarian, giving users a platform to say almost anything while treating anonymity as sacrosanct. But after the publication of a Gawker article outing Violentacrez, one of Reddit’s most controversial users, moderators and admins are increasingly having to decide where to draw the line when the two conflict — and how to deal with criticism of their policies.
At its most concrete, this conflict manifests in discussions about whether (and how) to ban either links to recent pieces on Gawker and Jezebel or the entire Gawker blog family. But it’s also present in the fabric of the site’s administration. Late last week, a moderator named Solidwhetstone posted a discussion from the #modtalk IRC channel on Pastebin, revealing widespread uncertainty about their policies. Shortly after releasing the information, he says he was banned from the ModTalk subreddit and IRC room.
"I love Reddit. I love this userbase. But Reddit isn't handling this in a transparent way."
Plenty of moderators have little interaction with the site’s admins, but that’s not the case for Solidwhetstone. Admins mentioned him by name on the Internet 2012 bus, where his picture hung on the wall as thanks for his Indiegogo contribution. He describes the leak as accidental — he’d apparently meant to post the chat only to the ModTalk subreddit — but says the reaction to it is a sharp contrast from his previous experience. During an earlier project, "no one worried about a chat conversation getting 'leaked,’" he tells The Verge, "because we weren't ever talking about anything we wouldn't tell the users." While he insists that he still "loves" the admins, he’s disappointed in what he sees as "cloak and dagger" behavior from Reddit in the wake of the Violentacrez outing.
"Getting banned from #modtalk and witnessing how Reddit handled this situation caused me to lose a lot of faith," he says. "I love Reddit. I love this userbase. But Reddit isn't handling this in a transparent way."
Solidwhetstone has had his trust shaken, but he’s still managing his subreddits and participating in the community. The same can’t be said for Wordsauce, a longtime user who says he’s been banned from the site with little explanation. Before the recent furor, Wordsauce was best known for his alternate account "Grandpa Wiggly," where he posed as an 80-year-old failed mayonnaise entrepreneur. Now, both profiles are gone in an apparent shadowban, an admin-enforced measure which lets the user post and browse the site normally but hides them from other users. It’s primarily used to contain spammers, but Wordsauce says he was told he’d been banned for posting personal information.
"If you're not with them, you're against them."
"I've said some harsh things about Violentacrez/Michael Brutsch the last few days, and have argued with the people defending him," he says. "A Redditor learned Violentacrez's true identity and gave it to Adrian Chen. I believe my recent actions have led some to believe that I was this leak... Because if you're not with them, you're against them." (Update: after we published this story, Wordsauce informed us that he has been harassed and threatened for speaking out against Violentacrez).
Wordsauce spent years fabricating an identity with Grandpa Wiggly, raising the ire of plenty of Redditors in the process, and we haven’t been able to verify why his accounts were closed. But users at all levels are clearly struggling to balance idealism with the practical difficulties of managing a site. In an email to us, general manager Erik Martin admitted that "the distinction between third party sites, and doxxing vs. journalism" is "something the Reddit community is figuring out, but it hasn't been figured out before." The potential problems, however, go much deeper.
"Through inaction, we enabled [a] culture of defiance to develop."
On at least one major subreddit, a user was temporarily banned for posting a Verge article critical of Reddit’s moderation policy — one that notably contained no references to members’ names — and many other subreddits have banned Gawker and its affiliates across the board in a clear act of retaliation. Both actions are within the bounds of moderators’ rights, but they’re more in line with a community circling the wagons than the free speech absolutism espoused by many Redditors. In the leaked chat, meanwhile, one moderator argued for "proactive... and eventually, predictive" action against groups that threaten the site or its users’ anonymity, arguing that "through inaction, we enabled [a] culture of defiance to develop."
Even moderators of the most benign subreddits mention that they’ve been threatened with exposure for banning members or deleting a post, and they’re right to fear the hair triggers of internet vigilantes. It’s also likely that the present controversy will blow over in the coming weeks, as higher-trafficked and less controversial subreddits continue business as usual after the r/creepshots shutdown. But Reddit appears to be tentatively balancing its self-interest as a community with its ideals, whether that means limiting anti-Reddit sentiments on the site or cutting ties with certain parts of the outside world. Solidwhetstone hopes that whatever happens, it will at least be conducted transparently. "Make your mistakes in public and people are more forgiving," he tells us. "Make them in private and they'll be ruthless when they find out (and they always do)."