Friday afternoon, SXSWi hosted a panel called, “It’s Reddit’s Web. We Just Live in It.” The room was packed. And sadly, as though to prove the title’s point, what might have been a reflective, thoughtful discussion about the massive site’s power and influence – its achievements as well as its flaws and foibles – instead became a contentious Q&A session dominated by apparent Redditors who felt misrepresented.
The three panelists, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, Gawker writer Adrian Chen, and Skepchick’s Rebecca Watson, briefly discussed Reddit’s achievements, including its part in defeating SOPA, the contentious bill introduced by the US Congress in 2011 and designed to expand law enforcement’s ability to fight online piracy. (Reddit’s co-founder Alexis Ohanian had reportedly been asked to speak – and declined.)
The panelists then turned to what was arguably the focal point of the afternoon: a discussion of the well-documented, less positive things to have emerged from Reddit. Adrian Chen summarized his reporting about the site, most notably his unmasking (that’s “doxxing” in Reddit-speak) of ViolentAcrez, a powerful moderator and creator of the controversial ‘jailbait’ subreddit. The unmasking violated Reddit’s anti-doxxing policy – and Chen suffered the consequences when many Reddit subsites banned Gawker links.
"As much as I love to talk trash on Redditors, it’s not the users I have a problem with."
Somewhere in the midst of Chen’s remarks, around 15 minutes into the event, a man approached the Q&A microphone. For several minutes he stood in the center aisle, silently. While Rebecca Watson explained how an account of sexual assault was quickly decried as “fake” by the Reddit community, the man’s presence was finally acknowledged. He said he wanted to talk about how Reddit could be improved rather than focus on its badly behaved minority, interrupting the panelists as they tried to respond. Manjoo said “we’ll get to that,” and the man shuffled back to his seat.
The three panelists primarily criticized the site, but not its users. “As much as I love to talk trash on Redditors,” Chen said, “it’s not the users I have a problem with.” Instead, discussion focused on Reddit’s uneven power structure and its management, which has done little to cull the misogyny and racism that has made the site notorious.
That caveat didn’t prevent a contentious Q&A session. Alan Schaaf, creator of the Imgur image-hosting service, which owes much of its popularity to Reddit, began by producing a list of community achievements. He read from his phone into the microphone: they donated this amount to charity, they have the world’s largest Secret Santa program, etc. Several items deep, it seemed clear he didn’t have a question. Schaaf and other questioners seemed to channel co-founder Ohanian, who regularly speaks out as a sort of cheerleader for Reddit’s achievements, unwilling or unable to constructively discuss the site’s darker side.
One audience member suggested Reddit exists solely in cyberspace, parallel to – and very different from – the “real world.” Watson disagreed, because acceptance (and at times active encouragement) of racism and misogyny normalizes such behavior. She described meeting a Redditor who told her a “joke” about a fat person being run over by a car. He didn’t realize that, in the real world, someone might justifiably be offended. The habits and practices of “internet” places like Reddit, she said, can bleed into real life.
The habits and practices of “internet” places like Reddit can bleed into real life
The Q&A demonstrated that fairly accurately. It wasn’t simply the acrimonious questions, or that much of the audience clearly disagreed with the panelists. It was that several of the questioners seemed to not know how to operate in the IRL environment. They were rude and combative, interrupting and speaking over the panelists. Watson at one point interrupted Schaaf to note that she felt his speech was “weird and a little rude.”
Which isn’t to say that such behavior is Reddit-specific, of course. Last year at SXSW a small but steady and loud stream of people walked out of the Al Gore and Sean Parker keynote as they spoke, disrupting many attendees who were listening to the interview. In general, conferences aren’t where people are on their best behavior. Still, in a room full of adults, it was hard not to feel that Watson’s point – that bad behavior online can lead to bad behavior in life – was rather poignantly demonstrated.
Just once did anyone, Adrian Chen, note that Reddit is a business. It’s a wholly owned, independently run subsidiary of the massive Advance Publications – a point that was never mentioned. Still, Redditors choose to believe that they, the community, own Reddit, and to a certain extent – with its powerful self-moderation and system of up- and down-voting – they’re right. Unfortunately, for Redditors, with the power of ownership comes that of accountability, and, at some point, they’re going to have to own that, too.