The worst people on Reddit are angry.
Today, Reddit's leadership banned a handful of the site's communities, also known as "subreddits," after deciding they didn't fall in line with its new anti-harassment policies. The rules were announced in May and marked a significant shift in the company's attitude toward moderation, which for years was essentially a bullet point that said "don't do anything super illegal." That laissez-faire approach incubated some of the nastiest places on the internet, including subreddits like "Fat People Hate" — one of the communities that was just banned.
So now that Reddit is taking more control, the site's angry trolls are ready to burn down the house. They're already calling it the next Digg, which is probably the most serious threat you can make to the people who run Reddit, who live in perpetual fear of becoming the next Digg.
"I think people will look back on this as the beginning of the end for Reddit."
"I think people will look back on this as the beginning of the end for Reddit," user "cardevioraphicticia" wrote in the official thread announcing today's bans. "I remember when Digg when [sic] down this road - it was about 5 minutes before I first created a Reddit account."
The great irony in all this hair-trigger martyrdom is that Reddit has always been friendly to censorship. For most of the site's history the most meaningful rules were created and enforced by its community moderators, who could be anyone that decided to create a subreddit. Reddit moderators have censored all kinds of material, including reputable journalism. It's never actually been a model of free speech, unless the ideal of free speech includes 6,000 nations run by the kind of tyrants who have the time and inclination to moderate internet message boards.
The First Amendment continues to elude internet trolls
Of course, it's not clear that a handful of moderators at Reddit (the company) are superior to a distributed community of moderators at Reddit (the community). The only sympathetic part of the outrageous response to today's bans is that expecting a small bureaucracy to manage such a massive community could lead to uneven or unfair results, especially if its definition of harassment is dubious. Part of that is Reddit's fault, because it's still afraid to go all the way and purge its most insidious cesspools of hate speech. The company says "we're banning behavior, not ideas": a policy far too nuanced for angry trolls who mistakenly believe the First Amendment is essentially a license to, say, walk into someone's living room and mock them for being fat.
And really, that's what we're talking about here. A bunch of people who are mad that a private company (Reddit) isn't willing to tolerate vicious mockery and other toxic behavior in its living room. There is no grand censorship happening here, despite what these trolls want you (and each other) to believe. The reason the internet is so wild is that it's actually not like the town square. If you want to spew outrageously racist stuff, guess what, there are plenty of spaces online for you to express yourself. Ku Klux Klan message boards and 8chan will be happy to welcome you.
But if these people — the fat shamers, the white supremacists, the Gamergate zealots — constitute a critical mass of users who are capable of destroying Reddit by leaving it for another site, then what is Reddit's value beyond serving those keen for loathing and abuse? Who would be left to protect?
I'm optimistic this won't be the end of Reddit. But I hope, for once, Reddit's angry trolls make good on one threat: to leave and never come back.