In 2005, Reddit was founded by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian: two college roommates who wanted to create a place to exchange links. It wasn't a "bastion of free speech," or anything even resembling a community. So it shouldn't surprise anyone that the company's new leaders, who are the same as its original founders, don't seem to know how to deal with the monster they created.
Reddit's leaders — dual patriarchs who have each indulged in fantasies about democracy 2.0 — don't seem to understand that their internet message board is not actually a country and their content policy is not legislation. They don't understand their own product. Community cannot be fixed with technology; hateful language cannot be contained with a splash page. The idea that Reddit is some kind of government is a metaphor gone horribly wrong, and one that has caused its leaders to sabotage themselves when framing their obligations. For example, new Reddit CEO Steve Huffman wrote on Thursday that "banning is like capital punishment," which is an absurd, intellectually childish way to talk about closing message boards that post racist memes. Still, it's pretty telling; that kind of language mostly makes sense to a swath of angry young men who think they are the new Sons of Liberty for calling Ellen Pao tyrannical.
This week, Reddit users widely expected the site's worst communities to be culled after Huffman foreshadowed drastic action. As usual, here's what actually happened: yesterday, the people in charge of Reddit made more vague promises that will do very little to purge the site of its ruinous racists and trolls. As BuzzFeed's Charlie Warzel correctly put it, Reddit's community needed leadership, but what it got was more ideology.
Reddit's leaders haven't given anybody a reason to trust them
Here are the key additions to the site's short list of rules:
- The "prohibited content" list has expanded to include "anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people," or that "incites harm."
- Content that "violates a common sense of decency" will become slightly harder to find by requiring users to log in to see it. The test for what falls under this category will be "I know it when I see it."
If we forgive the Reddit-as-government metaphor for a moment, it has a bigger problem. Reddit doesn't know how to be an effective government. "I know it when I see it" is an out-dated Supreme Court indecency standard that was used to regulate the location of porn stores. And the same problems that came up with that standard are now coming up on Reddit; Huffman had to respond to confused users and assure them that words like "offensive" and "obscene" wouldn't be used to ban the site's sex-positive BDSM and kink communities.
Reddit is struggling to make clear policies, but that's not enough. It also has to do some real work to enforce them. When told by one user that the new prohibited content policy looks a lot like the old one, Huffman agreed. "This isn't different from what we have right now," he wrote. "But we really need to enforce it better." So far the company hasn't given anybody a reason to trust it will follow through. First, the new rules aren't actually rules yet. Huffman's announcement, titled "let's talk about content," was supposed to be a conversation with a community that routinely fails to police itself. But what it really looked like was a leader taking marching orders from people who will defend to the death not the right to free speech, but the obligation of a private company to provide server space for hate speech.
Banning abuse has been a low priority
Combating hate has never been a priority for Reddit. Despite Huffman's claim that he banned all kinds of offensive content when the site was young, the company's enforcement of bright-line rules has been most aggressive when copyright is violated. It took Anderson Cooper talking about borderline child porn on the site to snap Reddit out of its moral lethargy.
Reddit hasn't given a complete picture of how it will enforce its new rules, but its overture suggests more half-measures. As part of Thursday's proposed rule changes, Huffman said the company would ban a subreddit that encouraged rape, but not r/coontown (pictured below), the site's most publicized hate community. "The content there is offensive to many," Huffman wrote, "but does not violate our current rules for banning."
"The content there is offensive to many, but does not violate our current rules for banning."
Banning communities that actively encourage rape is unequivocally good (even though action hasn't been taken yet), but it shouldn't end the discussion. Reddit doesn't deserve special credit for banning places that tell men to rape women. That ought to be one of the easiest decisions in the world, and the fact that it seems like a novel approach to governing a site with 160 million monthly visitors is abhorrent. Huffman's plan for hate communities like r/coontown is to quarantine them from the rest of Reddit. But the mechanism of this isolation is a joke. Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong's approach to hateful content was telling everyone that "each man is responsible for his own soul." Reddit's new policies are basically a restatement of that, plus a button you have to click on. Users will eventually have to sign into Reddit to access its worst communities, but that means nothing will change for everyone who already uses Reddit — Reddit already requires you to log in to leave comments or vote on links, and those members represent the entire community.
Reddit can't seem to call hate speech what it is
Much like Not Safe For Work sections of the site, hate communities will have their own new gate. But Reddit doesn't even seem to know when to take a stand simply by calling things what they are; when asked how to classify these subreddits, Huffman said, "I've tried a lot of names, and none of them fit." How about hate speech?
And how is this secondary classification different from the content Reddit says it plans on prohibiting? Where does content that "harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people" not overlap with "content that violates a common sense of decency?" As usual, Reddit users have been given little guidance from the site's leaders on what to expect.
Sweeping hate under the rug won't fix the problem
Furthermore, reclassification of nasty content will do nothing to keep the people who consume and create that content from infecting the rest of Reddit. There's plenty of documentation that suggests efforts to sweep these communities under the rug will be difficult, if not impossible. (Huffman indirectly admits this, calling the idea of a safe space an "impossible concept to achieve.") Many of Reddit's powerful moderators are in charge of both the site's most popular subreddits and its most vile communities — and Reddit has no plans to stop relying on its moderators.
In fact, the only solution — short of hiring more community managers, which Reddit seems unwilling to do — is to give moderators more power. That's not all bad; many of Reddit's moderators are decent, generous human beings who support vibrant communities. The site's crown jewel, the Ask Me Anything section, is run by two lawyers who value Reddit and volunteer their time to provide a useful service to everyone. But anybody can be a moderator. And that's why Reddit has been so reliable at producing troll dictators who create mini-empires full of, among other things, borderline child porn and racist trolling. The only reason this system is still in place is because Reddit's leaders seem more determined than ever to characterize Reddit as a democracy and make their decisions by vague consensus.
Reddit is not a government!
The Reddit-as-government myth is so patently ridiculous that it falls apart on casual inspection. The site's system of voting is designed only to arrange links in a certain order. The only other "democratic" feature is the ability to jump ship from a community you don't like to start a new one, which, to keep the analogy consistent, is the equivalent of telling people who don't like the president to move to Canada.
Reddit's administrators also can't keep its stories straight about the site's purpose. Huffman was recently burned for saying that "Reddit was never a bastion of free speech," even though his counterpart, co-founder Alexis Ohanian, has routinely portrayed Reddit that way. But there's actually no free speech on Reddit — the very fact that we keep talking about it that way allows the executives in charge of it to sidestep their responsibilities. Reddit is a company that runs a private platform, it can do whatever it wants, and what it should want to do is ban hate speech without a second thought. Instead, its leaders keep insisting on a metaphor of governance so worthless, it can't effectively provide an intellectual framework to justify rooting out cancerous hate.
Reddit's leaders contradict themselves so much it's embarrassing
There are so many examples of Reddit's leaders contradicting themselves, it's embarrassing. Remember how Huffman said the idea of a safe space is an impossible concept to achieve? The company's own stated values disagree. Creating "a safe space to encourage participation" is one of Reddit's corporate core values — along with "allow freedom of expression."
In fact, if you just judge Reddit's leadership by the company's stated values, they've failed all over the board. Line-items like "make deliberate decisions," "turn ideas into actions and get things done," and "don't be paralyzed by the status quo" are phrases you would struggle to associate with Reddit, which has long neglected the volunteers who do all its hard work. The company's own blog is a detailed history of its narrow struggle to keep its servers running and the lights on. Reddit barely executes on its core values as a very small company. How can it be expected to steward a platform for millions of voices? Worse, Reddit's leaders don't even actually seem to understand who those voices belong to.
Third party statistics on Reddit demographics peg its user composition as high as 74 percent male, and many of those male users are young. When asked about these figures, a Reddit spokesperson told The Verge that the split is 56 percent male and 44 percent female, based on a nationwide survey of 13,000 adults over 18 — meaning Reddit's perception of its userbase is something of an outlier. Reddit doesn't even seem to know who uses Reddit.
Huffman says that the company will "try more aggressive approaches" if "hateful users continue to spill out into mainstream Reddit." But hateful users pervade mainstream Reddit; their words and ideas can be found nearly everywhere, whether it's casual talk about rape, or a meme of Neil deGrasse Tyson as "black science man." It's definitely not an easy problem to solve, just like solving racism is not easy — but there are obvious ways to attack it. Banning places like coontown is an easy first step. Too bad Reddit's leaders lack the courage to take it.