Back when the Internet required modems and AOL user names – around the same time Vanilla Ice was un-ironically cool and Bill was the most powerful Clinton — message forums reigned as hubs for online communities, and sites like 4Chan drew active, enthusiastic memberships.
Predating social media, these communities reveled in fringe culture and relished the relative anonymity granted by handles obfuscating their real-life identities. The consensus among these chat rooms favored the idea of compartmentalizing one’s online avatar and real life identity into separate spheres.
Online communities are significantly more sophisticated now, but Reddit, the massively popular forum referred to as “the front page of the Internet” and recently privy to an exclusive, interactive interview with the President of the United States, still clings to several aspects of Web 1.0, eschewing cutting-edge web design in favor of a stripped-down forum setup reminiscent of much older websites.
And though the Website is owned by Advance Publications–also the owner of Conde Nast–Reddit hews close to its no-frills aesthetic and does not shy away from fostering sub-groups devoted to anti-authority, mayhem and darkness in many forms. Not exactly what you’d expect from a website technically in the same family as VanityFair.com.
Reddit hurtles towards the mainstream, despite its rough-hewn look and embrace of the fringe. It draws over 18 million unique users a month. It is often mentioned in the same breath as Twitter and Facebook, and users have played integral roles in breaking important news, including this past summer’s Colorado theater shootings. And it is at the center of a maelstrom capturing the attention of the New York Times and other major media outlets.
Unfortunately, Reddit is currently embroiled in a controversy exposing some problems with its underlying principles. Following proper “Reddiquette” is extremely important to the community, and this guideline presents a reasonable set of conditions for using the site and shows users what the community stands for: it allows the creation of “subreddits” ran on a mostly autonomous level by appointed moderators. These smaller forums are places where anything and everything is allowed as long as it is legal, which means things outside of the realm of accepted taste are fine insofar as they do not break laws.
This tolerant statute means people can discuss rape, incest and a number of provocative topics without worrying about being shut down, and Reddit cultivates a framework of understanding in which user avatars are not meant to lead back to personal information or the exposure of their offline identities. This edict stands in stark contrast to the way some other popular social media sites operate.
For instance, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr banned “Thinspiration” images, or images of extremely thin people used to spur extreme dieters onward, because they may negatively affect vulnerable people, despite the fact they are licit. Web users keen to preserve unfettered expression—even about potentially combustible topics—derided these content bans, as they are undeniably censorious. Reddit sought a different approach and maintained its devotion to allowing legal content of all kinds, including a purposefully vile subreddit called r/spacedicks, which specializes in deliberately repulsive and perverse content like photos of dead babies.
Eventually, though, even Reddit caved to some demands. Its leadership made the decision to ban its controversial subreddit “Jailbait” because, although the approved images on the thread were not illegal, the group’s raison d’etre was explicitly to sexualize underage girls, which legitimated the idea of child pornography and molestation.
Even after that group disbanded, other salacious communities cropped up, including one called “r/creepshots” which published what are known as “up skirt” images, which was not guided by the age of the subjects but rather by whether you could see up their skirts (many were still underage). Since these images did not feature nudity they were not subject to the Video Voyeurism Act of 2004 because the Act only outlawed nudity.
Websites like Jezebel drew attention to these subreddits, which were not indicative of the spirit of many other communities but which comprised a shockingly robust percentage of traffic hits for Reddit.
Reddit did not welcome the attention, and tensions between the Reddit community and Gawker Media, of which Jezebel is a part, boiled over into all-out warfare when Gawker reporter Adrian Chen published the identity of Michael Brutsch, one of Reddit’s most notorious moderators, who went by the handle “Violentacrez” on the website.
Violentacrez moderated the r/jailbait subreddit and helped grow the r/creepshots subreddit, while presiding over other unsavory corners of Reddit’s heterogeneous community. And though his behavior was looked at askance by many Reddit users, legion members of the community came out in full force to defend him from “doxing,” the term for revealing the personal identity of an Internet moniker. Chen’s decision to reveal Violentacrez’s identity was seen as an attack on the right to anonymity of Reddit users, and moderators from numerous subreddits decided to ban Gawker links.
This is where the problem of Reddit’s ethics is made apparent. Instead of privileging the right to free speech over the desire to remain anonymous and thus not responsible for the speech users put forth, some of Reddit’s moderators and users besmirched the website’s mission by conflating the right to discuss and post distasteful but perfectly legal things with the right to do so under the veil of anonymity. This lack of distinction between publishing legal filth a la Larry Flynt and having the right to do so without being identified is the heart of the problem with the website’s mission.
Amid the turmoil, the CEO of Reddit contacted team members in a statement explicitly criticizing the actions of the moderators who chose to censor Gawker, the implicitly non-hierarchal structure makes it difficult to police the moderators without upending the site’s management scaffolding.
Anonymity is not a legal right when someone enters a public arena, and Reddit’s forums are not subject to the same privacy expectations as e-mails. Though an expectation of anonymity is woven into Reddit’s tenets, expecting the outside world will respect that ethos is naïve. Striking back at another website with a different set of ethical principles by censoring content showed Reddit moderators valued anonymity over free speech. The fragmented nature of the Reddit moderation system means there cannot be one cohesive interpretation of Reddit’s ideology, and the site is too sprawling and autonomous to ever operate strictly within its stated ideals. It’s simply not a cohesive community, but rather an assembly of disparate communities, and this means it cannot have a fully coherent ethos.
While the decision to grant moderators autonomous control over subreddits keeps with Reddit’s egalitarian, non-hierarchal principle, it also makes maintaining a unified front difficult—if not impossible. And the non-hierarchal structure means individuals can wield disproportionate control over the site’s public face if their particular subreddit gains popularity. This is what happened with Violentacrez when his brand of speech became a massively popular aspect of the website, and it is something that will likely continue to challenge Reddit as a community in the future, if the site decides to maintain its present moderation structure.
Anonymity is an ideal condition in Reddit’s ideology, and the fact that the site chose and continues to choose to censor Gawker, even after staking its claim of mainstream legitimacy by decrying SOPA and PIPA, indicates many prominent Reddit moderators privileges anonymity over freedom of speech.
Reddit’s model for digital citizenship separates actions taken online and taken outside of the annals of subreddits too severely, and it does not have an apparatus for bringing its plethora of communities under one ethical umbrella. Therefore, while Reddit espouses an ethos of free speech that is nothing if not admirable, the way ethics are practiced on the site reflect a reality far less idyllic and idealistic.
Kate Knibbs is a writer and technology news analyst from the southwest side of Chicago. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out her Twitter at @kateknibbs.