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Reddit organizers have gotten it badly wrong, demonstrating their abject failure to understand the social platform with which they were entrusted to oversee.
“Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform,” explained the admins in a self.announcements post. Reading between the lines, what the announcement really meant to say was: “We permit authentic conversations, but only if we allow them.”
Often described as the “front page of the Internet,” reddit thrives off of a Smörgåsbord of ideas and opinions. Some of these viewpoints may be unsavory, to the point of being offensive (there’s that dreaded word, again), but that’s OK. The Internet is a wide space, and has more than enough room to accommodate different groups of people; whether you care to electronically mingle with these people or not is entirely your business. Perhaps, however, shutting down these relatively self-contained “subreddits” really is not something the reddit overlords should concern themselves with.
Censorship simply doesn’t work. You shut something down on the Internet, it doesn’t go away. It’s like a hydra – cut off one head, two more grow back. In reddit’s case, its censorship measures don’t work for a number of reasons.
The Price of Censorship
One of the most popular subreddits to have recently been torn asunder is FatPeopleHate (FPH), along with many of the FPH moderators. Even before the ban was enacted, likely in anticipation of such an all too predictable event, “FatPeopleHate2″ was created. That, too, has been banned. Now, the admins need to be on the lookout for other variants of FPH, like FatPeopleHate3, ObesePeopleHate, etc. While this doesn’t present a major logistical problem for one controversial subreddit, what about 10 controversial subreddits? What about 50? 100?
And even if all of these subreddits were banned entirely, it’s not beyond the realms of all possibility to assume that the sentiments of these vexed redditors could bleed out into other existing subreddits. Would this not create issues for moderators of other subreddits? How long before these subreddits are banned, if not protected from the “harassers’” rhetoric?
In defending their position, the admins argue that they have only banned one subreddit with over 5,000 subscribers. In which case, considering the subreddits in question had so few subs to begin with, was it really wise to shut them down? In doing so, reddit has, quite inadvertently, whipped up another media storm over Internet censorship and drawn more attention to the offending subreddits and their values.
Many of the subreddits were, rather hastily, taken down on the grounds that many of their members were responsible for harassment. Well, in the absence of further clarification, this now presents us with a number of unanswered questions. What constitutes harassment? How many members must engage in harassment for the entire subreddit to be banned (i.e. what’s to stop a few rogue redditors ruining a particular subreddit for everyone else)? What sensitive social issues are absolutely off the table, and what social issues are “fair game” (e.g. weight, gender, race, sexuality, culture, religion, class, occupation)? At what point do recurring jokes and memes transition into harassment of some form?
And, when it comes to censorship, the list of questions seems never-ending, which means more rules, regulations and red-tape; it means more confusion surrounding said bureaucracy; it means more subreddits sliding into the abyss; and more arguments over what is and isn’t acceptable speech. All of this, for the sake of closing off a few distasteful subreddits that enlist a pitiful number of subscribers.
“We want as little involvement as possible in managing these interactions but will be involved when needed to protect privacy and free expression, and to prevent harassment,” explained the reddit admins. I’m afraid, it’s now too late to try and distance yourselves from all the inevitable hand-holding that will ensue from this decision.
The admins’ announcement also represents a rather cowardly attempt to appease both sides of the argument, suggesting they will have some sort of “Goldilocks censorship measure” (i.e. just a little bit of censorship, but not too much). I think we know where this is heading.
The Pao Effect
Let’s assume reddit and its moderators can police and filter absolutely all of the speech hitting its subreddits. What then? Well, we’ve already seen the response from many disgruntled redditors, who have moved to an alternative network – Swiss-based website Voat. As one redditor has rightly stated, voat.co has just received the “hug of death,” with massive spikes in traffic causing the site to go belly up (and remain that way). Essentially, in continuing its crusade to force unnecessary censorship rules and bans on the community, reddit has just manufactured its own competition.
With voat.co effectively siphoning off a portion of reddit’s traffic, a very strong argument can be made against the social networking site’s censorship attempts. While voat.co may be temporarily struggling under the weight of this unexpected influx of traffic, censorship has clearly not worked, with voat.co’s alternative to /r/fatpeoplehate receiving over double the number of subscribers that FPH had achieved. Instead of expunging these ideas and opinions from the Internet, they have merely moved to a different website and flourished, costing reddit a boat load of traffic and solving absolutely nothing.
But why has reddit all of a sudden decided to crackdown on online harassment? Allum Bokhari of Breitbart offers the following explanation:
“When failed discrimination plaintiff Ellen Pao was appointed CEO of Reddit last January, many predicted that it would herald a new age of censorship on the link-sharing and discussion site. Those predictions appear to have come true, as a number of communities on the site (known as ‘subreddits’) have just been unilaterally shut down.”
Bokhari explains that voat.co’s rise to popularity began in the wake of the #GamerGate controversy, and the “social media censorship” that enshrouded the campaign’s coverage. The site’s operators are currently in the process of adding additional servers, and have received an increase in traffic, subscribers and donations.
Meanwhile, a number of observers believe the move represents an attempt to placate the big advertisers. Forbe’s Emma Woollacott argues that reddit is likely trying to clean up its site’s image and PR after striking a deal with venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. This already has some reddit users predicting reddit’s untimely demise:
Icemasta: “It’s just the usual cycle. It was Digg, Digg was cool, then Digg 3.0 came and wasn’t that great, but people stayed and it survived. Then Digg 4.0, which was targeted at advertising/marketing, and boom went the dynamite and everyone and their dogs left for Reddit.
So right now we’re on the Reddit 3.0 phase, and when Reddit 4.0 hit, which should be within the next year at the pace of changes we’re getting, reddit will be wrapped and ready for sale, and we’ll all be jumping ship AGAIN.”
Can the Ship Be Turned Around?
The site’s current trajectory provides a worrying glimpse into the future, with the social network’s focus on censorship being diametrically opposed to its core values. However, reddit is still capable of turning its ship around; all it needs to do is listen to the concerns of the very community that propelled it to where it is today.
Something will always offend someone, but that doesn’t automatically mean that that “something” should immediately be expunged from the Internet. Game of Thrones’ explicit language, violence and sexual themes offends a great many people around the world. The solution isn’t to stop broadcasting Game of Thrones; the solution lies in all offended parties making the sensible decision to avoid the thing that offends them. This same rule should apply to provocative subreddits.
If reddit had taken the decision to stop these now-banned subreddits from appearing in r/all, for example – thereby making sure they are not “advertized” to the world – that would have been a more favorable proposition. But an outright ban is as misguided as it is pointless; it creates more problems than it solves, fragments the community, and costs reddit both traffic and reputation.