Alright, everyone. I’ll ask. What the hell happened to Reddit?
The “Front Page of the Internet,” Reddit.com rose to prominence some years back when another content aggregation site, Digg, made an update that pissed off a lot of users. Those users wanted a similar place to share ideas, content, and off-color comments, and thus Reddit was born. (In a nutshell.)
Over the last couple of weeks, however, Reddit has gone meta; the site itself has been all over the front page of the Internet. And not in a particularly good light.
The super-condensed version of the story is this: Reddit has always had a (large) handful of, shall we say, questionable content. /R/fatpeoplehate, /r/thefappening, and a few subreddits that are much worse and much less appropriate to name here, are all examples of content formerly protected under the guise of free speech.
Then, a few months ago, Reddit announced a new harassment policy aimed at creating a ‘safe platform’. Much more recently—a couple of weeks ago—Ellen Pao, the interim CEO of Reddit, banned several key offensive subreddits and fired several well-loved employees. (It’s since come out that Pao may have attempted to keep these employees, only to be urged to fire them by the Board.)
The public reaction was swift and negative, to say the least.
(If you’re interested in a more detailed timeline, check out this one over at The Verge.)
As an employee at a social media small business, it’s practically my job to have an opinion on things like these. “They’re destroying free speech,” I might say, adding in my frustration with the thought that it’s okay for one frustrated party to determine what is or isn’t offensive.
Or, “Good!” I might say, noting that these banned subreddits were home to the scum of the Internet and that, dare I bring it up, this is the same website that wrongly accused a person of perpetrating the Boston Bombing.
The trouble is, as a good friend of mine often says, “shit’s complicated.” I would like to be able to say with confidence that Pao made the wrong decision and that it was right for Reddit’s user base to be so outraged. I would just as much like to be able to say that she made the right decision and that all of Reddit’s hate was, as it so often is, misguided.
But it’s not that black and white. Reddit has somehow managed to become home to both the best and the worst of the Internet, simultaneously.
The best when it sends thousands of cards to a kid dying of cancer or when it tells the hilarious saga of a homeowner finding a safe in his home and investing lots of time into getting it open only to find that it’s completely empty. The worst when it’s harboring subreddits like /r/beatingwomen or ganging up and falsely accusing someone of committing one of the worst terrorist attacks in recent memory. All of those things—good and bad—have happened under the same Reddit umbrella.
There’s a lesson in here about understanding your audience and thinking long and hard before you make any decisions that might drive them away and towards another product or service. There’s also a lesson in here about doing something even when it’s unpopular, or trying to make the Internet a safer place, as difficult a task as that may be.
In the meantime, I’m stuck somewhere in the middle. What the hell happened to Reddit? Not a lot, quite frankly. Leadership may have changed (Ellen Pao is no longer CEO), and some new subreddits are banned. Users are still banding together to send hungry, poor users free pizza. They’re also posting pictures of fat people and ridiculing them in a public forum. It’s still the same as it ever was after what now seems like a small speedbump in a still rocky history.
Is this all the Internet can ever be? Can we protect free speech while still somehow filtering out disgusting content? Is that sort of content a necessary evil? How accommodating should services be to their users? Is it right that users have so much influence over the direction of a product?
I’m not sure. But as I think about the answers to all of those questions—about what the hell happened to Reddit—you’ll probably find me on my phone, reading the Front Page of the Internet, making sure I stay far, far away from many of the subreddits mentioned above.
Image Credit: CC by Eva Blue