Reddit has long been the id of the Internet, with loosely-regulated subcommunities allowing redditors to find a space to post more or less whatever they wanted, however gross, hateful or threatening. In a step designed to push back against some of its users’ more egregious absuses, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao announced last week that the website will begin to enforce an anti-harassment policy, and has since shut down 5 subreddits found to be in violation. To quote her statement:
Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform. 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.
It is not easy to balance these values, especially as the Internet evolves. We are learning and hopefully improving as we move forward. We want to be open about our involvement: We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action. We’re banning behavior, not ideas.
…While we do not always agree with the content and views expressed on the site, we do protect the right of people to express their views and encourage actual conversations according to the rules of reddit.
No more bullying or harassment? New rules for a private website guiding behavior but not restricting the free flow of ideas?
Basic anti-harassment standards have proven to be a non-starter for many redditors, who took to the streets of Reddit with their eloquent critiques:
And they wonder why they’re being told they aren’t allowed to harass users anymore.
It is strange that people would feel that they are unable to speak freely on a website that still hasn’t removed /r/CuteFemaleCorpses (the link is to an article, not that subreddit, which I would strongly advise you not to check out). After all, if you are willing to call someone a Nazi after they tell you that you can’t use their website to fat shame, you have seriously misunderstood the concept of free speech. As this classic XKCD comic points out:
Reddit isn’t violating anyone’s right to free speech. If anything, it is exercising its own right to speech by deciding what it will and will not tolerate on its website. While those standards have changed over the years, Reddit has always maintained some, albeit few, restrictions on what one can or cannot post on their website.
It is true that Reddit’s standards have historically been very lax — and that remains the case. It is true that the guiding philosophy of Reddit has always been to err on the side of allowing the users to express themselves in any way they like, but harassment for harassment’s sake is a bridge too far.
If we were to be generous to the redditors who are fighting for their right to hate on the Internet, we would at least ask where the lines are drawn. In other words, what is and is not “harassment”? Will these new regulations on Reddit pave the way for more strict policies down the road?
Reddit is a successful company, and like most successful companies, they know their audience. They know that the reason we go to Reddit is not to be chained down by the ideology of the owners, it is to freely and anonymously state our opinions without having to put up with the immaturity of places like 4chan. They are willing to bear a small firestorm of rage for the sake of protecting its users from harassment, but there is no reason to believe that they will further pursue anything resembling real censorship. If they did they would have a real PR problem on their hands which would make this one look like a cakewalk, and there is no reason to believe, and many reasons not to believe, that they want that.
Everyone needs to chill out.