One day, internet users will learn "free speech" doesn't give them the right to harass others without any consequences. This is not that day. After Reddit announced yesterday that it would finally start curtailing the worst behavior of its users -- that is, by banning community sites ("subreddits") that harass people -- a vocal contingent of its users began freaking the hell out. There were sexist posts railing against Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao and plenty of users threatening to abandon the site for alternatives like Voat (which is essentially a Reddit clone). It was all because they thought Reddit was restricting their free speech, something they have no actual right to on the site in the first place. But while it might seem like Reddit is on the brink of falling apart, after seeing the noxious elements of its community metastasize over the years like a cancer, the revolt actually seems like good news for the site. And, in many ways, it's a hopeful sign for the future of the web.
"It's become painfully obvious that Reddit is no longer a platform that protects free speech (especially after they literally admitted they don't care about it!), and after today's banning of subreddits with 'harassment' I can't stay any longer," Voat user "thatguyehlers" wrote in a post." They are basically digging their own grave with these latest policy changes. But hey, at least Chairman Pao is happy, right? Right?"
And what led to this user, and plenty of others, to jump ship? The banning of subreddits including "fatpeoplehate," "hamplanethatred," "transfags," "neofag" and "shitniggerssay," all of which encouraged harassment. Their titles alone should give you a sense of what the communities of those subreddits were into, which makes you wonder why a vocal contingent seems angry about it. Many just seem to chafe at the idea of anything getting in the way of "free speech," without any regard for how some speech might also restrict the speech of others (not to mention harming them psychologically and emotionally).
While there's a danger that Reddit might end up losing some of its most dedicated users -- an issue that helped bring about the collapse of the original incarnation of Digg -- in reality it's far better off without many of them. For one, it gives the site a shot at rebuilding its community to be more open and accessible to newer users and potential advertisers, who might have been scared off by some of its more extreme elements. And their voluntary departure saves Reddit the hassle of manually banning users and creating an even bigger uproar (something it threatened to do to trolls earlier this year).
It's not as if these users have nowhere to go. Sites like 4chan thrive through the sheer anarchy of their content. And Reddit, which is an independent subsidiary of Conde Nast's parent company Advance Publications, was never really the best fit for truly unfettered online discussion. Its administrators often stressed free speech as a pillar of the community, like previous CEO Yishan Wong, who said months ago that it wouldn't ban naughty subreddits. "You choose what to post," he said. "You choose what to read. You choose what kind of subreddit to create." But yesterday's reversal shows that sort of idealism doesn't work when people are being actively harmed by Reddit posts.
The saddest thing? Reddit is still hosting plenty of objectionable subreddits devoted to racist, misogynist, and all around gross topics. (In my research I came across the "cutedeadchicks" subreddit. Don't go there.) And those areas of the site also seem to be safe as long as their members don't start harassing people. "We're banning behavior, not ideas," the site's administrators said yesterday. There's still a hint of idealism in that stance, but there's a good chance Reddit will eventually have to clean up the rest of its site anyway. After a certain point, that content just won't fly with its investors, including Snoop Dogg and Jared Leto, who just poured $50 million into the company.
These days, it's become a fairly common sight to see online communities revolt at the sign of any sort of change. That's the impetus behind the whole Gamergate mess, after all. But we're also finally seeing technology companies doing more to protect users from harassment. After plenty of criticism, Twitter just introduced a more robust abuse policy, as well as tools to better track and stop harassment.
All too often cries of "free speech!" are about not being able to say something that legitimately hurts or offends someone else. After a certain point, we have to grow up and remember that the internet is for all of us, not just the most obnoxious. So if fighting for that makes some people angry, good.
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