After years of controversy over the vulgar and hate-filled posts that populate Reddit, the online message board now may split the baby.
In an attempt to appease the offended and the offenders, the San Francisco company has proposed striking a delicate balance: prioritizing the site’s constructive content, banning some topics and cordoning off many problematic posts to their own, hard-to-access area.
Whether such a strategy would placate both sides or alienate everyone is the big unknown. Reddit has yet to make any concrete changes and asked users to weigh in.
Recently departed top executives have hinted at a deep crossroads at Reddit as it tries to spur strong user growth while maintaining its core principles as a freewheeling site where anybody can say just about anything. Online media strategists say it will be difficult for Reddit to evolve and attract advertisers if it allows the online trolls to continue.
“Their tenuous, open-ended vagueness has become a tremendous liability,” said Finn Brunton, assistant professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.
Reddit, like the Internet itself, grew out of its openness. Without much of a mission other than being a site to share links, it attracted people of all backgrounds. The site today has more than 36 million user accounts and nearly 164 million monthly unique visitors.
But its ideal of being an anything-goes information hub has morphed into an identity crisis that is becoming increasingly hard to control. There are forums, or subreddits, filled with pictures and videos of black people getting killed or already dead, for instance, and others dedicated to anti-gay hate speech; one subreddit is titled, “BeatingCripples.”
Some question whether it’s even worth keeping the worst offenders around given the damage they do to the company’s business and credibility.
“You’re talking about folks that, by their nature, are bad behavers. They have tendencies for violence, they’re extremely bigoted,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at technology advisory firm Enderle Group. “There’s a certain class of people you don’t want as customers; I’m thinking this is that class. Let other people deal with folks like this. It’s just not a winning proposition.”
The problem is that when Reddit has tried to crack down and police the site, it has provoked a firestorm of anger.
A week ago, Ellen Pao stepped down as interim chief executive after enduring what she called “one of the largest trolling attacks in history.” Legions of Redditors had ceaselessly attacked Pao online after she banned the posting of “revenge porn” — when spurned exes post private nude photos of their former partners online — and shut down Reddit forums dedicated to insulting certain races or sexual orientations.
There was also an online petition calling for Pao’s resignation that had reached about 213,000 signatures. Officially, she blamed her departure on a disagreement with the site’s board of directors.
Although Redditors proclaimed Pao’s exit a victory, Reddit is hardly saying it will let the site descend into anarchy. Instead, it has been trying to show that it does not condone the darker corners of the site even as it continues to host such discussions in the name of free speech.
But it is clearly struggling with how to do that.
In a post on Reddit on Thursday, co-founder and newly reinstated Chief Executive Steve Huffman proposed banning spam, illegal activity, publication of an individual’s private and confidential information, harassment and bullying, and sexually suggestive content featuring minors. He also proposed getting rid of anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people.
“It’s OK to say ‘I don’t like this group of people,’” he wrote. “It’s not OK to say, “I’m going to kill this group of people.’”
Huffman also suggested separating certain kinds of content and making it hard to access. Adult content, he proposed, must be flagged as NSFW (not safe for work) and users must opt into seeing NSFW communities.
He suggested the same be done for “content that violates a common sense of decency.” Such content would require a log-in, must be opted into and would not appear in search results or public listings.
“We’ve had the NSFW classification since nearly the beginning, and it’s worked well to separate the pornography from the rest of Reddit,” Huffman said. “We believe there is value in letting all views exist, even if we find some of them abhorrent, as long as they don’t pollute people’s enjoyment of the site. Separation and opt-in techniques have worked well for keeping adult content out of the common Redditor’s listings, and we think it’ll work for this other type of content as well.”
Karen North, head of the Digital Social Media program at USC, said Reddit’s apparent move into a two-pronged site is a strategy that has already been quietly adopted by other community-dominated Internet forums, such as Tumblr and Twitter.
And Huffman appears to be introducing the idea in a way that involves Redditors rather than telling them what to do, noting that Huffman reached out to users for their thoughts on the site’s popular “Ask Me Anything” forum.
“He starts preaching transparency, which is really what these people want,” North said.
The proposed moves to ban or contain deeply offensive content is likely also intended to keep least part of the site safe for advertisers, Brunton said. Segregating content might let Reddit say: We’re not responsible for the ugly stuff, and we’re keeping it separate.