Confirming the worst fears of users, Reddit CEO Ellen Pao has told NPR that she does not want the site to be a “completely free-speech platform”. Her comments followed last week’s introduction of new ‘anti-harassment’ policies on the link-sharing site that were widely criticised for their vagueness. They will add to concerns that Reddit is becoming unsafe for unpopular opinions, and is likely to spur further migrations of users to Voat.co, Reddit’s main competitor.
Reddit’s success was built on its famously minimal set of rules, which only prohibit the posting of child pornography, spam, and personal information. This framework allowed the site to undergo a period of rapid expansion, as users created a wide variety of user-created communities (known as ‘subreddits’), safe in the knowledge that they would not face arbitrary censure. Pao’s comments indicate the company is moving away from its founding principles, and conflict with statements made by her predecessor, who last year reaffirmed Reddit’s commitment to “uphold the ideal of free speech as much as possible”.
Paos’ comments were made in an interview with NPR, where the Reddit CEO explained recent rule-changes on the site, in particular the recent ban on ‘harassment’. This new rule, announced last week, called on Reddit users to ‘discuss ideas, not people’ and defined harassment as:
Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.
While there were few objections to the emphasis on ‘systematic and/or continued’ behaviour, many users criticised using of the subjective feelings of ‘reasonable people’ as a criteria. The logic of the new rule veers dangerously close to that of the campus “safe space” movement, which has seen an increase in the number of university speakers being banned from campus on the grounds that their opinions make radical activists “feel unsafe”.
One user ironically quipped that the pro-“safe space” subreddit /r/ShitRedditSays, notorious for doxxing and harassing its opponents, could be banned under Reddit’s new rules. The vagueness of the new policy has also attracted criticism outside Reddit, with Business Insider noting that Pao’s comments on NPR have only ‘further confused the situation’.
Even before the rule-change, there had been growing tension between the Reddit’s users and moderators on the question of free speech. Reddit’s structure allows anyone to set up a new community and appoint a team of moderators. Unless a moderator goes inactive, users have no ability to challenge their decisions or remove them. This led to a culture of elitism and flippant censorship, which was brought to light last March in an explosive leak of chatlogs showing the moderators of large subreddits casually discussing the censorship of political topics they disagreed with.
Concerns about heavy-handed moderation continue to attract attention on Reddit. The latest controversies include the deletion of more than 25,000 comments beneath a post about Goldsmith University’s embattled diversity officer, the brief (and unexplained) ban of coder Eron Gjoni, and the deletion of heavily upvoted story concerning Ellen Pao’s latest interview. The subreddits /r/undelete and /r/kotakuinaction, both of which track censorship on Reddit, are now among the most active communities on the site.
As Reddit moves away from its founding principles, it is likely to lose more of its userbase to competitors. One of the most upvoted comments in the thread discussing Reddit’s rule change is a link to Voat.co, a site which has positioned itself as a free-speech alternative to Reddit. The site has enjoyed a surge of growth over the past few months, as concerns about censorship on Reddit have become more pronounced. Voat’s mission statement explicitly distances itself from Reddit’s new approach, promising that “no legal subject in the universe” will be out of bounds on the platform.
Voat’s refusal to forbid any legal speech is similar to the approach taken by 8chan, another discussion site that has enjoyed rapid growth due to a sudden drop in user confidence at its main competitor, 4chan. Similarly to Reddit, there was a long process of alienation between users and moderators, who were hand-picked by the site’s owners and largely unaccountable to ordinary users. A perception that the site’s founder, Chrisopher Poole was hostile to free expression on the platform led to a mass exodus to 8chan, which saw its traffic figures soar.
It is clear that skittishness on the principle of free speech can lead to a severe loss of consumer confidence in online discussion platforms, particularly among those crucial ‘power users’ who regularly generate content and are deeply embedded in the internal politics of their respective platforms. The reasons behind Reddit’s change of heart remain a mystery, but one thing is certain – the team at Voat.co will be smiling.