Thrust into the limelight by the surprise resignation of the company’s previous CEO Yishan Wong, Pao had only joined Reddit the previous year, working on building “strategic partnerships that benefit the community”.
And yet just four months after starting, she has led the site through one of its biggest steps towards being the mainstream hub that that “front page” billing has always implied was its aim. In the wake of the vast cache of nude celebrity photos, leaked on 4chan but rapidly centered on “The Fappening”, a Reddit subforum (or “subreddit”) which swelled to millions of members before being shut down by the site’s administrators, Reddit has banned “involuntary pornography” entirely.
“Last year, we missed a chance to be a leader in social media when it comes to protecting your privacy – something we’ve cared deeply about since Reddit’s inception,” the site’s admins wrote in a message to users. “At our recent all hands company meeting, this was something that we all, as a company, decided we needed to address.”
Part of the problem is that it’s unclear what cleaning up Reddit would even mean. Sometimes it seems like there are two Reddits. Unless you are an avid user of the site, it can sometimes be hard to believe that the vastly different contexts in which the site intrudes into your consciousness are related.
Most of the time, the Reddit you hear about is a fun site, full of people sharing and creating memes, gifs and communities. Almost every viral trend will have passed through Reddit on its way to going mainstream, assuming it didn’t originate on the site in the first place.
But every now and again, the dark side of the site shows its face. Most recently, that happened with “The Fappening”. The collection, built up over years by multiple hackers, was initially made available on 4Chan, as well as an offshoot called AnonIB, but Reddit rapidly became the hub of discussion and trading of the images.
In a way, these are two sides of the same coin. What Reddit does best is aggregate huge amounts of material, sort through it for the most interesting examples, and present them to an audience of millions, inevitably leading to further dissemination off site.
Reddit’s structure lies at the heart of that ability. The site is built out of “subreddits”, subject-specific mini-communities which users, or “Redditors”, can create and join at will. They span the gamut of topics, from general-interest ones such as “politics” and “technology” all the way to hyper-specific subreddits like /r/Fireteams (for finding teammates to play the videogame Destiny with) and /r/earthporn, for sharing beautiful landscape photography. As a rule, if the word “porn” is in a subreddit name, it’s usually not actually porn.
On the other hand, a lot of Reddit actually is porn. That’s the flip side of letting anyone make a subreddit: not everyone will decide to keep it clean. And porn is just the tip of the iceberg. The subreddit at the heart of the celebrity photo leak, /r/TheFappening, was eventually banned by the site’s admins for breaching privacy rules, but not before it amassed 150,000 subscribers. A year previously, another subreddit, /r/Creepshots, was banned for the same reason - it encouraged users to post “candid photos” of women.
Travel deeper still into Reddit’s underbelly, and you find subreddits designed primarily to shock. Some have names, such as /r/cutefemalecorpses or /r/picsofdeadkids, that should clue you in to what goes on behind their doors, while others like /r/spacedicks deliberately obfuscate their contents as part of the joke.
But what’s harder to tell is how much this underbelly affects the surface. On one level, Reddit is a mishmash of literally thousands of different communities, all overlapping slightly. But there is continuity amongst those communities, and most Redditors agree that there is, to some extent, something that can be called “the Reddit community”.
“I think Reddit has a dual personality,” says a Redditor who goes by Dworkin. She’s a moderator of the ShitRedditSays subreddit, known as SRS, which began as a collection of all the worst quotes of Reddit and has evolved into a sort of enclave within the site for people who have deep concerns about the main community. “On one hand, it really wants to be a tight-knit community. That’s why it has default subreddits that you’re automatically subscribed to when you sign up and the vast majority of the traffic goes to them. Redditors will also call themselves a collected community whenever something goes well for them.
“Whenever something goes wrong, however, the admins and users will retreat into the excuse that it’s a platform like Twitter or Facebook, and they aren’t responsible for individual users even if those responsible are the majority.”
For its part, Reddit itself – the company that runs the site – downplays the notion. “There are over 150 million people using Reddit every month, across thousands of communities on the platform,” a spokeswoman for Reddit told the Guardian. “That’s more than double the population of the entire UK, so it makes about as much sense as generalising every single person in the UK, if the UK had twice as many people.”
As a result, it’s possible to use the networks of moderators to draw links between the subreddits. For instance, a moderator of Advice Animals (a default subreddit until May 2014, meaning that new users were automatically subscribed to it) and the StarWars subreddit also moderates the soft-porn subreddits gentlemanboners and rule34; a moderator of the default subreddits internetisbeautiful and tifu (today I fucked up, a forum for sharing stories of terrible mistakes) also moderates porn forum PerfectPussies and Gore, for sharing gory images.
By tracing connections like this, it’s possible to draw up a network of how the subreddits of the darker side of reddit are linked to those which the community is happier to present to the outside world. In the top 500 subreddits, there are 80 subreddits which we’ve classified as belonging to “dark reddit”, 49 of which are straight-up porn. Those 500 subs are moderated by 4444 people, the vast majority of whom only run one subreddit. But 662 of them are in charge of two or more, and of those, 22% of them run at least one “dark” subreddit.
The crossover is small but pervasive. When the subreddits are divided up into topic areas, that becomes clear. Of the 38 moderators who work on news-themed subreddits, 11 of them also moderate something less savoury. The cluster of subreddits focused on cute and funny content, like r/aww and r/AdviceAnimals, share 32% of their moderators with dark Reddit.
In fact, two of the cleanest sets of subreddits, sharing just a single moderator each with the dark subs, are those focused around drugs and music. Part of the reason for the wide influence is that, by and large, the moderators making these subreddits are some of the most active users of the site.
Cute Female Corpses
Goatsac is a moderator of 96 subreddits, including “StruggleFucking” and “CuteFemaleCorpses”. He says that the subforums he creates come about for a number of reasons, but few of them are as simple as bringing together people with a shared interest. For some, he says, his aim is to point out things that annoy him. He claims that one of his creations, “a subreddit dedicated to the nonconsensual mutilation of female genitals”, proves a point about male circumcision.
Goatsac’s apparent explanation is: “Young males, especially in ’Murica, have their penes [sic] mutilated without their consent in an act that does nothing more than deaden sexual feeling… But you happen to moderate a sub dedicated to mutilating vaginae, and you’re a monster.”
Others subreddits, he admits, “exist to provoke outrage”. And then others still exist for reasons opaque to those not deeply involved in what he calls “metareddit”, the community which uses Reddit to talk about Reddit itself. “Our primary hangouts are hidden behind pornography.”
The problem is, the more out-there the subreddits get, the less chance they have of flying below the radar forever. And while Reddit is happy to let unknown subreddits push the boundaries of what’s acceptable, it has been forced to take action when the heat gets too intense.
TheFappening may have been the biggest subreddit which died after an intervention from the site administrators, but it wasn’t the first. The previous year, Reddit had been pressured into taking action over a subreddit dedicated to sexualised photos of children, after initially insisting it was powerless to act because the forum did not technically break any rules.
There is a cycle, of sorts, at play. Users push the limits of what they can get away with under the laissez fair management, until it eventually becomes impossible to turn a blind eye to what’s happening. Inevitably, some rule is found to have been broken, bans are put in place, and the whole thing starts again with another bad-taste subreddit.
But some users are questioning how long this can go on, because of the damage it does to both groups that call themselves “Reddit”: the community, and the company on whose website it meets.
The former prominence of subreddits like Jailbait and TheFappening “absolutely affects the discussion on the general interest ones,” says Dworkin. “If there’s a photo that has a woman in the frame, redditors will most likely be discussing how much or little they’d like to fuck her. Right as I’m typing this, there’s a front page post of a woman’s face in r/Pics, and posters are demanding nude photos of her in the comment section.
“If a poster writes a comment on a general interest sub and you could infer that she’s a woman, there are dedicated accounts that will scour her history for pictures to r/GoneWild. They’ll post all the photos in reply to her comments or report a ‘failure’ if there aren’t any photos so no one else will waste time looking.”
Goatsac disagrees, arguing that “the decision by the (awesome) admin team, even when it involves things against their personal moral/political views, to exercise the lightest of touches, I believe whole-heartedly, contributed to the success of this site. I cannot vouch or ‘shill’ enough when it comes to the true freedom of expression Reddit offers.”
But there’s a chance that the admin team may, in the words of Strudelle, another SRS moderator, “show some leadership” – especially since Reddit, unlike many hot tech firms, is not fully independent. Its largest shareholder is US media conglomerate Advance Publications, a family-owned company best known for owning magazine firm Condé Nast, not for hosting hardcore pornography. Reddit was formerly owned outright by Condé, but the company transferred ownership sideways in 2011 within its corporate family, while diluting selling a portion of the company back to Reddit itself.
As for where that “leadership” comes from, Strudelle says “I don’t care if it’s Advance Publications or if it’s [Reddit co-founder and chairman] Alexis Ohanian or Ellen Pao, but there are hate movements that use Reddit as a propaganda organ… and someone needs to step up and get rid of them.”
For now, Reddit simply isn’t interested in taking that role. The company has just five rules for what you can do on the site: “Don’t spam; Don’t ask for votes or engage in vote manipulation; Don’t post personal information; No child pornography or sexually suggestive content featuring minors; Don’t break the site or do anything that interferes with normal use of the site.”
A Reddit spokeswoman says that “since the ability to create subreddits was opened up to the community back in 2008, we’ve seen an average of 500 or so subreddits created per day - currently there are more than 8,193 active communities. We’ve kept site rules to a minimum and have allowed the community to have access to moderation tools per each subreddit to keep the conversation on-topic as they see fit.
“Our basic sitewide rules are meant to keep users safe and then these additional subreddit-by-subreddit moderation policies add additional layers of complexity.”
But maybe focusing on Reddit is the wrong idea. “The easiest mistake to make here is thinking this is just a ‘Reddit’ thing, or even just an online thing,” says Michaelle, another SRS moderator.
“I’m sure a lot of Redditors see the site as a haven from a culture that’s gone ‘too far in the opposite direction’ – where people can say or do these toxic things without being held accountable.
“I just wish the world was more like they thought it was.”
In other words, cleaning up Reddit may only be possible as a side effect of cleaning up the world itself. So perhaps its hopeful that Pao takes that goal just as seriously. Reddit’s CEO is currently engaged in a long-running lawsuit with a former employer over gender discrimination, which has sprawled into an examination of gender politics in Silicon Valley at large, and the venture capital firms which hold the purse strings in particular. A victory there may not lead directly to a victory in Reddit, but it could be another step on the road.
This article was written by Alex Hern and Helena Bengtsson, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12th March 2015 06.10 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010