Halfway through 2015, one of the largest white supremacist communities on the internet was closed down. The “Chimpire”, a loose network of forums with names like “CoonTown” and “Teenapers”, had started in 2013 with the founding of the virulently racist “GreatApes” forum.
By this year, it included around 50 separate forums, some dedicated to specific topics such as sharing footage of black people dying or trying to live a “negro-free” life, and others providing a more general location for racists to socialise with each other over their shared interest in the dominance of the white race.
In June, CoonTown, the largest of the forums, had 15,000 subscribers, with the broader Chimpire having more still. That would have made it the second largest racist community on the English-language net, after the 20-year old white supremacist forum Stormfront (which has 300,000 registered members but, according to monitors at the Southern Policy Law Centre, a far smaller number of active users) - until it was forcibly closed in August 2015.
But CoonTown wasn’t shut down by a government raid or a lawsuit. Instead, its closure was part of a bigger decision by the site that hosted it to clean up its act. After two years of being a home for almost any hate group on the internet, Reddit had finally said “no more”. Changing that was harder than it looked. In the end it cost the company its chief executive, a lot of goodwill on the part of its users, and risked its very reputation.
That place with the memes
Reddit is the latest, and biggest, in a string of websites which have wielded an outsized influence on the wider culture of the internet. Like those that came before it – including the Something Awful forums, 4Chan, and Digg – what starts on Reddit is often what will be hitting your parents’ Facebook feeds in six months’ time (think Doge – the baffled yet placid Shiba Inu captioned with broken english utterances).
Those sites became influential through appealing to a certain type of dedicated internet user, but that brings the bad as well as the good: from the Something Awful “raids” on children’s chat site Habbo Hotel to 4chan spawning gamergate, unsavoury characters often live on the frontier of the internet.
But Reddit managed to spend years building its mainstream profile without being associated with its own underbelly. The company was purchased in 2006 by Condé Nast, the mass magazine company that owns publications including Wired and Vogue. It moved the site’s offices into the same building as its other publications, but largely gave it free rein to carry on as it had done before.
For the site’s founders, that meant an extremely laissez-faire approach to what actually happens on Reddit. Almost all the work to create and manage the communities make up the heart of the site is done by volunteers, from the normal users who post, comment and vote on articles, to the volunteer moderators who set the tone of the individual communities (or “subreddits”), and even to the founders of the subreddits themselves – be that games, worldnews, or coontown.
For years, the only rules Reddit itself enforced were the most basic required to keep the site running: “no spamming, no cheating, no personal info, nothing illegal, and no interfering the site’s functions”. Everything else was up to the moderators of the individual subreddits.
In 2012, that hands-off policy took its first major beating, thanks to the existence of the “jailbait” subreddit. Created with the explicit purpose of posting sexual (but nonexplicit, and therefore legal) content featuring underage girls, it pushed the boundaries of what Reddit could get away with allowing on the site – eventually, to breaking point. The site, by then transferred out of Condé Nast itself to become an independent subsidiary of its parent company Advance Publications, was forced to introduce a new rule, banning “suggestive or sexual content featuring minors”.
The floodgates had been breached: from that point forward, it became increasingly hard for Reddit to cling to its previous policy. Any time it didn’t introduce another rule to control content, it could only be seen as tacitly approving of that content on its site.
Change at the top
But the company managed to put off the eventual reckoning for another three years. In March 2012, it appointed Yishan Wong as chief executive; he immediately faced a second scandal over content on Reddit, this time over the subreddit “creepshots”, which hosted sexualised photos of women taken without their permission.
Although creepshots was eventually banned, it was done owing to its breach of previously existing rules about personal info – the equivalent of taking Al Capone down for tax evasion, and one which established a precedent during Wong’s tenure of acting on a more ad-hoc basis than previously.
In November 2014, however, Wong’s leadership was cut short. He left under still-murky circumstances, and was replaced by Ellen Pao, who had joined Reddit in 2013. Initially only the leader on an interim basis, she was soon given the top job for good.
By the beginning of 2015, it was clear that Pao had the intention of making her mark on the site, just as previous bosses had. As with Wong before her, her tenure began shrouded by controversy: the aftermath of the celebrity photo hack of summer 2014, which had been spurred on by a subreddit – “TheFappening” – created to disseminate the photos (frequently nude selfies of famous female celebrities). Despite it apparently breaching Reddit’s rules about posting of personal information, the site was allowed to stay up by the admins for a week, with the only interventions made for pictures of women who were underage at the time they were taken. Those were removed.
After a week of constant pressure, Reddit caved, and banned TheFappening, citing copyright issues as well as the increased workload of administration. But again, it declined to set a precedent.
Under Pao, that changed. In February 2015, the site updated its rules to ban “involuntary pornography”, and released a statement admitting that it had “missed a chance to be a leader in social media when it comes to protecting your privacy”.
“No matter who you are, if a photograph, video, or digital image of you in a state of nudity, sexual excitement, or engaged in any act of sexual conduct, is posted or linked to on reddit without your permission, it is prohibited on reddit,” the new rule read.
If Pao wanted to clean up the mess behind the site which deemed itself the ‘front page of the internet’, it was a strong first step. But it also pointed to an inevitable conflict between the underbelly of her own site, and her intentions.
Among the many unsavoury communities on Reddit are a number of virulently misogynist groups, from the men’s rights movement, which still organises on the site, to shock subreddits such as “cute female corpses”, which blur the line between trolling and hate speech. For those groups, simply accepting a female chief executive was going to be a struggle. Accepting one with a feminist agenda – who was simultaneously making headlines for her eventually unsuccessful lawsuit alleging gender discrimination in her previous job at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins – was even less likely.
The Reddit Revolt
In June, a second policy change provided the spark for that rebellion. Reddit banned five subreddits over concerns that they were explicitly co-ordinating harassment; the subreddits banned included “fatpeoplehate” and “hamplanethatred”, both of which were focused on hating overweight people, and the racist subreddit “shitniggerssay”.
Despite the relatively small size of the banned groups (only fatpeoplehate had more than 5,000 subscribers), a large number of users found the clampdowns unacceptable. Some didn’t like the idea of banning for harassment full-stop; others argued that some subreddits that weren’t banned had been far worse, with the left-wing group “shitredditsays”, which started as a clearing-house for mocking other subreddits, frequently singled out for criticism.
The fight against the bans quickly became intensely personal, with Pao herself the target of a huge number of derogatory posts, many of which made it to the front page of the site. (“My fucking fist is honing in on this cunts face”, read one post with more than 4,000 net upvotes). But the battle didn’t look likely to spread to the silent majority of the Reddit, until a catastrophic staffing decision from the site dovetailed with the revolt to push it over a critical mass.
Entirely unrelated to the banning, Reddit had decided to sack a much-loved community co-ordinator, Victoria Taylor, who had been employed to help subreddits run their “AMA” Q&A sessions. Suddenly, the populist side of Reddit experienced its own revolt, with multiple subreddits closing their doors temporarily in protest.
It was the final straw for Pao, who saw the amount of abuse she was receiving from her own users spike still further. She resigned in July, writing that she had seen “the good, the bad and the ugly on Reddit. The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity”.
But for the users who had blamed her for their troubles, it would turn out to be a hollow victory. A prominent woman had been forced out of Silicon Valley – but the changes she started stuck. Two days after she left, the site’s new boss, Steve Huffman, confirmed he wouldn’t be reversing the bans on fatpeoplehate et al. And a month later, he went further still, banning the subreddits that made up the heart of the “Chimpire” from the site.
The banned subreddits existed, Huffman wrote, “solely to annoy other redditors, prevent us from improving Reddit, and generally make Reddit worse for everyone else.”
“We didn’t ban them for being racist,” he added. “We banned them because we have to spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with them. If we want to improve Reddit, we need more people, but CT’s existence and popularity has also made recruiting here more difficult.”
There is still garbage on Reddit. Groups such as cutefemalecorpses, which had over 4,000 subscribers in August, continue to operate as they did before. But the Reddit of 2015 is a very different company to the one which insisted in 2006 that anything that wasn’t illegal should be perfectly tolerated by a subsidiary of a media giant.
This article was written by Alex Hern, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 30th December 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010