I don’t recommend doing it, but if you search for “Charles Ramsey” on Reddit, something predictably disturbing happens. First, you’ll notice that the most results come from /r/funny, the subreddit devoted to memes, puns, photobombs, and a whole bunch of sexist shit. Charles Ramsey, in case you don’t know, is the Good Samaritan that responded to calls for help by Amanda Berry- a woman that had been held captive for 10 years in a Cleveland basement, along with Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. The jokes on Reddit are largely at the expense of Ramsey, poking fun at his reaction to a police siren or his reference to eating ribs and McDonalds. As Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) said on Slate: “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.”
Harris situates Ramsey as the latest instance of an obnoxiously persistent tradition of people of color being interviewed by local news reporters and subsequently lampooned and remixed on the Internet. Ramsey is a little different in that Antoine Dodson (of “hide your kids, hide your wife” fame) and Michelle Clarke (“Kabooyow!”) may not have reached national fame without the attention of meme makers and auto tuners. Ramsey did something that made front-page news across the country, which means there’s a lot more “source material” to go on. But his interviews on Anderson Cooper and George Stephanopoulos haven’t been nearly as picked apart and appropriated as that first interview. Perhaps its because in later interviews there’s less ducking from cop car sirens and more references to helping the poor.
The Anderson Cooper interview is interesting because in an otherwise continuously shot interview there are just three cuts. Two of the three happen just as Ramsey starts talking about the poor and lack of services in his neighborhood, but perhaps this is a different problem entirely. One certainly does get the sense however, that Redditors aren’t the only ones focusing on the wrong aspects of what Ramsey has to say.
Would if we looked at the racist and classist jokes about Ramsey as a design problem? Racism and the ever-present and pervasive microaggressions that reproduce and sustain it are not going to disappear with the advent of a new tagging system, but there might be ways of tilting the scales a little bit so that people think critically about what they’re submitting. Technology has a certain capacity to frame social interaction, and that framing can have a specific political or social orientation. The hard part is getting the technology to reflect anything other than dominant narratives.
Most technologies appear to us as “neutral” because they conform to and reflect many of our dominant beliefs and organizational logics: Very few people, for example, are working on how to administer domain names and IP addresses without or outside of the corporate-dominated Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Designing a news aggregator or link sharing community that discourages racism (or rape culture, or any number of undesirable social phenomena) is hard to think about because we so rarely think or talk about racism as systematic phenomenon. This is reflected in the “report” option on Reddit (or YouTube, or almost any other social network), which assumes that individuals post specific offensive content, but there is no way to quickly amend or alter parts of the sociotechnical arrangement that might reward or just ignore the broader underlying factors that might encourage base behavior.
Providing feedback isn’t revolutionary but it might be undersold. Reddit’s source code is open and available to look at on GitHub, but I can guarantee you that more people have downvoted or reported a link as inappropriate than chosen to contribute anti-racist code (whatever that might look like) to Reddit’s developers. A large part of this might be that coding isn’t as widely taught as it should be, but also because it is way more time consuming than reporting offensive content. There are two ways around this: 1) build tools that let non-coders alter site functionality and then provide decision-making tools that coordinate the implementation of the new functionality or,2) build alliances and networks of users (and potential users) and act in unison towards a desired goal.
Option 1 brings us close to what anthropologist Chris Kelty calls a recursive public. A recursive public is,
a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.
These actually existing alternatives not only do useful work, they also critique dominant power narratives. Again, I do not know what an anti-racist Reddit would look like, but I want those with the ideas to have a chance at implementing them.
Option 2 is already seen to some extent in the formation of /r/shitredditsays (SRS). SRS contributors quote and gather the terrible things fellow redditors say into a single subreddit. SRS gives users a means catalogue and comment on examples of unacceptable behavior on a site that, above all, values what white dudes think free speech means. While the subreddit expressly forbids users from forming “downvote brigades” and going to the original problematic posts to publicly shame users, it does happen and the existence of SRS is felt well beyond the confines of the domain name. It is also worth noting that while these racist images usually rank the highest on Reddit, there are also links to this thoughtful NPR article that asks the important question: “Are We Laughing With Charles Ramsey?” The most upvoted comments are decent, but are emphatic that everyone is laughing “with,” not “at.” I would respect someone more for at least acknowledging the possibility of “at” or even consider that it isn’t perceived that way for any number of good reasons.
Perhaps the design solutions necessary to sufficiently discourage racism on Reddit would make it unrecognizable. A web platform that relies so heavily on quantifiable upvotes, comments, and karma might very well encourage undesirable behavior. Things that are shocking or provocative garner a lot of attention, which almost always translates into karmic rewards. It might be worth comparing the quantification-heavy design of Reddit with the virtually number-less Tumblr interface. Tumblr always asks that you either put your identity on the object (leaving a note) or put the object on your Tumblr identity (reblogging). In either case, activity on Tumblr does not lend itself to the cumulative nature of microaggressions or the base desire for quantifiable attention. While I don’t have hard numbers to back this up, Reddit seems to get in the news for bigotry, hate, and violence a lot more than Tumblr. The relationship between quantification and problematic behavior might be a total coincidence, but I doubt it.
At the heart of the augmented reality thesis (and the digital dualist critique) is the acknowledgement that no technology is an oasis from the social, cultural, and political forces that surround it. The Internet is not an insignificant cultural artifact (like so much fungus on a log) nor is it an undefined Wild West. And, as the comparison between Reddit and Tumblr suggests, one network might encourage behavior that another discourages, making it extremely difficult to say whether “The Internet” as a whole encourages us to do anything. The racist jokes made at Ramsey’s expense are encouraged through the implicit promise of a receptive (read: racist) audience, and the history of pre-existing memed interviews that went viral. Perhaps the best way to end this trend is the tried and true method of calling it out for what it is: racist.
Follow David on Twitter: @Da_Banks
Thanks to @beersandbooks for helping think through Reddit design possibilities.
Claudia Gold — May 9, 2013
I agree Reddit's community is racist. I don't know if I think that the quantification of things like karma is the reason for it. There are other examples of online communities with that kind of quantification (such as Quora) that are far less racist.
Reddit attracts libertarian-types who believe that they can and should say outlandish things in the name of "free speech." This is of course ridiculous, because no one should be racist just because they can, and furthermore, free speech only applies to public forums, which Reddit is clearly not.
Jesse Spafford — May 9, 2013
A quick comment. While it's true that Freedom of Speech as inscribed in the constitution doesn't apply to a forum like reddit, I do think that we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss the argument.
First, there are a lot of cases where people who don't like racist speech on reddit might want to deploy the free speech claim, even when it doesn't fall within the bounds of Constitutionally-protected speech. For example, say that your employer sees your posts and fires you because she doesn't like your opinions. It seems like you might want to deploy the "free speech" argument in that case and wouldn't want your claims dismissed by someone saying "oh, well technically that doesn't count as constitutionally-protected free speech, so deal with it." I think a very legalistic view of free speech falls into the libertarian trap of worrying excessively about state power while ignoring private abuses of power. Freedom of Speech is intended to protect our ability to express ourselves from the power of the government. But why should we dismiss such protection when the threat is other powerful private actors (e.g., employers)?
Second, one might think that Freedom of Speech as legal protection is grounded in some sort of ethical imperative for free speech (e.g., J.S. Mill's On Liberty). So we might think that there forms of silencing that, though legal, conflict with the underlying ethical justification of the First Amendment. Thus, when people invoke "free speech!" they are perhaps not referring to the legal principle but to the underlying moral principle, and should not be dismissed offhand.
Jack — May 9, 2013
(this is a reply to Claudia Gold @ 5:26 PM http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2013/05/09/can-we-make-an-anti-racist-reddit/#comment-29248 -- nesting has gone too deep)
I suppose the First Amendment / free speech arguments apply at the level of the company rather than at the level of the individual user. As in, Reddit cannot be censored by the (US) Federal government for hosting content that is in bad taste or racist or sexist, but not illegal. The company certainly *could* moderate or remove such offending content or users but chooses not to, presumably for financial reasons. A person could argue that it's in poor taste to host such content, argue that Reddit is a bad company for hosting it, boycott the company, and so forth.
Different subreddits seem to moderate in different ways. In some, comments deemed offensive are removed quickly and offending users are banned; in others, comments deemed offensive seem to be the whole point.
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Idontseethedifference — July 15, 2013
I really used to love reddit and saw that racism and sexism was a problem, but I felt like SRS blew it out of proportion, that the upvoted sexist and racist things would always eventually get down voted.
But not anymore. Reddit has taken a serious dive lately. From the embrace of George Zimmerman and Ron Paul, what I thought was a community of mostly progressive, intelligent older adults is now the haven of 12 year old spoiled Millhouse VanHouten clones who blame women and black people for why their lives suck.
Lokee — July 20, 2013
I gave up on Reddit after the Sunil Tripathi incident. One of the most racist places you can ever be on. Very useful, but EXTREMELY racist.
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