Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit. image credit: Christopher Michel
Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit. image credit: Christopher Michel

An unfortunately predictable thing happened on Reddit last week. Reddit’s corporate administrators announced that they would be shutting down “five subreddits that break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals.” These were fairly small subreddits, except for r/fatpeoplehate which had 150,000 subscribers at time of banning. The primary mission of r/fatpeoplehate was to find pictures of fat people, make fun of them in the comments and –if at all possible—find these people and harass them for being fat. [If you’re unfamiliar with the structure and vocabulary of Reddit I’ve provided a primer at the bottom of this page.]

The administrators were careful to point that they were “banning behavior, not ideas.” That is, while they know that there are dozens of subreddits devoted to white supremacy, tactics for violent raping women, and doxxing young women for espousing feminist beliefs on Tumblr, (yes, all of those exist and they are a lot bigger than you or I want to believe) those communities should rest assured that they will be safe so long as moderators make overtures to discouraging collective behavior that goes beyond reaffirming each other’s dangerous and hateful thoughts.

One could be forgiven for thinking that banning such disgusting behavior from a small minority of people would be met with some “that makes sense” head nods and any sort of outrage would be directed at the failure to ban more subreddits, not less. What in fact happened was quite the opposite: within the day there were dozens of new subreddits playing host to the kind of content and behavior that characterized r/fatpeoplehate. What’s more disturbing though, is that the content from these new subreddits were making it to the frontpage with thousands of votes. There were also countless posts calling for Reddit’s CEO Ellen Pao to do everything from resign to defile herself. As of writing, a full four days after the announcement, there’s an “Ellen Pao Must Resign” subreddit with over seven thousand subscribers that are still able to get links to the front page.

What happened here? How and why would the banning of such a despicable and small community cause such outrage? The answer comes in three parts: 1) the site’s features obscure more than they reveal about the social relationships that undergird the site, 2) the destructive and contradictory politics of extreme “free speech” rhetoric fan the flames of hate and 3) voting systems, as I have argued twice before (1 and 2), tend to reassert hegemonic discourse.

1) Social Relationships

Subreddits are administered by volunteer moderators that have wide-ranging discretion over the behavior of the community and set the tone for acceptable behavior. Their presence on the site however, is somewhat limited to their own submissions and comments, and a small box on the right-hand side that announces their handle. If a moderator is also a charismatic leader, or even just an influential voice, there are no indicators of their outsized influence on the group. From the outside, without spending a lot of time reading the comments, a subreddit that does a lot of infighting looks exactly the same as one that shares a very particular viewpoint.

Also, if subreddits work anything like other groupings of humans (and there’s no reason to assume otherwise), then smaller subreddits will act more like small towns than bigger subreddits that act like cities. Small towns might have squabbles, cliques, or even total schisms but there’s something that holds them together. Cities on the other hand, have a lot of people just passing through and while there can be devotees, everyone might not have the kind of loyalty that smaller places garner. Therefore, when small, tight-knit communities are threatened, they can act quickly and decisively with a unified front.

2) Extreme Free Speech

It is really important, speaking in the most general terms possible, that people get to express themselves in a way that they feel heard and their arguments considered. This is an ethical position that is shared, in varying shades and colors, by just about every political thinker since the Enlightenment. What makes Redditors’ free speech politics so destructive is their belief that “freedom” is synonymous with “no consequences” and that “community standards” are tantamount to “censorship.” This gets even more ridiculous when they invoke the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution which only states that the government –and not your preferred social media company––is prohibited from retaliating against political speech acts.

Notice here that I say extreme and not radical. Radical free speech would interrogate the very root of what freedom and speech acts mean and how they behave. This might require some critical thought about consequences, a study of the history of who typically gets to speak, and a thoughtful analysis of how one person’s freedom from abuse or harassment balances with others’ freedom to say and do certain things. Extremism doesn’t interrogate anything. Instead, it seeks to take things as they are to their most illogical conclusion. The sort of free speech extremism espoused on Reddit in the days after the announcement of the banned subreddits, posits that even the most reprehensible speech must be left alone because to silence even the worst among us is the beginning of a slippery slope towards… well, that’s sort of vague. Sometimes it’s the calcification and slow death of Reddit, sometimes it’s a more general indicator of fascism.

The irony here is that free speech extremism opens the door for fascism. It demands that hate, whether it is directed at fat people or anyone else, is somehow part of a spectrum that also contains more agreeable ideas: one of many things to be considered on their own merits. Lots of people upvoting derogatory posts about fat people may fancy themselves a one-man-ACLU: they don’t agree with the posts, but they’ll defend the right to post it. It is the kind of logic that could only come from someone with no skin in the game: people with enough privilege that decisions about what sort of speech should be tolerated are thought experiments and not matters of literal life and death.

3) Voting Systems

I would understand if voting seems somehow antithetical to extremism. We typically think of voting as a democratic mechanism that helps us arrive at commonalities, not divisive extremes. Generally this is the case. As I argued back in 2013:

Voting-oriented sites are often billed as exercises in crowdsourcing: Thousands of Reddit users take the place of Buzzfeed editors, and the hundreds of Quora users answering a question about the relative merits of Android over iOS replace the technology reviewer. But voting doesn’t foster virality so much as it encourages Redditors to play on well-worn tropes and memes to ensure a better chance at making the front page. The never-ending elections and karma hunts incentivize Redditors to try to craft perfect social media content just as canned and constrained as typical politicians. Users have begun to notice this uniformity in the sites’ comments, link titles, and even the content itself but there isn’t much that can be done. While using common phrases (Reddit’s are compiled here) are one of the more basic methods of forming and performing in group status, the karma-driven voting system asks the Redditor to wield cat GIFs and Xbox stories as a presidential speech writer might wield God and family.

This sounds like an argument for commonality, not extremity until one remembers that norms need not be neutral or all-inclusive. Reddit’s ability to deliver fat shaming is akin to a Texas legislature banning abortion providers. Voting can be a highly efficient delivery mechanism for violence, especially against marginal populations. Without mechanisms and features to actively and continually fight structural oppression, the same old violence will reassert itself. Just as a relative few people espouse explicitly white supremacist views in a country that benefits from and implicitly forgives structural white supremacy, so too can the banning of a relatively tiny hateful subreddit spur a massive backlash from a once-silent majority.

Voting mechanisms are particularly good at supporting this sort of social dynamic because it is so easy to register your support (no one asks you to defend your position) and the entire enterprise is meant to anoint definitive winners and losers. In that way, Reddit not only asks its users to be extremist, they are also zealots in the way Joel Olsen uses the term [paywall]. Zealotry is a kind of political tactic that draws clear lines of winners and losers, friends and enemies. Moderate positions are intentionally and forcibly removed as an option. Such tactics, according to Olsen, have been incredibly effective across the political spectrum, having been indispensable organizing tactics for both slavery and abortion abolitionists.

Voting doesn’t deliver the best, most important, or even the most popular content. Instead, voting asks that we adhere closely to established community norms, whether that be extremist free speech, hateful bigotry, or both. What we are seeing on Reddit is the same social phenomenon that drives the sort of community harassment that the smartphone-based social network Yik Yak is constantly fighting. When I wrote about Yik Yak back in April I warned, “Implementing a voting system as an information filter signals that group cohesion is prioritized over most other outcomes, including justice or equality for all members.” Voting, whether it is on content or candidates, asks us to double down on abstracted convictions so that we may achieve specific things later on.

When you live in a society that hates fat people it shouldn’t be surprising that one’s right to continue harassing and degrading them be used as cannon fodder for an extremist free speech crusade. Ellen Pao is also currently embroiled in a fight with her previous employer over fair hiring practices, making this an easy proxy war for the Mens’ Rights crowd as well. All this shows just how much work social network administrators have cut out for themselves. Unfortunately we have yet to find a mix of features and standards that help in actively discouraging structural oppression and not just individual bad behavior. Once we figure that out, we all might have the luxury of being surprised when something like this happens again.

David is on Twitter, Tumblr, and yeah actually- even Reddit.

Reddit primer

The main features of the site are minimal, almost elegant: a user submits links or short pieces of text and other users vote that submission up or down based on “importance.” Discussions are hosted on a fairly standard commenting system. The site is organized into “subreddits” which can be anything from vague categories’ like “pictures” all the way down to the more obscure “Where did the soda go?” which asks users to submit out-of-context gifs of infomercials. Subreddits are usually referred to by the unique portion of their URL. For example Where did the soda go? is r/wheredidthesodago. Users subscribe to subreddits which populate their custom frontpage. Individual profiles are sparse and contain not much more than a username, a history of things you’ve submitted and said in the comments, and a “karma” number that represents the net up and down votes you’ve received across the entire site.  If all of that didn’t sit right you can check out the Reddit’s about page.


Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that all banned subreddits were under 5,000 subscribers.