Essays on Technology and Culture

Reddit and the Slow Suicide of the Social Web

Yesterday, I deleted my six year old Reddit account. I’ve never been deep in the community side of Reddit. I managed one, extremely small subreddit, attended a couple local meetups, and that was it. Reddit was a place I relied on to get interesting news and links for me, and not much else. But, with every horror story in the media about the company: communities dedicated to sexualized images of teenage girls, pegging the wrong suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings leading to their suicide, The Fappening, I’ve grown more bothered by being a member. The recent double-punch of the racist and sexist attacks on now former CEO Ellen Pao, and the new CEO’s disinterest in even moderating the site’s grotesquely racist underbelly forced my hand. I wash my hands of Reddit.

Many pixels have been spilled about Reddit as a failed state. I will not attempt to repeat them. I’ll just link to a few of the best:

The problem is something much bigger than Reddit, and I go back to Charlie Warzel’s excellent piece. One line in particular stands out: “What we now see in Reddit is the crash of internet utopian idealism against the rocks of human reality.”

Or, as Arthur put it, less succinctly, but more accurately:

This is the face of Web 2.0, folks. This is the boondoggle they’ve been selling to all the Web 2.0 investors—that the “social web” is an untapped oil well when in reality it’s a seething underground pool of excrement and bile.

It’s all too easy to see Reddit’s failures, and the problems of the social web as a whole, on a small scale—as failures of technology and algorithms to surface the good things and hide the bad. If Reddit truly fails, that is, fails to make a return on investment for Advance Publications and its investors, some other enterprising, idealistic young rock star coder will figure out a better way and the experiment will begin anew. And will fail.

Anyone who knows me would tell you that I am, fundamentally, a cynic about human nature, but every cynic is a failed idealist at heart. My idealism about human nature has been crushed, again and again, throughout my life. A person can be good, but people, far too often, are cruel, callous, heartless, and outright evil. We’ve seen this play out many, many, many times on the Web. All you have to do is just look at the comments on any local newspaper’s website and you’ll see this in action.

The only thing that works, and has been shown to work time and time again, is strict, human moderation. If there’s one thing technology culture still does not get, the people around Reddit, especially, is that algorithms and systems can, and will be gamed. A post by returning Reddit CEO Steve Huffman summarizes this mistake—the idea that the unsavory elements of any community can be merely “quarantined” is pure nonsense.

Human moderation is, however, expensive. It comes at a high price for the company in terms of salary, and a high price for the moderators, on the front lines against the worst of what humanity has to offer from behind a keyboard. Just read the excellent Wired piece on the contract moderators Facebook pays to police your news feed. You can’t have it both ways. It’s impossible to engineer a community, let alone a safe one, it must be built by human hands and human action. It requires, it demands responsibility, and it must be baked in from the beginning. Any attempt at online community that neglects this is guaranteed to fall prey to the worst of what humanity has to offer.

At a certain point, a community left unchecked will become too toxic to save. Recently, The Verge disabled comments on their articles, claiming:

What we’ve found lately is that the tone of our comments (and some of our commenters) is getting a little too aggressive and negative — a change that feels like it started with GamerGate and has steadily gotten worse ever since.

John Gruber noted that Nilay’s post read an awful lot like one by Joshua Topolsky, five years ago. Plus ça change… Temporarily turning off comments is a band-aid on a tumor. Fixing the problem takes surgery, and to save the patient, you’re going to have to cut out a lot more than just the tumor. Too often, the attitude is to simply ignore the tumor under the guise of “inclusivity.” A line has to be drawn somewhere.

The cynic in me thinks the grand experiment of a social web is fundamentally misguided. To hell with it all. Drop a nuclear bomb on Reddit, wipe the content clean, and build something new in its place. In other words, turn Reddit into what Digg became—a human curated place where people can get interesting things from around the web without any of that pesky “community” nonsense. Of course, Digg is threatening to add “conversations, dialogue, and social features” to one of the few calm, peaceful places on the web. The idea makes me ill.

The idealistic side in me thinks someone (maybe Digg?) will realize that the lassiez-faire attitude of places like Reddit, 4chan, and all the other toxic communities on the web is what they need to avoid to succeed. But, of course, I have my doubts. I know in my heart of hearts that human nature, cliquish, horrible human nature will prove me right, when I want so desperately to be proven wrong.