By Caitlin Dewey
March 26, 2015
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A screenshot from a Reddit 404 page. (Reddit)
Reddit, the front-page of the Internet, hasn’t exactly had a banner year.
In August, it served as an early incubator for the Gamergate movement, which would go on wreck the lives of several innocent women and baffle America’s non-gaming populace. Not long after, it became the main distribution center for a trove of controversial stolen celebrity nude photos, including at least one of the gymnast McKayla Maroney when she was underage. To further salt the site’s wounds, a widely-publicized report released earlier this month accused the site of hosting hate groups. Reddit is, the Southern Poverty Law Center claimed, “the most hateful space on the Internet.”
… and the Internet can be a pretty hateful place.
As hardcore Redditors (and the site’s corporate owners) have pointed out, this criticism isn’t always entirely fair. Reddit is like a microcosm of the Internet itself: It’s so vast and labyrinthine and lawless that pretty much anything, good or bad, can make its home there. (“Reddit is the Mos Eisley spaceport of the Internet,” Slate’s Jacob Brogan wrote Wednesday. “A hive of scum and villainy that can carry you to the stars, if you ask around in the right places.”)
[Move over, Reddit: Tumblr is the new front page of the Internet]
So two weeks ago, Ben Bell — a data scientist at the language-processing firm Idibon — set out to quantify exactly which Reddit communities were the proverbial worst. Using both language-processing software and a team of human annotators, whom you can read about in more depth here, he identified the forums where personal attacks and bigoted language were the most frequent.
At the top of the pack, ranked No. 1 for toxicity, was /r/S***RedditSays: a forum with some 64,000 members, devoted, counter-intuitively, to shaming racism, misogyny, homophobia and “toxic privilege” in the larger Reddit community.
“Take a second to think about how unwelcoming this site is for some groups,” the community’s moderators explain in its FAQ. “SRS lets those groups know that there is in fact a faction of vocal dissenters and that they aren’t alone.”
Determined to see how dark the so-called “darkest depth of the Interwebs” could possibly be, I spent 48 hours lurking in SRS and logging every conversation that bubbled up in it. The community is pretty strictly regulated: You can only post literal quotes from other Redditors, and only for the purpose of making fun of them. So the average SRS thread consists of an unsavory quote from elsewhere on Reddit, and then a long string of negative responses. Like:
Reddit: Rape victims lie frequently for “monetary gain.”
SRS: “How stupid do you have to be?”
Reddit: drops a casual racial slur while talking about ISIS.
SRS: “Terrorism is meant to polarize groups, and Reddit happily helps out with that.”
Reddit: “Grad school made me racist … There’s a reason [racial] stereotypes exist.”
SRS: “If you self-identify as racist, you must have a sad existence.”
As should be fairly clear, SRS isn’t the actual source of bigotry or vitriol on Reddit: It’s just a mirror of it, a concentrated reaction to the casual bias and stereotyping that play out in other corners of the site. In fact, when SRS began, it was intended more lightheartedly: a place to gather silly or stupid comments, the same way other variants of the “s*** people say” meme do. But over time, the Guardian reported earlier this month, it became an “enclave within the site for people who have deep concerns about the main community.”
Those concerns, judging by the comments SRS has flagged in the past week, most frequently relate to sexism, racism and religious bias. And SRS has not hesitated to voice its concerns forcefully: “we have found that fighting fire with fire is substantially more gratifying” than discussion, they wrote. (Bell says his report did control for context, so SRS was rated toxic for the tone of its discussion, and not the controversial topics.) A common refrain, in response to virtually any kind of post, is “f*** Reddit” or “f*** Redditors.”
Bigotry on Reddit
The more time I spent in SRS, however, the more I realized that this is not Reddit’s fight — a fact that one moderator acknowledged explicitly in a recent interview. SRS is the most toxic place on the Internet only insofar as this debate over inclusion, diversity and “social justice” remains the most toxic debate in our culture; a debate that has, in the past year, winded around #YesAllWomen, erupted into the inferno that was Gamergate, and has reared its head with every new police shooting and rape allegation.
SRS may as well change its name to “s*** society says,” because that’s essentially what it documents: “the casual racism and sexism that is so popular,” and so insurmountable, even in mainstream, offline venues.
By the end of my allotted 48 hours, I was more than ready to log out of SRS permanently. Not because of the combativeness, necessarily, or the shaming or the “toxicity.” But I got worn down by the parade of human nastiness — and the futility of even trying to fight it.
“We are not here to ‘change reddit,'” the forum’s moderators write. “We don’t expect reddit to change. We know most redditors don’t really [care].”
They aren’t just talking about Reddit, though. And that’s a toxic problem, right there.