How Reddit took on its own users – and won

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How Reddit took on its own users – and won

Postby admin » Thu Dec 31, 2015 12:20 am

How Reddit took on its own users – and won
Since 2006, the site insisted anything that wasn’t illegal should be tolerated. Under Ellen Pao’s brief leadership, all that changed
by Alex Hern
December 30, 2015

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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.
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Re: How Reddit took on its own users – and won

Postby admin » Thu Dec 31, 2015 12:25 am

How Reddit’s Ellen Pao survived one of ‘the largest trolling attacks in history’
After tackling revenge porn on the site, its former CEO was subjected to vicious abuse and forced to resign. Can the internet ever get over its misogyny?
by Lindy West
December 22, 2015

NOTICE: THIS WORK MAY BE PROTECTED BY COPYRIGHT

YOU ARE REQUIRED TO READ THE COPYRIGHT NOTICE AT THIS LINK BEFORE YOU READ THE FOLLOWING WORK, THAT IS AVAILABLE SOLELY FOR PRIVATE STUDY, SCHOLARSHIP OR RESEARCH PURSUANT TO 17 U.S.C. SECTION 107 AND 108. IN THE EVENT THAT THE LIBRARY DETERMINES THAT UNLAWFUL COPYING OF THIS WORK HAS OCCURRED, THE LIBRARY HAS THE RIGHT TO BLOCK THE I.P. ADDRESS AT WHICH THE UNLAWFUL COPYING APPEARED TO HAVE OCCURRED. THANK YOU FOR RESPECTING THE RIGHTS OF COPYRIGHT OWNERS.


Image
Ellen Pao was at the heart of two of 2015’s biggest feminist news stories. Photograph: Mark Mahaney

Ellen Pao was at the heart of two of 2015’s biggest feminist news stories: her discrimination lawsuit against former employer Kleiner Perkins; and her resignation from content-sharing site Reddit, after weathering what she later called “one of the largest trolling attacks in history” – death and rape threats, racist abuse, libel, her home address publicised online – from Reddit users unhappy with Pao’s efforts to crack down on hate speech and revenge porn.

Pao could have lain low in both jobs. Instead, she became a gamechanging force in 2015, taking on racism and sexism in very public ways that actually made an ideological dent. She made the day-to-day internet, the executive offices of Silicon Valley finance and the broad swath of life in between incrementally more hospitable for women. I sat down with Pao in San Francisco to talk about the toxic underbelly of the internet, how we can fix it and what might be next after her well-earned time off.

How did the harassment affect you?

It’s interesting – I was talking to somebody the other day who was saying, “How many times do people have to share their horrific experiences of harassment for people to believe that it happens?” And so here I am, sharing this terrible time in my life and people care because it’s interesting and it’s horrific, but then nothing really happens. Like, how many times does this have to happen and, again, mostly to women? It was at the point where we had security for our building, I had security for my home and I had a lot of fear that something would happen to me or my family.

How can the internet be a better place for women?

If you talk to people who built communities early on, such as the folks from Second Life, the view is that it’s really hard to change a community later, to fix it. So, if you allow some bad behaviour because you don’t have the resources, if you don’t prioritise it, it makes it hard to go back because the bad behaviour scales as your system and your community scale. You need 10 times as many people and it has become 10 times more sophisticated, and it’s groups of people working to troll your whole system.

Do you think trolls attack you because they think it’s a game and they don’t think of you as a human being – or because they genuinely enjoy inflicting pain?

I have no idea. I don’t understand them! It’s just not something that I would ever do. Why would you want to hurt a stranger? It makes no sense to me. So I just don’t know. It’s just a baffling part of the human psyche that I don’t feel competent in trying to unravel. And, to be honest, I just don’t care to spend the time doing that. There’s no answer.

Do you think the fight against discrimination is going to become a part of your professional life?

It’s very hard to spend 100% of your time on it because it’s 150% of your emotional energy. I’ve found it’s a part of who I am and there are things that I was able to do at Reddit as CEO that weren’t about fighting discrimination per se, but just creating a fair environment. Like, let’s make sure that our pay is fair across the whole company, and that helps everybody across the board – not just women and minorities, but also men who can’t negotiate, or managers who are bad negotiators whose teams aren’t happy because they’re not being paid the same amount. That’s something that I think I want to carry forward in everything that I do, but I don’t see it as: “I’m going to go out and talk and write and have that be my whole career.”

Why do you think people see your working towards basic fairness as an attack on them?

I think there’s a lot of fear in change. For some people, it is: “The system has worked for me, so what’s wrong with it? There can’t be anything wrong with it.” There’s an aspiration that people have that they are fair and unbiased and meritocratic, and when you start pointing out these differences, there’s this huge gap between who they aspire to be and who they really are and what they’re doing. It’s extremely uncomfortable, fear-inducing and disappointing to them. So I think they can’t acknowledge that gap. They have to push to make sure that the people criticising it are the problem.

After your experience, do you still feel as if Reddit is a net gain for the world? Do you feel positively about the community as a whole?

There are so many good things that come out of Reddit, and I want to say that I think it’s the most awesome product in the universe, but it’s not. It’s like the [rest of the] internet, where there are these really dark pockets. My hope is that that team is able to clear out a lot of the toxicity and make it into a more positive place and a better experience for everyone. And that it teaches people about a better internet and a better way to interact with people both online and in real life. But that’s a hard ask.

What do you see as the future of the internet?

I don’t know. There’s a future that I want for it, and that’s the one I focus on. [It would be] more like the early internet, when it was really just about sharing information and people were helpful to each other, and it was really just an awesome place to roam around.

What is the biggest problem facing the American tech industry?

I think the biggest issues with discrimination in the US tech industry are the lack of women and the lack of minorities in the workplace, which generate a problem with how they are treated.

How do you get through to people who aren’t convinced there is a problem?

I think it’s going to take people telling their stories to get there, and people sharing data. Because it’s not something that’s going to be easy to convince people, and it’s going to take calling people out. Like: “Hey, do you realise that you just asked that woman to go get coffee for us? And is there a reason why you picked her?” Or: “Did you realise that you gave everybody credit for the project except for the African-American guy who spent all of his time on it for the past three weeks?” It’s not something that’s a light switch that we can turn on for everybody in the same way, but just having people feel comfortable talking about it and the research that universities are doing to show that this is happening in performance reviews, this is happening in hiring, this is happening in promotions. I think the younger generation is going to grow up with a different set of baseline facts.

What’s next for you?

I want to work at a company, probably a startup with friends. I haven’t really thought about it that much, but I do want to get back to doing stuff and building things and making a difference that way.
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