In just 10 years, Reddit has grown from a small community of tech nerds into a breeding ground for the Web's viral photos, videos and news, and it's become a magnet for controversy and media criticism over its issues with racism, misogyny, abuse and harassment. Then, last week, interim CEO Ellen Pao left the company after a tumultuous eight months. Other longtime leaders dropped like flies.
On 4 p.m. ET Thursday, Reddit administrators announced a major policy change in the format of a community discussion on the site, addressing the site's most disgusting corners. Cofounder and current CEO Steve Huffman clarified the site's new regulations for cyberbullying, harassment, and pornography, and also announced a classification system for its more disturbing content, effectively disappearing it from the site but still allowing users to access it with a login. Meaning: If you know where to find it, have fun.
Here are the new rules, in full:
"We've seen ... how unfettered free speech can make Reddit a less enjoyable place to visit, and can even cause people harm outside of Reddit," wrote cofounder and current CEO Steve Huffman. He said Reddit will "consider banning subreddits that clearly violate the guidelines in my post — the ones that are illegal or will cause harm to others." It's a purposefully vague response.
Huffman announced that the controversial community /r/rapingwomen will be banned. "They are encouraging people to rape," he explained. The infamous racist troll hub /r/coontown will be "reclassified," however. "The content there is offensive to many, but does not violate our current rules for banning."
Here's a primer to understanding the cataclysmic meltdown that's shaken Reddit over the last few weeks. Even if you've never upvoted a story, subscribed to a subreddit or even visited the site, you'll learn all you need to know about why the future of Reddit matters to every citizen of the Web.
Really quickly... what is Reddit?
Reddit is like a giant message board, only it's broken up into individual Internet forums called subreddits, which each represent a topic or common theme — when you see "/r/Space" or "/r/Gonewild," you're talking about subreddits about outer space, or where women can post pics of themselves naked. Subreddits are little colleges and majors, while Reddit is the university.
On each subreddit, and Reddit as a whole, the stuff people post — pictures, text, articles — gets to the top of the message board by votes, as do every comment on that thing. It's the Internet's most efficient information mob.
Why is everyone so upset?
Ultimately, it boils down to the disconnect between the users and the corporation that controls Reddit. Reddit may be free to use, but the value of Reddit as a business is created by users who work hard on posting good content.
A small legion of volunteer moderators police and curate the subreddits out of their personal interests. These parties are vital to the success of the site. Moderators depend on support from Reddit to keep their communities civil, and many say they don't have the tools they need. For example, administrators allegedly refused to intervene when /r/BlackLadies became infested with racist trolls in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri.
Most users want Reddit to be a safe space for positive discussion — free of harassment. Some users want Reddit to be an anything-goes free for all. Reddit's leaders can't seem to figure out what they want Reddit to be. Huffman told the community Wednesday, "Neither Alexis nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech," although cofounder Alexis Ohanian literally called Reddit "a bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web" in a 2012 interview with Forbes.
The past few weeks have seen major shifts and changes behind the scenes of Reddit as a company, and moderators need support even more. And they've been up in arms because...
Someone important was fired, right?
Well, a few people have come and gone, including Pao, Reddit's chief engineer and CEO; we'll get to Pao in a moment. But the most important layoff was Victoria Taylor, who coordinated the site's famous /r/AMA, or "Ask Me Anything" forum, where famous people and normal people submit themselves to the Reddit mob and get interviewed.
The unexpected firing of Taylor, for reasons still unclear, led to an all-out hostile takeover from other moderators who were sympathetic to Taylor. The Reddit community feels largely disconnected from the corporation that owns and maintains the website, and Taylor was beloved by the community. Naturally, redditors sided with Taylor and blamed Pao.
So who is Pao?
Pao was Reddit's interim CEO, its second in only a few months. It's not necessary to resort to racism and sexism to criticize her work as CEO. She had some missteps, like dropping Taylor without considering its effects on the community. But a huge pocket of the community — the racists and misogynists — showed up in droves to fabricate a "feminist usurper" narrative, arguing that Pao and her army of "social justice warriors" set out to tear Reddit apart.
During a sexual discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, the tech media built up Pao as a champion of the war against sexism in tech, and Reddit's vocal anti-feminist crowd hated Silicon Valley's new feminist hero. They launched a Change.org petition with the objective of convincing Pao to step down as CEO. It gained over 213,000 signatures. She stepped down, but she hasn't left Reddit — she's the moderator of discussion hub /r/casualconversation.
Later, it was revealed that certain things the community disliked about Pao might be attributed to other company leaders — such as the beloved Ohanian.
Are redditors really all terrible chauvinists?
No. There are hundreds of thousands of subreddits dedicated to hobbies, communities, discussions and debates, fiction, fetishes, fashion and everything in between. But the men's rights community is very real. That demographic is a holdover from the early days of Reddit — and the Internet at large, really — and is Reddit's loudest vocal minority. As it is with online communities, the people who obsess, care and speak out the most end up with disproportionate levels of influence. It's the very foundation of what makes a forum moderator influential, even the nefarious ones.
Reddit is a feudalistic society. Users have permission to stay and share, as long as they till the land dutifully for the king.
Redditors often criticize the media for mining Reddit for content while highlighting only the bad stuff, the gory, misogynist and racist corners of the site. Many of these communities, like the disturbing /r/cutefemalecorpses, exist to test Reddit's commitment to free speech. But these corners are real, threatening and worthy of admonition, and their users often resort to harassing real people — which is why Pao banned /r/fatpeoplehate and four others.
Redditors did not take this well. They staged a Nazi-themed protest, Google-bombing Pao so searches for her name resulted in swastikas. They called her "Chairman Pao," subjected her to death threats and submitted her headshot to groups like /r/punchablefaces.
So is that what will happen now?
Maybe. If Reddit's current leaders decide Reddit doesn't need groups like /r/rapingwomen — yes, that really exists — a large chunk of Reddit's homes for gore, porn and racist talk stand to disappear. Huffman and Ohanian may decide Reddit is better off without the users who demand the freedom to discuss anything — no matter how hateful — and wish them well as they find a new place to post racial slurs or photos of women torn in half.
Yep. Fortunately for those people, plenty of sites support that stuff, like Gamergate hub 8chan — also home to a network of pedophiles — or Voat, which is slowly amassing the communities Reddit banned. Thanks to those options, many users may flee Reddit for good.
So is Reddit doomed?
No, Reddit will be fine. Most of Reddit's over 163 million monthly users don't care about spreading hate and mocking overweight women, and there's no evidence Reddit's competitors will gain enough traction to overtake Reddit the way Reddit sank Digg a decade ago. When the shitstorm reached a fever pitch when Taylor was fired, Ohanian said he'd be kicking back and watching with popcorn (a comment he now regrets making).
Controversy on Reddit burns hot, but it dies down fast. The Verge calls it the "Upworthy rule":
A random visitor to Reddit's front page last Friday, in the middle of the latest freak-out, might have assumed the site's extinction was on the horizon. But less than 48 hours later the rage was nowhere to be found; the exodus did not materialize, the same way everyone who threatens to leave Facebook never leaves Facebook. Every Reddit revolt — every ignominious period of sound and fury — burns hot but brief, and is eventually consumed by Reddit's algorithm and left in the ash heap of Internet history.
Why should I care?
Reddit tends to fancy itself as a paradise for libertarian ideals — or at least a democracy. But its community is discovering the online society they contribute to is feudalistic: a community of volunteers working for the benefit of a corporation. Users have permission to stay, congregate, share and play around, as long as they till the land dutifully and don't step out of line. In fact, as the notorious Reddit troll Violentacrez showed, if you're a helpful moderator and keep things tidy for the admins, you can even preside over a network of racism, harassment and nearly naked underage girls and no one will stop you.
Redditors finally realized they're not in control of their own destinies, and they're staging a peasant revolt. You may feel utterly disconnected from redditors and their struggle for administrator support until you look at what you share on your social network of choice — be it Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, whatever — and ask yourself: Who's really in control?