Reddit and the fight to detox the internet

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Which web pages get the most traffic? According to the alexa ranking service, in the year this information was written, the top three resources in america are google, youtube, and facebook. (Good luck in business, pornography doesn’t make it into the top ten.) The rankings don’t reflect everything – the dark web, nouveau riche bitcoin-hoarding hermits – but more often than not, people online go where you want them to go. Them to go. The only truly amazing entry in the fourth spot of development is reddit, whose astronomical popularity seems to belie the fact that many americans have only vaguely heard of the platform and have no real idea of what it is. Link aggregator? Microblogging site? Social network?

For its fans, reddit proudly feels untamed, one of the last internet giants to resist uniformity. Most reddit pages have a retrospective aesthetic with many crude images and jumbled text: original post, comments on a post, data on comments, replies on replies. That’s all. Reddit is made up of over a million individual communities or subreddits, some with three subscribers, some with twenty million. Each subreddit is dedicated to a specific type of content, from the vital to the trivial: r/news, r/politics, r/trees (for marijuana lovers), r/marijuanaenthusiasts (for tree lovers), r/mildlyinteresting (“for pictures that, in you know, slightly interesting”). A number of users accidentally go to reddit, find it strange and never visit it again. But the many who appoint it – the redditors where they were nicknamed – use it for a single day quite often, almost eliminating all nuances. “For a modest time, we called ourselves the home page of the internet,” steve huffman, ceo of reddit, said recently. “Today, i am inclined to say that our company remains a place for open and honest conversations – “open and white”, which means authentic, which is meant by messy, which means the qualitative and worst, genuine and most of all, the strange sides of humanity. /+>

On november 23, 2016, shortly after president trump was elected, huffman was sitting at his own desk in san francisco browsing the site. It was the day before thanksgiving. The reddit administration today removed a subreddit called r/pizzagate, a forum for people who believed that high-ranking members of hillary clinton’s presidential campaign, and probably clinton herself, were involved in the sex slave trade. The evidence, as extensive as it was inconclusive, included satanic rituals, a map printed on a handkerchief, and an original code that included the words “cheese” and “pizza.” In just twenty days of existence, the pizzagate subreddit has attracted twenty thousand subscribers. It now had a white page cleaned up in place with the message “this collective is blocked”. Services in particular such persistence in posting personal contact numbers and addresses of their enemies, which is a clear violation of reddit rules. Conspiracy theorists, in turn, have claimed that they were banned because the reddit admins were part of the conspiracy. (Less than two weeks after pizzagate was banned, a man fired a semi-automatic rifle at a pizzeria called comet ping pong outside columbia in an attempt to “self-investigate” allegations that the restaurant’s basement was a dungeon full of kidnapped children. Comet ping pong is here no basement.)

Some conspiracy theorists have left reddit and rejoined on voat, a site created by clients also for users that reddit is getting rid of browsing. (There are bizarro networks in many social networks that position themselves as strongholds of free speech and, in user experience, are often used to incite hatred. People banned on twitter end up in gab, people banned on patreon fly into hatreon.) And regrouped on r/the_donald, the popular pro-trump subreddit. Throughout the presidential campaign, the_donald has been a hive of trump supporters. By its time it had become a hermetic subculture, full of inside jokes and ugly rhetoric. The community’s most frequent commentators, one of which is the man they helped run for president, were pros at testing boundaries. After five to ten minutes they began to express their outrage at something that pizzagate was removed.

Reddi editors use aliases, and their aliases sometimes start with “u” which means “username”. Huffman is spez. Looking through the_donald, he noticed that hundreds of the mostmost requested comments quoted by the general public were about him:

“Fuck u/spez”

“U /spez an accomplice in a cover-up”

“U/spez supports child rape”

One commenter simply wrote “u/spez is a cuck” in bold, one hundred ten times without a break.

Huffman sat alone at his pc and considered whether or not to answer him. “In my heart i consider myself a troll,” he later said. “Make people annoyed, be a little outrageous to add a little spice to everyday life – i understand that. I did it.” In his mind, huffman imagined the_donald as a wayward teenager who can’t stop being mistreated. “If your little brother flicks your ear, you might be ignoring it”, he said, “in that situation, if he flicks the client a hundred times in the ear or punches you, then maybe you will give him a light slap to show that you are attentive.”

Although the redditors are far away had no such thing, huffman could edit any series of the site. He wrote an event sequence that automatically replaced his client name with the names of the_donald’s most prominent members, directing insults back at the offenders in present-tense format in the first “fuck u/spez” comment is “fuck u/trumpshaker”; in another, “fuck u/spez” is “fuck u/magadocious”.

The_donald users saw what happened and reacted by coming up with a conspiracy theory, which in this case turned out to be true.


“Manipulating the words of your society is fucked up,” wrote a commenter.

“Even facebook and twitter didn’t sink to this low level

“Trust nothing”.

This incident became known as “spezdaring”, and concrete is still being used both inside and outside the country as a paradigm example of a techno-performing excess. Messenger platforms have to do something to curb gamblers, but that’s not what experts say.

Huffman can no longer edit the resource indiscriminately, but his exposure has exposed the aspect that most social media companies go to great lengths to hide the fact that no matter how neutral the platform may seem, there is always a person behind the scenes. “I screwed up,” huffman wrote in an apology the following week. “Most in the world my priority is for reddit to get well and my goal is for our country to get well.” Implied in his apology was a set of questions, perhaps the central questions facing the consumer who is concerned about the usual state of civil discourse. Is it possible to create a place for open dialogue without, however, encouraging pranks, harassment and threats of violence? Where is the line between authenticity and toxicity? That once technology allows us to unleash our inner voice, we will learn that many people are indeed toxic?

The only way to understand the internet, at least at first, was by metaphor. “Network”, “page”, and “superhighway” are all metaphors. As well as link”, “viral”, “post” and “stream”. Last year, the supreme court heard a case on whether it would be constitutional to bar registered sex offenders from exploiting social media. To answer such a question, the judges had to ask another point, what is viber and vkontakte? In sixty minutes of oral argument, facebook was compared to a park, a playground, an airport terminal, a polling station, and a city square.

It would be most useful to compare the social network. To the party. The party starts small, with the hosts – and their three friends. Then rumors spread and strangers appear. People take signals from the environment. A mimosa in a sun-drenched atrium suggests one mood; grain alcohol in a musty basement suggests otherwise. Sometimes a pattern emerges on its own. Pinterest, an accessible photo-sharing site founded by three men, has proved popular with women aspiring to an urban lifestyle, and these days, a collage of merino scarves and cheaper glassware can be seen on the main page. In other situations, the gatekeeper seems to be the most deliberate. If you’re fourteen, snapchat’s user interface is clear; if you’re twenty-two, that’s intriguing; if you’re over thirty-five, it’s impenetrable. It encourages people of retirement age to self-deport.

Huffman and concrete university flatmate alexis ohanian founded reddit some time after graduating from the university of virginia in 2005. Were, like the co-founders, strong young men who were into computer programming, video games, and biting self-referential humor.The reddit system was purely democratic, in other words anarchist. Anyone could post any link, and the ones with the most votes moved to the top of the page. Back then, facebook was only available to college students, and before joining the ranks, it had to provide your real name, birthday, and work school email address – tantamount to receiving a card on the doorstep. To join reddit, all you need is a username that hasn’t been posted yet. It was easy to start a lot of anonymous accounts, which gave ground for creativity as for mischief.

Oganyan then was clumsy and clean-shaven, he was often photographed in a sweatshirt and with a stupid smile. At a personal wedding last year, with a beard and an armani tuxedo, he was almost unrecognizable. (However, the paparazzi weren’t much interested in him, especially since such a bride was serena williams.) Huffman, on the other hand, always looked relatively the same: bright blue eyes, chipmunk teeth and a mop of blond hair.

More than a month after reddit was released, huffman created the first restrictions. People posted links to a vulgar and violent file, so that was normal, except that huffman wanted users to have some idea of what they were going to click on so they could avoid, say, unintentionally opening pornography in front of their superiors. Huffman called some nsfw content unsafe for work and separated it from everything else. It was the end of pure democracy.

In 2006, ohanian and huffman sold reddit to condé nast, a media conglomerate that owns more than twenty magazines, including this one. (Reddit now operates independently.) The sale made them twenty-two-year-old millionaires, but the know-how didn’t make it into the big company, and three years later it was gone. In their absence, the party became more expensive, and stranger, and sinister cliques began to gather around the corners. One of the most sought after subreddits, r/jailbait, was devoted to photographs of young girls with sexual content. It remained very creepy, but probably not illegal – users of the subreddit swore that you ladies in the pictures were eighteen or more – and reddit allowed the community to grow. In september 2011, anderson cooper discussed the subreddit on cnn. “It is strange that a large corporation can have something like this that negatively affects it,” he said. Jailbait traffic quadrupled overnight. Twelve days later, as soon as someone from the gang can be assumed to have shared a nude photo of a fourteen year old girl, the community was blocked. However, the founder of jailbait, the infamous troll alias u/violentacrez, was allowed to stay on reddit, as were the 400 or so other communities he created – r/jewmerica, r/chokeabitch even worse. (Yes, it gets worse.)

Ishan wong, an engineer who worked at fb, was the ceo of reddit at the time. He hinted that he banned jailbait only because the subreddit violated us laws. “We stand for freedom of speech,” he wrote in an internal post in 2012. Reddit’s goal, he continued, was to “become a universal platform for human communication.” Therefore, “it would be wrong if, during our youth, we made the decision to censor things simply because they are unpleasant.”

Wong’s free speech absolutism was a ubiquitous phenomenon in silicon valley at the time. Twitter executives called their company “the free wing of the free speech party.” Facebook’s original self-description, “the digital directory that connects people through social media at colleges,” has become a grand mission statement: “facebook empowers people to share and produce a more open and connected world.” Since the “arab spring” was still fresh in mind, no one doubted that “giving power to the people” would inevitably lead to social progress. Barack obama, who came to power thanks to a mass of votes on social media, often expressed the same optimism about the healing effects of the internet. “In our modern times, information is power,” obama said in a 2011 speech on middle east politics. “The truth cannot be hidden. . . . Such an open discourse is important when what is said contradicts our worldview.”

Wong left the company in 2014, after 2.5 years. He was succeeded by ellen pao, a former venture capitalist. It lasted eight months. Early in her tenure, reddit announced a ban on involuntary distribution of pornography. If a player found a compromising photo of yourself being shared on reddit without everyone’s consent, you were able to report it and the company removed it. In hindsight, this seems like a simple business decision, but there are redditors who saw it as the first in an inevitable parade of horrors.”This rule is stupid and suppresses our rights,” commented u/penisfuckermcgee.

A few months later, reddit banned the five most egregious communities, including r/fatpeoplehate and r/shitnigerssay. Redditors once again existed in shock (“we are ready to take a one-way travel document to north korea”). Every day, ardent misogynists called pao a tyrant, an “asian whore” or worse. (Yes, it gets worse.) She retired last july. “The internet started out as a bastion of free speech,” she wrote in the washington post. “But that balance is becoming increasingly difficult. The trolls win.”

Over time, social networks were institutions. Facebook is used by more than four billion people today. Better to say, the company fulfilled its purpose – to make it more connected. This now meant, among other things, making the american electorate more connected to white supremacists, armed militias, macedonian fake news peddlers, and micro-targeted ruble-purchased campaign advertising. “I am of the old conviction that mr. Trump will not become president,” obama said that year, despite the growing aggression on a number of internet forums. “And the reason for the next is i have a lot of faith in the american people.” (In response to obama’s remarks, a commentator on the_donald wrote, “fuck this low energy man!”)

Shortly after the election, brad parscale, the trump campaign’s chief digital strategist, told wired, “facebook and twitter were the reason food that we won this case.” Reddit has also been an important part of trump’s strategy. Parscale wrote – of course: on reddit – that in it the participants provided a significant increase and coverage of our campaign. The_donald, specifically, has proven to be a prolific host cell for viral memes. On july 2, 2016, trump tweeted a photo collage of hillary clinton, a huge amount of funds, and the phrase “the most corrupt candidate of all eras of the film industry!” Written inside a six-pointed star. When trump’s critics took notice of the image’s anti-semitic overtones, the_donald users rushed to trump’s defense, posting photos of other six-pointed stars in a harmless context. “Where is the indignation of the liberal left, therefore?” — Wrote the user under a photo of a book with stickers on the subject of “frozen” with a star on the cover. Long time later, trump tweeted the same photo with a variation of the same question, followed by: “dishonest media! #Frozen”.

During the campaign, trump or someone typing on his behalf participated in reddit’s signature interview format, a.M.A. To “ask me anything.” In a rebuttal to interest in a “protected media elite class,” trump wrote: “i’m very concerned about the bias of the press and the total dishonesty of the press. I think modern media is an interesting way to figure out the truth.” This prompted hundreds of enthusiastic comments (u/rainbow_dildo: “dad, yes”; u/cantconthedon: “in the current climate we are the media”).

The_donald, who has over 500,000 followers, is now the largest pro-trump subreddit, but it ranks slightly below 150th in the list of all subreddits; it’s about the same size as r/cryptocurrency and r/comicbooks. “A number of users on the_donald are expressing their sincere political opinions, and obviously that’s what our pastry chefs want to encourage,” huffman said. “Others may not express sincere convictions, but they relate to it more – for a bet. If i post this ridiculous or offensive thing, can i get people to upvote it? And then a lot of people, quoting the dark knight, just choose to rewatch the world burning.” On other smaller far-right subreddits, the discussion is more chaotic. One of these, created in july 2016, was called r/physical_removal. According to the “sea of everything” section, this was a subreddit for people who think liberals “have the right to fly helicopters.” “Helicopter flight”, an allusion to augusto pinochet’s famous habit of dropping communists from helicopters, is alt-right jargon for murder. Conversations on reddit. The trolls have set up a rogue trap. By ignoring their provocations, you are sacrificing to seem like an accomplice. By responding, you amplify their message. Trump, arguably the most skilled troll in the world, is able to attract when she wants to, simply by her outrageous behavior. Traditional journalists and editors may decide to resist the bait, and sometimes they do, but this arrangement is not available on user-created platforms.Social media executives indicate that they are overcoming subjectivity, and they have designed their platforms as feedback machines that give many not what we want, and not yet what may be important to everyone, but the things that we really pay attention to.

This turmoil has no quality solutions, so technical leaders try to discuss it as rarely as possible and only in platitudes. Twitter has rejected repeated calls to block president trump’s account despite his various apparent violations of company policy. (If the announcement on twitter that north korea is “no more” doesn’t detract from twitter’s “specific threats of violence” rule, or it’s not clear what could happen.) On his facebook account last fall, mark zuckerberg tweeted something like indirectly, a common criticism that such a company exacerbates political polarization. “We will continue to work to ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world, and beyond that, to ensure that we become a platform for all the desires and efforts of good in democracy,” he wrote, and then backed off, causing a global howl of frustration. Grew up in the comments.

I asked several heads of facebook, instagram to talk to me about everything. I didn’t expect definitive answers, i told them; i just wanted to hear what they’re thinking about the questions. So no one jumped at the chance. Twitter just ignored my emails. Snapchat pr reps had breakfast with me one day and ended up ignoring my emails. Facebook spoke to me for weeks, asking precise and intelligent questions, before they started ignoring my emails.

Reddit has more reason to be transparent. It’s significant, but it doesn’t seem necessary to a lot of people on the internet or, for that matter, most advertisers. On top of that, anderson cooper’s cnn segment has been just about the only mesmerizing and terrible press reddit has received over the years. All social networks contain vitriol and fanaticism, however few social networks are equally strongly associated with such things in the public imagination. I recently googled “reddit is”. Three of the autocomplete options available were “toxic,” “cancer,” and “hot scum.”

Huffman spent months hiking in costa rica after leaving condé nast, and then founded a tourism hipmunk company. Last july, he returned to reddit as ceo. In a post about his own “top priority” in the case, he wrote: “most of the data on reddit comes from the amazing, creative, funny, smart, and stupid communities. There is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and people are not obliged to support them. . . . Neither alexis nor i created reddit as a bulwark of free speech.” This limitation was shocking and almost half true. Once the absolutism of free speech was in vogue, the co-founders of reddit were as susceptible to personal appeal as anyone else. In 2012, a reporter forbes asked ohanian how the founding fathers might have reacted to reddit. “A bastion of free speech online? I bet they would love it,” ohanyan replied. “I’d like to understand that ‘common sense’ would have been a stand-alone reddit post by thomas paine, or by the way a reddit user called t_paine.”

However, ohanian and huffman never accepted their own rhetoric is too literal. The resource rules were short and vague, and their unwritten policies were even easier. “Our company has always banned people,” huffman told me. – It is clear: we did not talk about this much. Because reddit was so small and misbehavior relatively rare, huffman was able to block a lot of content himself, on occasion. “In reality being overweight was not well thought out or well articulated. It was: “does this guy have an n-word in his name? It’s useless.” Remove the account registration.”

As ceo, huffman continued the trend started by pao by banning several viciously racist subreddits such as r/coontown. “There was resistance,” huffman told me. “But i, as the founder, had the moral right to take it in stride.” If pao was like a patient parent, then huffman’s style was more like “i brought you to this universe and i can take you with his application.” “Yes, i am aware that it is quite difficult to define hate speech, and i am aware that any definition of it can set a dangerous precedent,” he told me. “I also know that a community called coontown is not suitable for reddit.”In most cases, reddit didn’t suspend individual users’ accounts, huffman said: “we just took out the nooks and crannies where they liked to hang out and said, ‘we’ll see if that can work out’


The reddit headquarters in a former radio tower in san francisco mimics the stereotypical start-up office: high concrete ceilings, a large common area with draft beer and kombucha. Each table is aggressively adorned with a personal flair—the “make reddit great again” hat, a glossy print magazine called meme insider. Working on reddit requires close anthropological attention to the varied tastes of redditors, and if you can find groups of fit, well-dressed employees cheerfully discussing the latest post on r/catdimension or r/peoplefuckingdying.

On the first morning as i walked into the company, i ran into huffman, who was wearing jeans, a t-shirt and adidas personal football shoes, as he tried to convince an employee to buy a ticket to the burning man. Huffman is more unfiltered than other facebook, instagram executives, and every time he and i spoke in front of the head of reddit pr, he said at least one favor that made her wince. “There is only one steve,” ohanian told me. “It doesn’t matter when you catch him, for better or worse, this is the steve you get.” I had a list of sensitive topics that i planned to eventually ask huffman about, including allegations of vote manipulation on the front page of reddit and concrete personal feelings for trump. Huffman lifted them all himself on the first day. “My political views remain not exactly as you predict,” he said. “For example, i am a gun owner. And i don’t care that much about politics compared to other things.” He speaks in quick bursts, a combination of introversion and the conviction of an alpha nerd. His opinion of trump is that he is incompetent and what a useful thing his presidency has just been a failure. But he told me, “i’m open to counterarguments.”

That afternoon i watched huffman give a publicity presentation to a group of advertising agency executives in new york. Like other platforms, reddit is working hard to turn its huge audience into a steady stream of income, while its representatives spend a lot of time trying to convince potential advertisers that reddit is not garbage. Huffman sat leading a long table in front of a dozen men and women in suits. The “bitter, libertarian” ethos of early reddit, in the words, “came mostly from me when i was twenty-one. From that moment on, i grew out of that, to everyone’s relief. The leaders nodded and giggled. “We had a lot of luggage,” he continued. “We let history leave us. And now we’re trying to get together.”

Huffman later told me that collecting reddit crap would require constant intervention. “I don’t think it’s a long time ago that i’ll walk out of the firm on a friday and say, ‘mission accomplished – we’ve fixed the internet,'” he said. “Every day you look at different parts of the site, open this or that random door: “how is it here? Does this look like a shitty place? No, many often have fun, no one weaves evil plans, not a single girl cries. Good excellent”. And we’ll be in the next room.”

In january, facebook announced that it would make news less visible in the stories of its fans. “Facebook was originally open to connecting with buddies and family, and in that it excelled,” a product manager called samid chakrabarty wrote on the company’s page. “However, due to the fact that an unprecedented number of people channel their political energy through this medium, it is applied in unforeseen ways with social consequences that were never expected.” It was not the most outspoken fault in the entire existence, however, by the standards of facebook, this restriction was tantamount to crying and gnashing of teeth. “We want to make sure our products are not only fun, but also relevant to students,” mark zuckerberg told times. Direct work from him is so rare that even this nonsense was taken as news worthy of attention.

In hindsight, although facebook denies it, it seems clear that the corporation was preparing for a blow. That was about to land. On february 16, special counsel robert mueller indicted several russian individuals and companies, including the internet research agency, a company with ties to the kremlin. Facebook’s indictment mentions thirty-five years, and not in such a way that the platform looks like a “force for good in a democracy.” According to a recent report by daily beast, the internet research agency also spread misinformation on reddit during the 2016 election. (A group of impostors even tried to create an ama.) The washington post reported last monday that the senate intelligence committee will question reddit executives about this; the same day, huffman admitted that the organization had “located and deleted numerous accounts” associated with global propaganda. (A reddit rep told me that the company cooperated with congressional investigators “and spend months doing this,” though they didn’t say so publicly.) As with all such disinformation campaigns, the russians didn’t act alone: their messages repeat thousands of nothing. Unsuspecting americans. “I believe that the biggest risk we americans face is our own ability to distinguish reality from nonsense,” huffman wrote. “It would be nice if there was a solution as simple as banning all propaganda, but it’s not that simple.”

Zuckerberg recently set himself a “personal challenge” to “enforce our policies and avoid misuse of our tools.” This seems like a twist for zuckerberg, who sooner or later was true fake news. Two days after the 2016 election, he said: “i think that the idea of a rule that facebook fakes, which make up a very small part of the content, somehow influenced the elections, is quite a crazy idea. Voters accept funds based on individual life experiences.” It was a pretty crazy idea and zuckerberg has since gotten rid of it. Obviously, what we see through the world wide web affects how people think and feel. We know this in part because facebook has done research on the subject. In 2012, without prior notice or permission, facebook altered the feeds of almost 700,000 of its customers, showing the former more messages containing “balanced psychological content” and the other more “negative emotional content.” Two years later, facebook declassified the experiment and published the results. Users existed in a rage, only after all this, facebook either stopped conducting secret experiments, or ceased to be recognized in such places. But the results of the experiment were clear: men with a very joyful diet behaved happier, and vice versa. The authors of the study called it “massive emotional contagion.” Since then social networks have only grown in size and influence, and the tools of persuasion available to advertisers, spies, politicians and propagandists have become much sharper. During the 2016 election period, several russian impostors influenced the beliefs of many americans and, presumably, their votes. In the run-up to the next election, most of the loopholes that the russians took advantage of were never closed, and the main loophole — the open, interconnected, highly contagious world of social media — probably won’t close.

When i brought up this topic huffman at breakfast last summer, he said: “i constantly wonder if reddit is going to be a tail or a dog. I guess that’s what it means.” First, he laid out a tail hypothesis: “reddit is a reflection of reality. Men and women are enthusiastic about bernie or trump in real life, so they go on reddit and talk about how much they like bernie or trump. Everything is going fine.” After which he laid out a canine hypothesis that his fellow vk executives rarely acknowledge: that reality, too, becomes a reflection of social networks. “All sorts of strange things can happen through the world wide web,” he said. Posting a joke that asks a question to be offensive, meaning “that’s what a racist would say,” but you misunderstand the context and think, “yes, that racist is right. I guess that dynamic explains everything that was going on on the the_donald, at least in the early days – many continue to promote a joke or a meme in order to find out how far they can visit the site and the consultation turns out to be “handsome. Damn far.”

Left-wing communities on reddit often pleads with the company to block the_donald, so far huffman has objected: “there are arguments on both sides,” he said, “but ultimately, i think their anger comes from feeling like they don’t have a voice, so it’s okay, nothing won’t decide if i take away their vote.” He thought about what else to say, but changed his mind. Whereupon he took a sip of beer and said it regardless. “I’m sure reddit has an impact on elections,” he told me. “Of course we wouldn’t do that. And i don’t know how many times people get it from the ads. But if we really wanted to, i’m sure reddit can at least influence those elections, at this point.” This is a terrifying thought. This is also almost certainly true.

On august 11, huffman’s alma mater, the university of virginia, was taken over by white nationalists with torches.”I was on the airliner when i saw the news and i got pretty emotional,” huffman said. He said to his own business associates: “if there is such a person on reddit, i want them to leave. Destroy them. It seemed like a catharsis, but personal catharsis is a terrible way to conduct politics. “Good luck in business, my team knew me well enough to say: “steve, you are now furious. Let’s talk about this more adequately on monday.”

Early next week, reddit banned physical_removal. In charlottesville, james alex fields, one of the white nationalists, drove his computer into a crowd of protesters, injuring nineteen people and killing a woman named heather heyer. “This is ok,” read the top post on physical_removal. “They are a mockery of the life that you have to get, damn it, leave.” Reddit had a rule against content that encourages or incites violence,” and it was also a violation of such a requirement. Huffman said: “we have been following this community for several years and i must say it was a pleasure to shake them off. But that wasn’t enough for everyone.”

“Encouraging or inciting violence” was a narrow standard, and huffman and the concrete team agreed to broaden it. Four words became thirty-six: “do not post a collection that encourages, glorifies, incites, or inculcates violence or physical harm against an individual or group of people; similarly, don’t post a video that glorifies or encourages cruelty to animals.” This, too, required interpretation and forced the company to create a non-exhaustive list of exceptions (“educational, news, fiction, satirical, documentary”). However, it clarified the team’s intentions. Jessica ashuch, head of politics at reddit, has been a policy consultant in abu dhabi for four years. “I know what it’s like to live under censorship,” she said. “My internal check when i advocate a restrictive policy on the site is it going to be the arab government? If so, then maybe i should downgrade it.” On the other hand, according to her, “people hide behind the notion of the rule that there is a clear line between ideology and functioning, but there are people who, by their inherent nature, are more cruel than others.”

In october, on the morning the new policy was introduced, ashukh sat at a long conference table with a dozen other employees. Before the consumer of them was a laptop, a mug of cocoa and a snack for a couple of hours. “Waiting for you at the policy update war room,” she said. “So i understand the irony of calling it a war room when the goal is to make reddit less violent, but it’s too late to change the name.” The job of guarding reddit’s most pernicious content typically falls to three groups of employees: the community team, the loyalty and reliability team, and the anti-evil team, sometimes described as good cop, bad cop, and robocop, respectively. The community keeps in touch with a lot of reddit users, asking them to write a review and encouraging them to act arousing. When a move fails and redditors break the rules, trust and security punish them. Anti-evil, a team of in-house engineers, creates software that flags a suspicious-looking file and sends it to borrowers who decide what to do with it.

Ashukh discussed the plan. On one day. Now they were replacing the old policy with the new policy, posting an announcement explaining the new policy, warning a group of subreddits that the wallpaper appeared to violate the new policy, and banning another group of subreddits who exist in flagrant and irreparable violation. I looked at a spreadsheet with a spectrum of one hundred and nine subreddits that were supposed to be banned (r/kkk, r/killalljews, r/killthejews, r/killthejoos), followed by the name of the employee who would handle any of them. Removal and, if applicable, the reason for the ban (“mostly just swastikas?”). “Today we’re going to focus on a lot of nazi stuff and stuff about bestiality,” asuch said. “Context certainly plays a role, and you shouldn’t have any trouble posting the swastika if it’s a historical photo from the 1936 olympics or if you’re using it as a hindu symbol. But even in this case much is clear. I asked if the same logic—that the nazi flag is inherently a symbol of violence—applied to the confederate flag, the soviet flag, or the flag under which king richard fought in the crusades. “We may have such conversations in the future,” ashukh said. “With that, we have to start somehow.”

At 10 am, the loyalty and tb group posted an announcement and started the purge. “Thank you for letting me do dylannroofinnocent,” said one of the employees.”It was one of the ones i really wanted.”

“What are reallywackytictacs?” Asked another employee, looking over the list.

“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” ashukh said. “This was the most disgusting shit i’ve ever seen and i spent a lot of minutes getting to know the syrian war crimes.”

Some of the comments on the ad were cynical. “They meanwhile don’t want to change anything,” wrote one fan of carnal pleasures on reddit, arguing that the bans were needed to appease advertisers. “It wasn’t really about freedom of speech, it was about cost.” One trust and safety manager, a young lady in a leather jacket and a ship’s captain’s cap, was in charge of monitoring comments and responding to the most significant ones. “So far everyone seems to be taking it pretty well,” she said. “There is one guy, a freespeechwarrior, who seems very angry, but i think it makes sense, calculating his login.”

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“People make lists of taboo nazi submarines, but almost no one noticed that we also ban bestiality at the same time,” ashukh said.

“Few people are willing to admit it,” the employee said. “Guys, i was just looking through r/horsecock and i never failed to notice . .

The woman in the captain’s cap said, “ok, a friend has already asked, ‘how will the exact phrase ‘kill yourself’ be handled?”

“It all depends on the context “ashukh said. “They’ll get tired of hearing this, but it’s true.”

Obviously, sexwithdogs was on our list, but dogsex wasn’t.”

“Did you go to dogsex?” Ashukh said.


“And what is written on it?”

“I have in i mean… .”

“Are there people who have sex with dogs?”

“Oh, yes, very often.”

–yeah, ban it.

–I’ll bring more cheese sticks,” said the fair sex in the captain’s cap, standing up. Or do i glorify violence against my own body?”

“It all depends on the context,” ashukh said. Never again would i be able to read a high-flown phrase about the rise of social networking policy – “honesty and access, or “encourage constructive interaction” – without imagining a group of people sitting in a conference room, eating free snacks and making bad decisions instagram, as big as they are and as familiar as they may seem, is not an inevitable energy, but an experimental technology created by humans. We are ready to tell ourselves that such citizens are not gatekeepers and that they have cleansed their family of any prejudices and overcomings, but such a step will have nothing to do with reality. “I have prejudices like everyone else,” huffman once told me. “I just work quite hard to make sure our hackers don’t stop me from doing what’s right.”

In an ideal world, a thirty-four-year-old man in football boots wouldn’t force. In the world we live in, the least social media executives can do is recognize this power. In november 2017, a group of computer scientists from the universities in question published a study titled “man can’t stay here: effectiveness of reddit ban in 2015 explored through hate speech”. They analyzed a data set of 100 million reddit posts. Did the ban “reduce hate behavior” in general or just “relocate that behavior elsewhere on a part of the site”? They decided the ban had worked: “users participating in banned subreddits either left the site or (for those who stayed) drastically reduced their use of hate speech.”

Melissa tidwell, general counsel, reddit . , Said to me: “i’m so tired of people who repeat the mantra “freedom of speech!”, But they have nothing more to say. Look, freedom of speech is obviously a great ideal to strive for. Who doesn’t love freedom? Each of us loves speech? “But”: in practical use, gray areas appear every day.” Earlier that day, i watched tidwell and a colleague discuss for several minutes whether to include the soft porn subreddit, r/gentlemenboners, in the standard search positions.

Literally everyone will agree, needed at any time?” Tidwell continued. “Or is it actually more conducive to the free exchange of ideas if we develop a platform where women and people of color are able to say what they lust, without thousands of people shouting: “fuck you, set yourself on fire, i know where you live” ?If your entire answer to the very multi-component question presented is “freedom of speech”, then, excuse me, that states it to me, which you are not really paying attention to.

It has become a tradition. For tech companies to release framed, self-referential jokes on a daily fool. The secret is to craft free advertising that makes the company look quirky and aesthetic, but can also provoke the opposite effect, especially when the premise of the joke is the unprecedented power of silicon valley. Twitter recently announced that it will start charging for vowels. Last year, google shared a mock-up of its new data center on mars, and amazon unveiled voice recognition software that would take commands from its animals. In reality, the firm did not initiate any of these projects, but in practice, one day they could do it if they wanted to. Understood?

In april last year, instead of a parody announcement, reddit presented a real social experiment. It was called r/place and was an empty square, a thousand pixels by a thousand pixels. In the beginning, all the millions of pixels were white. After the experiment began, everyone could change one pixel at all grid points to one of sixteen colors. The only limitation was speed: the algorithm allowed each redditor to change one pixel every ten minutes. “So it’s impossible to take control of your appearance – it’s too slow,” explained josh wardle, reddit product manager in charge of place. “They’ll need to collaborate to create something big.”

Place had been active for about 20 minutes when i logged in, and wardle was frantically hunched over his computer. Updating dozens of tabs. As yet the square was as a rule empty, with a few dots that either appeared or disappeared. But redditors built dreams in remarks and in true reddit fashion, clinging to those plans with a cult tenacity. The blue empire plotted to make the entire square blue; the red empire swore to build it red; were already ready. Other groups planned elaborate messages, fractal patterns, and references to a wide variety of memes. A multi-party group – leftists, trump supporters, patriotic libertarians and pre-political teenagers – decided to paint an american flag in the plaza’s clinic. They gathered at r/americanflaginplace where they discussed exact measurements, star and stripe shapes, and training to repel invaders. Meanwhile, a group of nihilists from r/blackvoid were preparing to erase absolutely everything that other groups had done.

Wardle put enough effort into showing me that place is pure democracy – the algorithm was designed like this. That once it was released, all he could do was watch it with the others. Now that he was watching, he seemed very nervous. “The idea was to create the simplest possible microcosm of the world wide web and easily see what would happen,” he said. “Reddit itself is not always a hard idea. It’s kind of a blank canvas. The community takes it and does all sorts of creative things with it.”

“And some terrible stuff,” i said.

The idea behind r/ the place was to create a very simple microcosm of the internet and see what happens.

He paused. “I’m quite sure,” he said. “I would be lying if i said i was 100% sure.” One of the most popular comments on place already read: “give me an hour before the swastika.” Later, one of wardle’s colleagues told me, “now that kept josh up at night. Before it came out, he was literally figuring out: “well it doesn’t take that many seventeen pixels to fill a swastika – that if we introduce this to the world, and the headline the next day will be “reddit: country for drawing a swastika.” In the internet”?”

The upper left corner was a choppy, shimmering purple as the blue empire and the red empire fought for dominance. The graffiti artist or artists wrote: “9/11 was an inside job”; after a few minutes, “was” was recognized as “didn’t exist” and “an” became “anime”. Elsewhere “dick’s butt” became “dick’s butter” and then “dick’s buffet”. And then there were swastikas—just a couple, but enough for wardle to pull up the hood of his sweatshirt, retire to an empty conference room, and close the door, looking pale.

In his office, huffman met with chris slow , the first reddit employee who is now a successful cto.

“How’s place doing?” Huffman asked.

“Basically, as expected,” slow said. “Lots of memes, some pokémon, and a lot of dicks.”

“If a musical comes up on reddit from time to time, you’ll be fine with a good title,” huffman said. “Perhaps i should write a memoir called member flurry.”

“I believe in an advanced people,” slow said.

Lunch was served: shrimp and lentil salad and vegan bean fricassee. People stood in a single area holding paper plates and watched the live broadcast of place on the wall-mounted tv.

One staff member, reading the comments, said: “lots of people find swastikas and then tell everyone else what products they’re in so players can get rid of them.”

“I just saw that!” Said the other. He pointed to part of the screen. While our employees were watching, one swastika was erased, and its analogue turned into the windows 95 logo. In the end, the creators of the swastika got bored, and these girlfriends moved on.

At some point, the american flag; the fire was extinguished and the reddit managers applauded.

“Feels like watching a football game in very slow motion,” said the chief of the list.

“Or i love watching the election results.”

“Oh god, don’t say that.”

Toward the end, the square turned into a dense, colorful tapestry, chaotic and strange charming. It was a collage of hundreds of mismatched images: the logos of colleges, sports teams, performers and corporations that made video games; transcribed monologue from star wars; likenesses of he-man, david bowie, “mona lisa” and the former prime minister of finland. In the final hours, just before the experiment ended and the image was frozen for posterity, blackvoid launched a surprise attack on the american flag. A dark crack tore the bottom of the flag, and at the end swallowed it whole. For a few minutes the center was plunged into darkness. Then a broad coalition rallied to fight back against the void; the hollywood stars and stripes restored themselves to form, and after all, the flag was still there.

The final ornament contained no visible symbols of hate, threats of violence, or nudity. By the end of the day, wardle came out of hiding, poured himself a drink, and pulled back his hood. “Perhaps this minute i can sleep,” he said. ♦

This week’s edition

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adrian chen

Ariel levy

Andrew marantz

Larissa macfarquhar


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