Reddit is walking a very fine line -- but it might just work

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Reddit's Future Is a Giant Question Mark

Reddit has announced new rules for content, following weeks of protests, executive shake-ups, and concern over the future of the "front page of the internet."

In a public Q&A with the community, new CEO Steve Huffman said the company will be cracking down on illegal content, and "anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people," and that content "that violates a common sense of decency" will be flagged up and only be viewable when logged in -- but not banned.

As Adi Robertson pointed out on The Verge yesterday, much of the material banned "was already forbidden in the current user agreement." Many of Reddit's most notorious racist and misogynistic communities will be hidden away from the general public, and not appear in searches, but won't actually be scrubbed from the site.

Huffman gave two examples of this: r/RapingWomen will be banned, because it is "encouraging people to rape." But the notoriously racist r/CoonTown will not be, because while "the content there is offensive to many, but [it] does not violate our current rules."

It is, in essence, a compromise. The management is hoping that "out of sight, out of mind" will be enough to placate users who had hoped for a broader purge. And simultaneously, it won't outrage those who support Reddit's historic radically pro-free speech platform, and would consider any major crackdown a violation of these principles.

It's a balancing act -- and is probably Reddit's best chance of success.

In a widely shared blog post published on July 11, author Reginald Braythwayt accused Reddit of overtaking notorious website Stormfront "as the world's largest White Supremacy community." For this reason, he said he could no longer visit Reddit:

I have no trouble distinguishing those who visit /r/programming and /r/javascript from those who inhabit /r/coontown. I like almost everyone I've interacted with on Reddit. But while the inhabitants may be different people, the landlord is the same person, and keeping the lights on in /r/javascript is also keeping the lights on in the Chimpire.

I don't need to debate whether someone is legally allowed to have a certain type of hateful speech, or whether its effects go beyond merely being "appalling" or "offensive." What I know is this: Choosing to build a for-profit business around hosting such speech is a choice, and choosing whether to support that business is also a choice.

It's entirely possible that people like Braythwayt will consider Reddit's new rules inadequate, and continue to leave the site. But Reddit has made the commitment not to run any adverts alongside "NSFW" (Not Safe For Work) content, including that which "violates a common sense of decency."

Many of these controversial communities have tens of thousands of members; the site is sacrificing revenue in support of free speech. And by doing so, it undermines the argument that its for-profit business is financially benefiting from this toxic content.

Similarly, veteran community manager Chuq Von Rospach has called for a huge purge of Reddit's dark underbelly. It's unlikely that he will view the new rules as acceptable. He used the analogy of a biker bar to characterise the creeping influence these controversial groups allegedly have on the broader community: "Most of us don't want to party in a biker bar. Hell most of us don't want to party next door to a biker bar ... Once your place gets that reputation, it's going to make everyone around it nervous."

reddit all ellen pao fat people hate community responseBut any such cleansing risked tearing Reddit apart. Its user base is extremely pro-free speech, and Huffman knows this. When his predecessor Ellen Pao banned r/FatPeopleHate and a number of other controversial communities — for harassment, not for their content -- she became a target of huge, Nazi-themed protests.

And while Huffman only recently became CEO, he did help cofound the site, and says that "while we didn't create Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, the concept is important to us." (Cofounder Alexis Ohanian has previously described it as exactly that.)

Top-down reorganisations risk consigning internet communities to overnight irrelevancy, as former Reddit rival Digg once found, and it's difficult to envision any large scale reconstruction of Reddit that doesn't trigger a massive exodus of users. There may be some kind of functional community at the end of it, but it would undermine everything Reddit has spent the last 10 years building.

With these communities remaining on the site, albeit hidden, there is still the risk of contamination — toxic content overflowing into the broader community. But Reddit is also promising its volunteer moderators far more robust tools for managing and policing their communities.

This has been a particular bone of contention, and was one of the key reasons for this month's protests. They were sparked by the abrupt dismissal of popular employee Victoria Taylor, and saw hundreds of the site's most popular communities close temporarily in protest, but resentments had been simmering for years. Moderators felt like they weren't properly valued by Reddit's staff, or given the proper tools to do their (entirely voluntary) jobs.

There is no guarantee this will all work. Reddit rivals like Voat are exploding in popularity, and community tensions are the highest they have ever been in the site's ten-year history.

But this looks like the best chance Reddit has got.

More from Business Insider:
Reddit chief engineer quits after 2 months, says Pao was on a 'glass cliff'
Former Reddit CEO says Ellen Pao was framed
The 'Reddit Revolt' that led to Ellen Pao's resignation is bad news for the Internet

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