When news broke late last week that Ellen Pao had left Reddit, it was hard to imagine a scenario regarding the link-sharing community that could be more symbolic. Though Pao, the interim CEO of the site, was said to have left amicably, after being viciously harassed and attacked on the site—first for a gender discrimination suit, then her choices as CEO, particularly the firing of a prominent moderator—Pao, a woman of color, was ushered out of Reddit all in the name of "growth." It was a discomfiting image.
It was also more complicated than that. In a strange, almost sleazy confessional post on the site, former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong revealed details of internal discussions around policy: that though Pao was vilified on the site for being responsible for the shutdown of various hate sections—and thus being opposed to free speech—she was in fact willing to let the seedier parts of Reddit continue to exist, and instead promote the site's better portions. Pao, it turns out, wasn't the enemy.
Despite the fact that Pao was the wrong target for Reddit's ire, her departure seems to have still quieted the upheaval. Yet its symbolism persists. Reddit’s anything-goes mentality—where users share, vote upon, and discuss links, everything from memes to philosophy, porn to politics—is famously libertarian. At its heart is the idea that Reddit should be a home to content of any kind, and the site's most vocal users valorize both free speech and the disposable, anonymous user accounts that enable it. The hope, as Reddit board chairman Sam Altman wrote of Pao's exit, is to have Reddit be the place where "the most open and honest conversations with the entire world can happen." According to the board, Pao's treatment was an aberration—a problem of harassment, communication, and moderation they will soon solve. But Reddit was always going to be a home for hatred. Not only is its culture toxic, but because the mantra of free speech, when applied uncritically, will always lead to a proliferation of the very worst kinds of thought. In his post, Wong suggested that the site moved toward a more strictly literal free speech policy because, for example, " allowing creepers to post (anonymized) pictures of women taken in public... was a small price to pay for making it clear that we were a place welcoming of all opinions and discourse."
And Wong’s admission—that the free speech policy he instituted created Reddit’s poisonous culture—has been borne out. Some simple facts: Reddit is overwhelmingly male; of its 160 million monthly users, 120 million are men. It is now among the English-speaking world's largest homes of white supremacy. It has leaked nude photos, hosting a hacked archive of celebrity pictures where stolen images of many stars were leaked and spread. The forum also plays host to significant portions of the men’s rights movement, the sexist harassment campaign Gamergate, and, until recently, not only was something named "r/fatpeoplehate" was one of its most popular boards, but sections with names like r/coontown were allowed to happily exist. It's true that are thousands of other genuinely interesting and lively subreddits. But they sit side-by-side with entirely more pernicious ones.
Reddit's emphasis on free speech draws in and attracts those who wish to discuss racist, sexist, homo- or transphobic, or other similarly prejudiced views—it’s a tacit encouragement of hateful views. There are, after all, few other spaces online with as many users and as much credibility in which such views are not only welcomed, but also visible. In an era when it is becoming marginally more difficult for people to be publically prejudiced, Reddit's free-for-all mentality isn't just a slogan, but a beacon that says "your ideology has a home here." On the site, those who feel their right to be racists or sexists is being marginalized find a place to express themselves, and a place where they can gather, find in strength in numbers, and reinforce their bigoted views. Representation, after all, matters.
Reddit’s userbase, libertarian ethos, and culture are thus all connected in a circular fashion. What’s worse: Reddit's leadership seems to either tacitly or explicitly endorse this behavior. It has been suggested that Pao may have been allowed to take the fall for a moderator's firing and may have been set up to do so. Add in the fact that Reddit's executives have a slippery sense of their purpose—sometimes saying they are a bastion of free speech, and then contradicting that—it's clear that in both structure and culture, Reddit seems built to channel its userbase into harassment and hate.
Perhaps the idea of openness is itself the problem. In addition to its tendency to act as a signal for anti-social users, Reddit's openness has tendency to recreate circular relations of power.
For example: First the white supremacists and the misogynists arrive because of the promise of freedom, and then express that freedom by either dominating certain sections of the site, or infiltrating other, unrelated sections. As a result, a culture emerges on the the site that valorizes not only free speech and anonymity, but an entitlement to it. The act of "defiantly" spouting one's unpopular opinions becomes good in and of itself, whether those expressions are about the right to surreptitiously photograph women, shame the so-called "unattractive", or assert that whites are simply better. Nuance, context, and responsibility are all sacrificed on an altar of unfettered freedom, and the toxicity simply builds upon itself and intensifies.
It is openness itself—the mix of free speech, quick, disposable identities, the ability to efficiently create subreddits, and that users may post anywhere and often—that firmly grounds Reddit as a place for awfulness. Furthermore, because the site functions on an upvote system, it tends to reward content that appeals to its own demographics and subculture: those aforementioned white supremacists and misogynists. If you make a potential home for r/fatpeoplehate, you’ll get r/fatpeoplehate and the kind of people who, denied the capacity to publically enact prejudice elsewhere, will congregate around their bastion of "freedom." Even if smaller, more positive communities can also exist, users of racist or sexist communities often infiltrate, making civil discussion impossible. As it turns out, an open, mostly unmoderated forum isn’t freedom—it’s fascism.
What Reddit rather sadly depicts is that the idea of a broad, open, public space for discussion is likely impossible to create. Reddit, and by extension, a lot of the early web, is often thought of as a kind of a prelapsarian state before Facebook, Twitter, and those darn social justice warriors ruined everything. Trouble is, saying that freedom came first gets things backwards: idealized states of purity from the past always conceal the power relations that enabled them. Reddit's free speech, enacted, is mainly a home for young, naïve, and mostly white men to talk in the abstract about equality and philosophy without having to confront their biases.
What is especially demoralizing about Reddit, however, is that for all the terribleness, it contains thousands of fascinating corners and millions of bright, kind, interesting users. Its scale—it is around the tenth most read site in the U.S.—means that it can form incredible niches. People with obscure interests can gather to find community; those with rare diseases can connect with other sufferers; confused, lonely teens that have questions about sex or health or suicide can find guidance and solace. Yet they all exist alongside virulent misogyny, racism, fat-shaming, and no end of pernicious status-quo views.
This is the paradox of the commons. We both need collectivity and community, yet it seems that openness itself undercuts those ideals. It's an irresolvable problem that was inadvertently expressed by Reddit’s new CEO, Steve Huffman. In reference to a new approach to moderation, he writes that neither he nor cofounder Alexis Ohanian "created reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen." The contradiction is thus laid bare: free speech and open, honest discussion are actually antagonistic.
Perhaps it is time to accept that there is no such thing as a broad community that can be home to all. Spaces intended to act as communities always break down because, inevitably, what is acceptable to one group is not acceptable to another. Ellen Pao's exit was not a correction, or an aberration: it was fundamental to what Reddit has become—abstract ideals of free speech will incite harassment, cloud the truth, and enable a shifting of blame. And anyone who parrots the ideals of freedom online needs to accept it, too: that without limits, such noble-sounding ideals invite chaos and hatred to bloom.