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Reddit Vows to Keep Distasteful Content Alive
Reddit isn’t 4Chan, but you wouldn’t think it based on the line taken by the popular social news website. In a spectacular stance, Reddit’s CEO, Yishan Wong has made it clear that the site will not be banning distasteful content, under no circumstances. Now there’s quite a lot to this declaration and I think having an understanding, or at least some background will help put Wong’s stance in perspective.
Web’s ‘most’ disgusting troll was (is) a Redditor
News broke recently that a 49-year-old man from Texas called Michael Brutsch was exposed as the web’s biggest troll. Brutsch has it turned out was moderator for various sub-reddits (sub-forums) that ranged from the borderline illegal to downright misogynistic. One of the forums Brutsch moderated is called ‘Jailbait’ which acts as medium for sharing photos of scantily clad teenage girls. Another one dubbed ‘Creepshots’ apparently shows close-up photos of women’s breasts and asses—all taken covertly while these women are moving about in public. Now we can’t debate on the legality of these forums and would never seem to add that voice to the debate, Reddit is an American creation and so its laws will need to figure out ways of dealing with a website that hosts such material. To date the only sanction that has been levied against Brutsch has been the loss of his job.
What is beyond debate is the collective outrage across the web and one of the questions that people are asking is how Reddit, a site now owned by mainstream publisher Conde Naste, could host such content in the first place? The answer perhaps is deeply embedded in Wong’s defiance.
Free speech vs objectionable content
There are sites on the internet where you can find some the most insulting and deplorable content one can think of. Blacks, Jews, Gays, you name it; if there’s group out there that is historically debased and dehumanized, there’s a webhost out there that will provide server space for it. What is surprising though is that a site like Reddit would be a haven for such objectionable content.
Reddit seems to give some sort of tacit license for this type of envelope-pushing too. Brustch confirmed as much when he spoke about his involvement with the site: “For those first two years, I had been tasked my Reddit admins with making certain that there was no overt or real child porn: no naked children, no naked teenagers, and no children in swimsuits. Jailbait was mature teenagers with their clothes on…or with their naughty bits covered. They depended on me to make sure things were within the rules and things were within the lines.”
Clearly those with administrative powers at the site knew that content like this was being hosted there. Wong stance seems to be anchored around the ‘free speech’ rhetoric: “We stand for free speech … We are not going to ban distasteful sub-reddits.” But it’s one thing to seek mainstream acceptance and covert with the underbelly of society. Had this story broke before President Obama hosted his AMA on the site, would he have gone ahead with it? You are the judge, but it is obvious that Reddit is not the wholesome place that many people think it is.
The dark side to internet freedom
The whole freedom debate especially when it comes to the internet is a complex one. One the one hand free speech is a virtue of western society, but on the other hand if it isn’t tempered it can lead to unquestionable damage to people’s lives. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine for instance that Reddit’s Jailbait sub-forum is trawled by paedophiles. How do we balance the freedom to say what comes to mind or display our tastes and sensibilities without crossing that line? How do you define the line? All very complex stuff I am sure you’ll agree.
Reddit is a mainstay of internet culture and identity and its power could be seen recently by its staunch lead of the internet blackout against anti-freedom legislation like SOPA. I for one applauded such a move, but it makes me uncomfortable that Reddit is also a haven for pictures of teenage girls scantily dressed. The two ideas just don’t mesh for me.
The debate will of course rage as the fallout continues. The larger question perhaps is whether Reddit has always been more 4Chan than we think.