Interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao stepped down today, following a week that saw the online community’s users call for her head on a pike after the controversial firing of a well-liked employee.
It’s been called the “Reddit Revolt,” and it bodes poorly for the future of the Internet.
So far this year, we’ve gone through the hype cycles for the Apple Watch, Apple Music, Microsoft HoloLens, a new version of Google Android, and a bunch of other products.
But products are ephemeral. Just wait for the Apple Watch 2.
But the Reddit Revolt is a whole different animal, and speaks to a whole mess of problems that are only going to get worse and worse as the Internet encroaches on the real world.
Since the birth of the Internet, the promise has always been simple: Use whatever name you want, even if it’s not your own (I’ve been using “gamoid,” my current Twitter handle, as my online handle since I was thirteen years old), because it’s the quality of your ideas and thoughts that matters.
But this has always been tempered by the fact that the Internet — like any other community — can be a very unfriendly place. And now that more and more people are getting online, they’re finding this fact out for themselves.
We’re just talking about these issues honestly for the first time. And it’s an important conversation, as cyberbullying, doxxing, SWATting, online harassment, and all kinds of other bad behaviour becomes just a fact of life in the digital age. But it’s just not a conversation that a lot of people want to have, as evidenced by the massive backlashes on Reddit.
Reddit itself isn’t the point: As we’ve already seen, many of the worst of the worst are moving to sites like Voat, where they find a more permissive experience. Nothing about Reddit’s site or technology is special; it’s the community that gives it life, and communities can move elsewhere at will.
Digg, a site that used to be the Coke to Reddit’s Pepsi, experienced this for itself years back, after it deleted posts containing a code necessary to get around copyright protections on DVD. The Digg Exodus, as it was called, was a significant factor in Reddit’s growth.
The thing is that Voat, and most any other site like it, will eventually run into the same problems as Reddit. If they grow big enough, they will face pressure to temper the worst excesses of members — pressure from investors, pressure from advertisers, or if those two things aren’t present, pressure from would-be new members who are turned off by the extreme views of the people already on the site. If they don’t respond, growth will slow or stop, and people will move on to the next big thing.
In the meanwhile, we’re going to keep having the debates that led to the Reddit Revolt in the first place: What constitutes harassment? What are the limits of free speech? At what point do you deserve to have your voice silenced?
The team at Reddit has been thinking about these problems for a long time, and has a smart team in place whose job it is to literally think about these things. And they, hopefully, know better than anybody else that their platform is transient.
In short, if Reddit can’t figure out the right balance between freedom of speech and good manners, between freedom of speech and freedom to be heard, here and now, there’s little hope that anybody can. The fact that Reddit users were successful in getting Pao to step down doesn’t bode well for their willingness to take a stand.
I want to believe that the Internet is the place I always thought it was, growing up. But if Reddit can’t make it work, it’s very bad news for the digital era.
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