The alien from the future is now in the past

I have long held that social networks in general, and reddit in particular; represent microcosmic governments.  These communities share the same tendencies and problems that plague real world governments.   It is instructive to observe these small examples so that we may be better equipped to deal with such troubles in more dire contexts.

In its infancy and adolescence reddit showed immense promise for facilitating diverse discourse and promoting advocacy.   Spez may deny it now, but reddit grew with a strong Voltair-ish culture of support for free expression.  Old spreddit “propaganda”  highlights this culture with such slogans as “today’s headlines — chosen by readers, not editors,” “freedom from the press” and “save freedom of speech.”   Then there are multiple videos of the founders repeating the mantra “All Links Are Created Equal” in reference to reddit.

Now reddit seems to be doubling down on historical revisionism in an effort to “clean up” objectionable content.  Videos about how reddit was really founded are being pulled from youtube in an attempt to scrub the past.

Youth serves the leader

Spez emulates Pao

Over the past 3-4 years, and more pointedly over the past 3-4 months reddit has taken a sharp turn away from the lofty ideals it once held in a clear effort to monetize while claiming otherwise.

Much of the controversy has been focused on former Interim CEO Ellen Pao, but it is now clear that although she symbolized a sea change at reddit, she was NOT the sole or even primary impetus behind the recent changes.  It is now obvious that she primarily served to deflect attention away from the actual changes in policy which have all appearances of remaining in full effect.

There is also a second level of distraction happening in the events of the past few weeks.  Most of the controversy has surrounded the existence of subreddits like /r/CoonTown /r/RapingWomen and /r/FatPeopleHate subs full of racists, misogynists and trolls.  Communities that have never represented significant traffic for reddit.

These troll dens are red-herrings.  Reddit can’t shut down all of these objectionable subreddits without shattering the illusion of free-expression that the site fosters among the user base while curating a ultra-PC front-page.  Sure, until a few days ago you could call to /r/GasTheKikes or joke in bad taste about /r/RapingWomen, but any /r/undelete observer will tell you that there are far more serious and systemic problems that plague the site.

Try posting an article about the TPP to /r/news or /r/worldnews to see the real face of censorship at reddit.  While the shuttering of the objectionable subreddits absolutely does reflect on a general change in the attitudes of Reddit Inc, it is not the primary concern of those who support free-speech on the site.  The more pressing free-speech concerns are moderator cabals and cliques who run the default subreddits with ideological bias or to the exclusion of all politics which might rock the boat.

The fallout of the drama has led to a situation where the press equates free-speech with supporting the racists, misogynists and trolls while completely ignoring the more subtle concerns that the moderator culture has strangled free expression.

The #RedditRevolt showed where the true power lies in reddit.  Not with the users, but with the authoritarian moderators.

Many users (myself included) had been revolting against the shift in Reddit Inc’s approach since before the ban of /r/FatPeopleHate when the CEO started talking safe-spaces.

But the revolt didn’t really gain any traction until the moderators decided (for reasons completely unrelated to free-speech) to take default subs private in protest of the firing of Victoria AKA /u/chooter.  Rolled into this were a grab bag of concerns and a demand for more moderator tools.  Free-speech never entered into the moderators motivations for this revolt.

So where are we now?

I think it’s pretty safe to say that reddit as it once existed is dead.  There’s no going back now that the admins have lost the trust and respect of pretty much every group on the site in one way or another.

It’s a hard thing to come to grips with for someone who has so much time and effort invested in it; but the more I think the more I’m convinced that it’s for the best.  It’s a good thing, and I think it came at just the right time.  We have the tools to rebuild it better now.

Reddit needs to burn brightly as a warning to future entrepreneurs who would attempt such a bait and switch of a community.  But more importantly it needs to entice developers to build an alternative that is immune to the sorts of institutional moral hazards and censorship that have plagued reddit.

People are starting to understand that decentralization is sorely needed in the social networking space.  This increased awareness has led to many developers focussed on building out alternatives.  I’ll be going into more details on what form these alternatives will take in a later post as this one is already quite lengthy.