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Reddit revolt: why the 'front page of the internet' went dark for 24 hours

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 10 July 2015, 13:04 IST

In case you haven't heard, Reddit users are mad as hell. The social news forum that bills itself as the 'front page of the internet' has lit yet another powder keg after a series of controversies this year.

This time, though, for a valid reason.

The drama began to unfold late last week when Reddit abruptly dismissed Victoria Taylor, the company's director of talent who was instrumental in popularising and improving the site's insanely popular 'AMA' (Ask Me Anything) feature.

A slew of subreddits (or communities), mostly run by volunteer moderators, went dark in protest. The shutdown of nearly 300 subreddits began on Thursday evening and expanded quickly on Friday.

Ellen Pao, interim CEO of Reddit eventually posted an apology for the lack of communication and promised to improve things going forward. The protestors aren't appeased. In an op-ed in the New York Times two days ago, the volunteer moderators said the apology was not enough.

Ellen Pao, interim CEO of Reddit. Photo: Noah Berger/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It doesn't help Pao's case that Taylor has always been seen as one of the platform's most communicative moderators - a bridge between the Reddit community and its management team. But the management seems to have been caught unawares at the extent of her popularity.

Although Pao apologised for 'letting down' users, a petition calling for her removal - created earlier this year by members unhappy at the company's attempt to ban supposedly 'offensive' communities - gained more than one lakh signatures over the weekend.

The dark period

According to Slate, Taylor's firing may have been the proximate cause for some forums going dark, but the first forum to do so - the 'AMA' subreddit responsible for interviews with Barack Obama to some guy with two penises - did so because by firing Taylor, Reddit left the volunteer moderators without needed support for planned interviews. This included a forthcoming one with Stephen Hawking.

So sudden was the move that mathematician Edward Frenkel, who was in the midst of an AMA, was cut off mid-sentence as he was explaining the impossibility of full artificial intelligence.

In the words of one moderator, "The reason that /r/science, /r/books and /r/iama all shut down originally was that they were left in the lurch by Victoria leaving. She was in the process of managing a lot of ongoing things and there was (a) no clear plan in place or (b) communication to the moderators."

Freedom to express

Ironically, this is precisely the kind of freedom that has made Reddit such a cult. The platform is, in essence, a patronage system. Users determine what content is featured on the front page by voting posts up or down.

The company itself only employs about 60 people, including the all-powerful administrators (admins) who have the power to ban users site-wide and occasionally shut down subreddits.

Reddit's freedom is precisely what has made it such a cult. Now interference by management is triggering a crisis

The site is currently among the top 10 most visited websites in the US and is ranked 33 worldwide by Google Analytics.

But its influence extends far beyond its user-base and cannot be understood through numbers alone.

The reasons for Reddit's cultish status are many: it's informed, entertaining, dramatic, aggressive, gloomy, infuriating, offensive and, above all, has a ragged history of shaming and harassing people (much like 4chan used to be at the start, but better moderated). It also seems to draw a much higher proportion of 'engaged' users, the holy grail of social networking.

To outsiders, it may seem the only reason people use Reddit is for hatemongering. But there are many subreddits that users believe have the power to support, encourage and connect individuals around the world - and to protect which they're perfectly willing to put up with the venomous minority doing and saying vicious things behind the screen of anonymity.

In the last month alone, the website received more than 7 billion page views.

"We're banning behaviour, not ideas"

In mid-May, Reddit introduced some controversial new rules to 'fight rampant harassment'. But several users saw this as censorship, while others believed that the policy lacked teeth as Reddit hadn't laid out any specifics.

Defending the new anti-harassment policy, Pao spoke to NPR and said something that lies at odds with why Reddit was started: "It's not our site's goal to be a completely free-speech platform."

Taylor, meanwhile, voiced her appreciation for the Reddit community at large in a statement posted - where else - on Reddit: "You can take the woman out of Reddit, but you can't take the Reddit out of the woman," she wrote.

A shift of loyalties

As Reddit stumbled, users threatened to pack up and leave for a new rival: Voat.

In fact, around 163 million Redditors did follow through on that threat - the volume of traffic on Voat jumped so high this Wednesday that the site crashed.

163 million Redactors switched to a new rival, Voat, last week - on the promise of complete freedom of speech

It also received plenty of traffic via Reddit itself - about 20% of unique visits that hit Voat came from Reddit. Google Trends showed that Voat is often searched along with the banned subreddit/r/fatpeoplehate (which now thrives on Voat).

Voat's founders, students at the university of Zurich, have promised never to censor or ban any group on their site; a topic of criticism at Reddit under Pao's leadership. The platform's mission statement says "No legal subject in this universe should be out of bounds. Our aim is to build a site that serves the needs and wants of our users; one that strives for quality over quantity, and doesn't pander to the lowest common denominator in return for traffic."

That pretty much means that Voat is all about privacy and free speech, whether or not users have a problem with that speech.

Voat acknowledged the surge of traffic on their Twitter account on 3 July when they indirectly cited Reddit's problems as changes from 'that other site'.

Despite the fracas, many (though not all) of the subreddits are back in action.

But it's clear that at least on the internet, the battle for free speech has found a home, and a staunch set of defenders. Whether Reddit's management is willing to lose the war in order to win the battle remains to be seen.

First published: 10 July 2015, 1:52 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.