Reddit, a site that's basically run by volunteer moderators with minimal tinkering from the higher-ups, says it's going to get more serious about dealing with harassment.
"We have been looking closely at the conversations on reddit and at personal safety. We’ve always encouraged freedom of expression by having a mostly hands-off approach to content shared on our site. Volunteer moderators determine and uphold rules for content in their subreddits, and we have stepped in when we see threats to our values of privacy and safety," says the reddit team in a recent post.
"In the past 10 years we’ve seen how these policies have fostered cool and amazing conversations on reddit. We’ve seen new types of conversations as AMAs and /r/askscience and /r/askhistorians developed. We’ve seen more and more organic content as part of conversations after the introduction of self-posts. We’ve also seen the scope and scale of discussions explode.
"Unfortunately, not all the changes on reddit have been positive. We’ve seen many conversations devolve into attacks against individuals. We share redditors’ frustration with these interactions. We are also seeing more harassment and different types of harassment as people’s use of the Internet and the information available on the Internet evolve over time. For example, some users are harassing people across platforms and posting links on reddit to private information on other sites."
In response to this, and a survey which, according to reddit, proves that users think harassment is a big problem, reddit is finally putting into words what constitutes harassment – at least in its eyes.
This is how harassment is now defined in reddit's terms:
Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.
As with Twitter and other social media networks that have been dealing with how to battle online harassment, reddit relies on self-reporting. if you see harassment taking place, either against you or another user, you are tasked with reporting it to reddit.
What this means, practically, is that "when someone reports harassment we will investigate thoroughly rather that leaving it to moderators and respond based on the nature of the harassment," according to reddit.
Reddit's always been a hard one to figure out. For a site that's always espoused free speech as a fundamental principle, it's clear that the admins are conflicted about what that actually means. Why are some subreddits banned while other, seemingly similar or more offensive subreddits allowed to exist? Why is r/niggers banned while r/greatapes and r/coontown are up and running, for instance? Where's the line between simply offensive and harassment?
As you would expect, some redditors are none too thrilled about this announcement, as they feel it lays the groundwork to ban subreddits like r/fatpeoplehate:
I hope we aren't trying to become Tumblr. The internet isn't a safe space. It never has been and hopefully never will be - safe is boring, heavily regulated and Brave New Worldish.
I don't like personal attacks either - but this appears to be your grounds to ban subs like /r/fatpeoplehate and /r/fatlogic or /r/CandidFashionPolice .
You truly didn't clarify what actions you plan to take to stop harassment. Its either a toothless policy OR a policy absent clear standards/transparency. . .
"You know what inspired reddit? Speakers Corner's in London," says reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian in response to that. I studied abroad in London for a semester and it really inspired me (I came back States-side and started a phpbb forum and then a year later Steve and I made reddit). It's a place where literally anyone can get on a soapbox and talk about what matters to them. I listened to Iraqis (2003) argue for AND against the Iraq war, heard a really hateful speech by the Nation of Islam, was moved by a woman talking about the need for better mental health treatment in the UK, watched a man argue for Gay Rights standing across from a VERY conservative christian telling him he'd burn in hell. reddit should be a place where anyone can pull up their soapbox and speak their mind, or have a discussion and maybe learn something new and even challenging or uncomfortable, but right now redditors are telling us they sometimes encounter users who use the system to harass them and that's a problem."
Another user thinks everything should be left to the mods:
Don't 'keep everyone safe'. This isn't Facebook, reddit is a free speech platform and I don't think that the omniscient mods like /u/kn0thing should be able to dictate to subreddits how they should handle their community. Censorship should be the subreddit's decision. If we feel that some sub's should be silenced then we are no better than they are.
"This is not what we're proposing. We made reddit so that as many people as possible could speak as freely as possible -- when our userbase is telling us that harassment is a huge problem for them and it's effectively silencing or keeping people off the site, it's a problem we need to address," responds Ohanian.
Reddit's higher-ups have stepped in and banned subreddits before. But Reddit doesn't really have a lot of rules. No harassing other users now joins no spam, no vote manipulation, no posting of personal info, no child porn, no revenge porn, and no messing with the site itself as the only rules. This is a place where r/sexyabortions, r/picsofdeadkids, r/cutefemalecorpses, and r/gasthekikes are allowed to thrive.
Sure, there will be plenty of debate on what constitutes harassment. For instance, the aforementioned r/fatpeoplehate. If users aren't specifically targeting other users or dealing in personal information, is it ok?
We'll see how this one plays out. If reddit starts banning a bunch of controversial subreddits because of "increased reports of harassment" or something, then this might be a bigger story. But even reddit says this shouldn't really affect anything:
"This change will have no immediately noticeable impact on more than 99.99% of our users. It is specifically designed to prevent attacks against people, not ideas. It is our challenge to balance free expression of ideas with privacy and safety as we seek to maintain and improve the quality and range of discourse on reddit."
Some will see this as a PR move from a site that's continually admonished for being a lawless wasteland, yet has no real intentions of doing anything to reign itself in. Some will see this as a much-needed clarification on how reddit plans to curb rampant harassment. Some will see it as an assault on free speech. Some won't see it at all.
If you want to debate it on reddit, you can.
Image via Blake Patterson, Flickr Creative Commons