Every three months, or maybe six, it happens: A new section of Reddit gets attention for being gross, immoral, or, most commonly, creepy. Last year it was /r/jailbait, a forum where users posted borderline pornographic photos of teens; a couple months ago it was /r/Photobucketplunder, where users posted private photos from compromised Photobucket accounts. This week, it’s /r/creepshots, surreptitiously-taken, implicitly sexual photographs of anonymous women.
Reddit’s creepiness problem is part of an ongoing identity crisis on the massive social site, a tension between the emerging voice of a united community, on one hand; and the studied neutrality of a anything-goes online messageboard. Creepy features like creepshots have drawn criticism for years, but they have survived even a recent visit from the President of the United states, who did a Q&A on the site in August. And the man who oversees the site is probably not going to go away.
The site is a neutral platform, first and foremost, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin told BuzzFeed.
“We have 10,000 active subreddits, and over 100,000 total. And anyone can create a subreddit, the person who creates it is sort of the default moderator, and they can add other moderators, who can then add other moderators,” Martin said.
This is also true of the site’s largest sections, which are featured on its frontpage by default.
“All of them are completely run by users,” he repeated.
“We don’t get in involved unless it has someting to do with rules,” Martin explained. While individual Reddit communities make their own rules — Martin repeated a quote he had given another reporter earlier today, that a forum moderators could ban all posts that start with “g” if they wanted to — Reddit, the platform, has very few. Reddit.com/rules goes a long way toward explaining why Martin finds himself answering questions about offensive, alarming or morally repugnant subreddits on a fairly regular basis. There are just five commandments, and only two relate to content:
Beyond this, Martin says, Reddit mostly just has a responsibility to adhere to the law. He says the site’s administrators regularly intervene when it seems as though someone on the site is in imminent danger, or if there’s content that appears to be related to a crime.
The “we are a neutral platform” argument is at least logical, in a very strict sense: Martin suggests it’s not in the site’s interest to make moral judgements about content, and that it’s difficult to even imagine what such rules might look like. “I do think Reddit is somewhat of a new thing, both for media and users, where it is a platform in the way the Tumblr and YouTube and Twitter are, but it’s also a brand and community — a community of communities — and I don’t think there’s been a site that does both of the things at the same time, the way Reddit [does].” Waiting to deal with the sections such as creepshots until it’s been made clear by media or users that they might, in fact, cross legal lines, is a functional strategy — but an expensive one, in terms of PR. (Update: Creepshots has been removed from the site; an alternative, featuring an image of a reporter who wrote critically of Reddit, as the banner has since been posted by users.)
Therein lies the problem: As a unified community, Reddit can attract the President. As a platform, it allows the posting of photos of murders and animal sex. As a community, it can to fight SOPA or raise money for charity. As a platform, it provides a gathering place for men who like looking at sexualized photos of underaged teenagers, and believe that “Men’s Rights” are the foremost problem facing America today. Twitter and Tumblr have these problems too — the President has accounts on both, as do vile posters of almost every stripe — but on Reddit, where the existence of a frontpage and well-organized communities can give at least the impression of top-down endorsement, the contrast is more jarring.
When word leaked to Reddit that Gawker’s Adrian Chen was seeking to publish the real identity of the Reddit moderator responsible for /r/jailbait, /r/creepshots and /r/picturesofdeadbabies, among many others, a number of other section moderators, led by the mods of the very large /r/politics forum and all the way down to /r/powerrangers followed suit, declaring they would longer link to Gawker Media stories.
Martin said a post outing a moderator, no matter what he had posted, would be against one of Reddit’s few rules: the posting of private information.
“It would not be allowed on Reddit,” said Martin. Had Chen discovered a nude photo of the moderator, blurred his face and posted no identifying information, however, it would probably not get taken down.
“Journalists are different in that they’re accountable,” says Martin, referring to their use of real names and susceptibility to lawsuits, “that system on some level works. On Reddit, when someone is anonymously posting someone’s information, it’s our policy to remove that and one we enforce pretty strongly.”
As for how to deal with /r/creepshots-type sites moving forward, Martin says the site’s management will remain conservative, and its structure almost consitutional: “We’re always adjusting our approach, we’re always following the lead of our users and community, and we always have to adjust things. We’re also trying to maintain this as — we want Reddit to be an open a platform as possible. So there’s a balance there: Try to make rules so users can enforce themselves. “