Reddit’s Victim Complex

The Reddit panel at SXSW went terribly wrong. A powerful site struggles with introspection.

By the end of the first hot-ticket panel at SXSWi, things had gotten tense. The panel was made up of Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, Gawker’s Adrian Chen and Rebecca Watson of Skepchick. It was about Reddit.

The discussion of the site was largely critical — over the past year, the site has wrestled with its first real identity crisis, induced in large part by Chen’s outing of ViolentAcrez, who moderated, among other subreddits, a section called “jailbait.”

The concerns raised by the Violentacrez controversy were real and worthwhile: the value and pitfalls of anonymity, the overbearing abundance of white male voices on the site, the limits of free speech on the internet. The panel, perhaps predictably, tracked along those lines. Attendees — many avid Reddit users — were not happy.

During the Q&A section of the panel, a young man stood up to articulate a defense commonly heard on Reddit: Reddit does good (it does!), therefore its flaws should be excused. He started speaking and wouldn’t stop:

On Twitter, writer Josh Fruhlinger jokingly summarized: “math I used to prove reddit is not misogynistic.” (This was taken from an *actual comment*, it turns out.)

This, however, was not merely a defensive user. This was a man with perhaps the fullest view, outside of the company itself, of how Reddit functions. Alan Schaaf is the founder of Imgur, Reddit’s image host of choice and a virtual extension of the site, and he simply would not abide these harsh words. By the end of the discussion, other users had compared calls to moderate Reddit more strictly to internet censorship in China.

This, in a nutshell, is what vexes Reddit’s critics. The site can rally around many things, but collective introspection isn’t one of them. When Chen posted his Violentacrez story, the consensus response was not to figure out how to deal with destructive or controversial users, it was to defend them at all costs — and to ban Gawker.com domains from many of the best-trafficked subreddits.

The best criticism of Reddit is that it can, on occasion, victimize people. Yet drawing attention to jailbait photos, creepshots and other forms of victimization — low-level, constant misogyny included — does not compel Reddit to look within itself. Instead, according to the site’s most vocal proponents, it makes Reddit the victim.

By accusing Reddit of making victims, you make a victim of Reddit.

This response could have been predicted; in fact, it had unfolded in the panel’s page six months ago:

This comment, posted around the same time, referred to a “fourth panelist,” which was originally listed as Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. Today, there was no fourth panelist.

Update: Ohanian writes that he “never agreed” to do the panel, and that Slate’s PR team prematurely listed him. “[T]hey were trading on my name when I’d never even heard of the panel,” he said, noting that Manjoo had apologized for the mistake.

Perhaps he sensed what was coming. Ohanian, ever the politician, knows an intractable fight when he sees one.

CORRECTION: Ohanian says he never agreed to attend the panel. An earlier version of this item suggested, based on a rumor, that he had withdrawn. (3/9/13)

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