P080: Users, and the Websites That Absolve Them

Last week’s issue kicked off some interesting discussions, both in-person and via email, which helped me to hone in on the essence of what is so frustrating about Reddit and its dangerous naïveté around issues of free speech. And because I can’t have a personal conversation with everyone (although I can if you reply to this email –Ed.), I figured it’d be good fodder for this week’s edition.

Four years ago, OG Blogger and all-around empathetic human being Anil Dash cranked out what I consider to be the definitive document regarding the design of online communities: “If your website’s full of assholes, it’s your fault.” In it, Dash calls out site owners who refuse to take responsibility for the actions of their users.

“How many times have you seen a website say “We’re not responsible for the content of our comments.”? I know that when you webmasters put that up on your sites, you’re trying to address your legal obligation. Well, let me tell you about your moral obligation: Hell yes, you are responsible. You absolutely are. When people are saying ruinously cruel things about each other, and you’re the person who made it possible, it’s 100% your fault.”

Dash also lays out five principles to use as the foundation of a healthy online community. I won’t excerpt them all here (seriously, just go read the article – it’s not long) but the fact that we can even talk about how to build communities completely destroys the false notion that a community is a thing that happens spontaneously. Rather, communities of all kinds are the product of a million decisions made by their founders that signal the ideal participants, the tenor of discourse, the topics of discussion. Those whose interests or interactions lie beyond the boundaries denoted by those decisions are going to have more success elsewhere.

And this is why Reddit is so frustrating: it is a huge, sexist, sprawling, wondrous, racist, incredible, violent, loving community because it was designed that way. By refusing to set the tone, Reddit’s founders have created the expectation that all discourse is valid and that all opinions are equally valuable. It’s a very libertarian idea, but just as offline libertarianism falls apart at scale, the founders’ dogged defense of sociopathic subreddits is creating a massively toxic experience.

Reddit contains multitudes. It’s simplistic to say that it is any one thing (even, yes, a cesspool) but the intentional design of the community has made it what it is today. Because of this, Reddit can choose to be better. It can choose to empower most (not all) people instead of standing on principle while women and minorities are terrorized. It can choose to give a voice to members who want to build something instead of a megaphone to those only interested in destruction. Reddit is the author of its own demise, but the final chapter is yet to be written.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron