Reddit co-founder and newly-crowned CEO Steve Huffman is trying to walk the same line that got his site into this mess in the first place: Ellen Pao’s approach of “banning behavior, not ideas,” as if the two can ever be cleanly separated from one another.
After weathering multiple controversies and a regime change, it’s clear that Reddit still needs to decide what, fundamentally, it is: a no-holds-barred free speech arena or a curated forum for public discussion that can be palatable to advertisers? Judging from the AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) Huffman hosted on Thursday—which carried the inviting title “Let’s talk content”—Huffman either doesn’t know himself or he’s not saying just yet.
Reddit may have a new CEO but it’s nowhere close to solving its old problems.
In the wake of Pao’s resignation last week, Reddit users have been eager to know whether or not Huffman would continue the project of “removing harassing subreddits,” which Pao and her team announced a month ago to protest in the form of “Chairman Pao” memes and widespread user revolt.
Yesterday, Pao’s predecessor Yishan Wong suggested that Huffman was more than on board with the banning, and that more subreddits would die by his hand.
In a revealing Reddit post, Wong claimed that Pao had actually resisted the Reddit board’s urging to “outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge” and that, with her gone, “u/spez [Huffman] has the moral authority as a co-founder to move ahead with the purge.”
But from the very start of Huffman’s confusing AMA on Thursday afternoon, it was clear that, if there is a “purge” in the works, Huffman did not want to announce it out all at once. For now, he seems to be trying to toe Pao’s behavior-versus-ideas line with only a few rumblings of changes to come.
In fact, in one reply to a Redditor, Huffman explicitly said, “Nothing is changing in Reddit’s policy here.” So, why even do a big AMA announcement?
Huffman kicked off the AMA by laying out his predicament. On one hand, “Reddit is a place to have open and authentic discussions,” but, on the other, “unfettered free speech can make Reddit a less enjoyable place to visit, and can even cause people harm outside of Reddit.” The question then becomes how to bring in more visitors while interfering as little as possible with Reddit’s existing and quite vocal user base.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly the same problem that Pao identified a month ago when she and her team wrote, “Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform.”
In other words: Pao is Huffman, Huffman is Pao, everything is different, nothing has changed.
But in an attempt to say something more, Huffman also delivered a bullet point list of content that would be “prohibited” and content that would be “classified.” On the prohibited side fell spam, illegal activities, doxxing, child pornography, violent threats, and, more vaguely, “anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people.” On the “classified” side, Huffman included “adult content” and “content that violates a common sense of decency,” which, again, is vague.
And then all hell broke loose. The replies to Huffman in the AMA were a jumbled mess of free-speech treatises, at least one racist rant defending r/coontown, several accusations of selling out, some more principled accusations of profiting from hate speech, along with demands that he clarify what exactly he means by harassment, decency, “and adult content.”
As of this writing, there were over 18,000 comments on the AMA. To try to summarize them all would be a fool’s errand—suffice it to say, Reddit is not pleased with Huffman for a number of different reasons.
But Huffman also failed to outline any specific approach to calm the panicking Redditors. After a major PR crisis, it almost seemed as if the CEO of the 10th-most popular website in the country was, well, winging it—an impression not helped along by his admission, after his unimpressive first post, that “[t]his is basically what we have right now.”
At one point, Huffman said that a subreddit called r/rapingwomen would be banned because “they are encouraging people to rape” but that r/coontown—a racist, anti-black subreddit that cheered on the Charleston shooting —would simply be “reclassified” because “[t]he content there is offensive to many, but does not violate our current rules for banning.”
This is Pao’s familiar idea that one can merely ban behavior without targeting any specific ideologies—like white supremacy—trotted out once more to explain what looks to many like a merely academic distinction between the abject hatred of women and abject hatred of black people.
The hate-group tracking organization Southern Poverty Law Center, after all, identified r/coontown as “the most violent racist internet content” currently on the web, but that’s apparently not enough to justify a ban.
The members of r/coontown, meanwhile, celebrated Huffman’s decision.
Later on in the AMA, Huffman tried to develop the idea that, instead of banning offensive subreddits like r/coontown, Reddit could somehow quarantine or “separate” them from the rest of the site. What Huffman means by separation is not exactly “clear”—a word that Huffman used a number of times in an aspirational way during the AMA—except that it would involve some form of “warning” along with “an explicit opt-in.”
“Banning is like capital punishment, and we don’t want to do it except in the clearest of cases,” he wrote.
Elsewhere, he said that only “the [subreddits] that are illegal or cause harm to others” would be banned but those with “contents I and many others find offensive” would live on. But the problem with hate groups like r/coontown is that the line between what’s legally permissible and what’s subtly encouraged is not always—to use a favorite word of Huffman’s—“clear.”
Some Redditors, however, were less concerned with Huffman’s sanctioning of r/coontown than they were with the idea that he might have financial motivations for cleaning up the site. One user asked how much of his new policy—which is actually an old policy, mind you—was motivated by “the motivation to monetize Reddit” and Huffman replied: “Zero.”
That comment alone spawned dozens of angry replies.
But if Huffman were trying to make Reddit a profitable place by bringing in new users—and by trying to ensure that advertisers don’t have their content show up on a website that also hosts rape tutorials—would that really be so bad?
Based on a much-quoted sentence in Pao’s resignation letter, that does seem to be Reddit’s end game: “Ultimately the board asked me to demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believe I can deliver while maintaining Reddit’s core principles.”
The problem with making Reddit inviting—and the reason why Huffman’s distinction between the criminal and the offensive, the bannable and the quarantine-able will never work—is that to rid Reddit of the specific forms of hatred that make it unappealing to a large percent of adult Internet users, you actually have to, you know, name some of them.
Here are some words that are noticeably missing from Pao’s “harassing subreddits” post, Huffman’s AMA, and the oft-cited “promote ideas, protect people” Reddit blog post: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and basically any other identifiable form of prejudice.
Saying that you will ban harassment, bullying, and abuse of “an individual or group of people” isn’t good enough to turn Reddit around—you actually have to say who some of those people are. The funny thing about values is that you can’t have them without saying them out loud.
But on a website where some users can’t get past the idea that rape is morally objectionable, even saying a word like “sexism” is a risk Huffman can’t afford to take.
Until an actual policy is put in place, Reddit is caught between the same rock and hard place that squeezed Pao out of her office—a tension between a board that seems to want the site to reach more people and a front-facing CEO who has to suffer the wrath of a change-resistant community.
In Huffman’s last comment on the AMA Thursday night, Huffman said, “We won’t formally change or [sic] policy until we have the tools to support it.”
He’s going to need more than tools. He needs a bulldozer.