Do you know there’s a war on? In one cybertrench, there’s Gawker: a gossip blog that’s great at wading through the mud. In the other, there’s Reddit: the chipper, multimillion-user-strong “front page” of the Internet. At face, the websites are at war over one man—or two, really. First, Michael Brutsch, a Texas grandpa, veteran, and computer programmer; second, Violentacrez, the influential, porn-loving paragon of Reddit’s weirdo-filled fringe. Last week, Gawker’s Adrian Chen outed the first man as the second—the Wizard of a depraved online Oz. Violentacrez had built a reputation as one of Reddit’s most notorious moderators and trolls, who not only uploaded voyeuristic photos of teens, but helped build a community, or subreddit, around them.
Reddit has just five rules. Number three: “don’t post personal information.” To Redditors, revealing another user’s real-world self is something of a mortal sin. And so, scores of users and moderators started banning the Gawker domain entirely. Chen fired back with a counter-ban, threatening “to file a DMCA takedown” “if I see reddit link to one of my blog posts.” Most would agree that a young woman’s right not to be photographed and ogled without her consent supersedes Brutsch’s right not to be outed as Violentacrez—and most netizens have taken Gawker’s side. If Reddit privacy canon is meant to protect free speech, blocking a website is a two-faced move on the part of many of the site’s moderators.
But there’s far more hypocrisy to Gawker’s position. In 2009, the blog linked to “creepshots” of their own: naked pictures of tween icon Vanessa Hudgens, taken when she was just 17 years old. Gawker has a whole “Upskirt” page, devoted to Lindsay Lohan. Elsewhere on the site, it reproduces scores of non-consensually-grabbed photos—and links to other sites that show the full nude upskirt or naked pictures. Last year, it published a lurid account of an alleged one-night-stand with Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell—that man had his anonymity protected. And last month, it ran a post “Sympathy and Science for Those Who Want to Have Sex With Children,” by Cord Jefferson, describing pedophilia as a “sexual orientation.” When it comes to all flavors of gross, objectionable, privacy-violating content, Gawker boasts gigabytes—that’s sort of the point.
Two, three, or even four (thousand) wrongs don’t make a right. And it’s difficult to feel sympathy for a man like Brutsch, who once boasted in a Violentacrez “Ask Me Anything” interview about “oral sex with my 19-year-old stepdaughter.” True or not, a story like that is likely to blunt whatever inkling of sympathy you may feel for the man—even after you learn that his wife is a disabled diabetic, and that Brutsch was immediately fired after Gawker ran its exposé. If he wasn’t a public figure, he certainly is now. And Reddit, after hosting a successful “Ask Me Anything” with President Obama, has lost a lot of its well-wishers over the creepshot controversy. Like many influential moderators, Violentacrez cooperated with Reddit HQ to help manage the site’s worst content: something of a deal with the devil.
Reddit is a lot like the Holy Roman Empire: a decentralized union of thousands of disparate fiefdoms—the subreddits—that pay nominal lip-service to a couple of the central authority’s rules. Reddit HQ takes a hands-off approach. Violentacrez, creepshots, and even the controversial, kiddie-porn-baiting “r/jailbait” subreddit (which Reddit shut down earlier this year) are fringe fiefdoms. They do not represent Reddit-writ-large, nor tar it with a pedophilic brush.
Reddit is a synecdoche for the Internet: a set of tools for sharing and organizing content. The site is not a hive-mind hegemon, nor even an organized media property. It’s a platform. Priests use it, pervs use it, and everyone in between. It has all the diversity of the Internet as a whole. There’s the Wild West, and there are the law-abiding citizens. The garbage seldom, if ever, reaches the frontpage. At time of writing, the front-page led with a story on Verizon’s alleged cellular monitoring, a soccer GIF, a powerful photograph from Syria, and more. Nary an upskirt in sight.
Indeed, the most powerful backlash against Violentacrez and his creepshotting cabal has come from within the Reddit community: a powerful subreddit called “r/creepshaming.” There, Redditors organize against lurid photo sharing, and work to marginalize the creeps that do it—without revealing personal information. Violentacrez and his ilk were free to troll: to post objectionable, offensive garbage. And the Reddit mainstream, through spontaneous democratic opposition, was free to fight back.
By contrast, Gawker’s outing seems only to have caused the hardline creeps to retrench their party line—and seek even darker corners of the Web to do their dirty work. You could try to argue that outing Brutsch was the only way to stop him. But when Chen first started poking around, Violentacrez allegedly offered to delete his account and quit Reddit for good, if Gawker refrained from publishing. According to Brutsch, Chen refused. Now, the cycle of “ew” will continue, when Brutsch appears on CNN for an interview with Anderson Cooper this Thursday.
The real question that’s bedeviling Reddit—and why this is more than a war over two men—is what Gawker’s outing means for online anonymity. Not just on the Web’s “front page,” which racked in 3.4 billion page views in August, but on all of them. As trolling has entered the mainstream—not to mention cyberbullying—critics are calling for the end of online anonymity. Think of the rational political discussions that would spontaneously break out across the world’s YouTube videos! Think of the deep, human connections forged, mediated by first and last names! Civility reining, we’ll all be able to look at each other in the digital face.
Unfortunately, multiple recent studies suggest that “real name” Web policies do very little to elevate online content. By contrast, there’s tons of evidence that online anonymity was crucial to fostering the Web’s earliest ventures and communities, from Napster to the early Internet Relay Chatrooms (IRCs), as well as some of its best sites today. The anonymity that protects creeps serves to protect the rest of us. If you’ve never uploaded something objectionable, perhaps prurient interest has led you to click on something, well, weird—or at least embarrassing. Just browsing the Web takes some presumption of privacy.
If Brutsch had been a politician, perhaps outing his despicable behavior would make more sense. But, as he told Chen, “I do my job, go home, watch TV, and go on the Internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time.” Brutsch enjoyed an online anonymity shared by North Korean bloggers and Syrian citizen journalists. He abused it—but should that mean sacrificing the principle? Or attacking Reddit-writ-large? That’s rather like holding The Daily Beast responsible for the objectionable comments that provocateurs leave strewn across pieces like this. Would outing and shaming those commenters, after giving them a Reddit-style anonymity guarantee, make sense? The freedom to be somebody else online—even a total weirdo—was and remains vital to the Internet’s creativity and content.
Reddit HQ’s knee-jerk reaction, banning the Gawker domain, was dumb. They’ve admitted as much, and restored it, and the company’s CEO, Yishan Wong, has told his team that, although he will ban links to pages whose sole purpose is to out a Redditor’s real identity, he won’t ban “legitimate investigative journalism.” Still, subreddit moderators are free to block and unblock whatever they wish (remember, Holy Roman Empire).
For all the furor, the community posts on, defining itself from the bottom up. It remains one of the Web’s most freewheeling, self-governing polities. In fact, it elevates so much good, presentable stuff that many headline news sites—famously BuzzFeed, and Gawker too—use reams of Reddit content. It’s one of the Internet’s best curators. If the outing and shaming of Reddit’s “creepy uncle” accomplishes anything, it will be to leave users walking on eggshells, or moderators more likely to clamp down on offensive content. That won’t just be to Reddit’s detriment, or even ours. It will hurt places like Gawker too.