SXSW and Reddit’s Introspection Problem
This weekend, I attended my first SXSW, as I was asked to be on a panel with Farhad Manjoo and Adrien Chen about the highs and lows of Reddit. All of us use Reddit on a daily basis, though Adrien and I have been vocally critical of some aspects of the site, while Farhad is mostly positive about it. To balance things out, Farhad invited Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, but he dropped out, so it was just the three of us.
The session was recorded (audio only, I believe), but there’s no word on when it’ll be released as part of a SXSW podcast. Until then, you’ll have to make do with recaps like this one on Buzzfeed (which has 2 minutes of Q&A video), or the one I’m about to give.
We began by asking the audience about their familiarity with Reddit. It was a large crowd (I’m terrible at guessing numbers, but maybe 300? The auditorium was packed to standing room only, with people sitting in the aisles and along the walls), and easily 90-95% said they had used Reddit or were familiar with the site. A small handful of 5-10 people raised their hands to claim no familiarity with Reddit.
Each panelist discussed a noteworthy moment in Reddit’s recent history. Farhad discussed the good that Reddit did in helping stop SOPA; Adrien discussed his exposure of Violentacrez and the shutdown of Reddit’s incredibly popular r/jailbait forum, where (mostly) adult men shared and masturbated over sexualized images of teen and pre-teen girls that were ripped from Facebook accounts and sometimes hacked online photo albums.
I discussed two events, both of which I see as two sides of the same coin. First, I talked about Redditors’ rightful skepticism of the Kony2012 campaign, showing how they were able to take an overly simplified video and add much needed context. After the video’s launch, Reddit was pretty quickly filled with links to detailed breakdowns of Invisible Children and upvoted comments from people who were actually on the ground in Uganda working on the problem of child soldiers.
Then I discussed how the Reddit “hivemind’s” skepticism can easily turn to hyperskepticism with poor results, particularly when it comes to women. As an example, I pointed to the case of “theoculus,” a user who posted a photo of a bruise on her face along with the title, “I was sexually assaulted in the early evening while wearing jeans and a t-shirt in a “safe” residential neighbourhood in Toronto. This is what he did to my face. Only rapists cause rape.”
Theocolus was inundated with accusations that she was lying. Skeptical commenters pointed out that she once posted photos of some zombie makeup, and she had also previously posted a comic about someone blaming sexual assaults on provocative clothing. She received death threats and rape threats, and her posts and comments were downvoted en masse. To try to placate the Redditors, she posted a video of herself scrubbing at the bruise with a washcloth, but that just encouraged a new round of people calling her a liar.
Eventually, she deleted her account.
The panel then moved on to discussing where Reddit came from, how it differed from other forums and communities, and how its features have impacted both the internal community and the outside world.
On that last point, I talked a bit about how I think that Reddit’s shared values of “freedom of speech” and anonymity combine with the “karma” voting system to create an ideal environment for the proliferation and normalization of bigotry and hate. I showed screenshots that I grabbed from just the previous few days of posts on r/ShitRedditSays, with credit given and a brief detour for us to talk about whether the existence of a self-critical subreddit like SRS is cause for hope (my answer being “no,” because SRS is popularly seen by other Redditors not as a helpful part of Reddit but as a hateful, misguided, humorless, and occasionally dangerous outside threat, an idea that supports my forthcoming point that Redditors hate and resist criticism). I pointed out that the karma system resulted in bigoted ideas being not just tolerated but rewarded, sometimes by people thinking they were being edgy and ironic and sometimes by actual hate groups like Stormfront, a racist forum that encourages users to game Reddit so that their ideology is represented prominently.
We had a lot we wanted to talk about, but we only had one hour, total, and we all agreed that we really wanted time for Q&A. With about 15 minutes left to go, Farhad invited audience members to a microphone to ask a question. A long line formed rather quickly, and the first man at the mic began by introducing himself as Alan Schaaf, the owner of Imgur, the image sharing website that has become gargantuan thanks entirely to Reddit, and which, like Reddit, has had child pornography problems of its own. He pulled out his phone and started reading a list of good things Redditors had done in the past.
I love audience Q&A, because it gives the audience a chance to interact with the panelists and ask a question that leads the discussion into a direction that particularly interests them. What I don’t like is when audience members fail to ask a question, and instead take up valuable time to discuss their personal philosophies or to filibuster.
After listening to Alan’s list for a bit, I interrupted in order to acknowledge that we all agree that Reddit does great things, and I said I had a question for him (because again, Q&A is great because of interaction). Before I could ask it, he went back to reading his list, speaking over me to do it (with an audible gasp from the audience). After a few moments, I interrupted him again to point out that yes, we could list good deeds and bad deeds all night, but for what cause? Does the good, no matter if it’s a fundraiser for a kid with cancer or a Secret Santa gift exchange, negate the bigotry? Alan seemed to agree with me that it does not, but he explained that he felt the panel would have benefited from some Reddit users.
His complaint got applause, which seemed very odd to me as the applause drowned out my attempt to remind them that as we said at the start, all the panelists are daily Reddit users. And as Farhad pointed out at the start, he had invited Ohanian to be on the panel. But ultimately, Alan was never able to make clear how his list added to the discussion other than to serve as some kind of public relations balance to the negative aspects we had discussed. It was ultimately pointless, since we had covered several of Reddit’s benefits and the vast, vast majority of the audience was already well-familiar with the site, so there was little chance that we were going to unfairly poison them against it.
There were a few other Redditors in line who clearly took issue with our criticisms, and yet they weren’t able to come up with a single provocative question among them. One man’s attempt was to literally ask us if we preferred the censorship of China to the free speech of the US, and all I could do was thank him for illustrating the Reddit hivemind’s embarrassing ignorance of what constitutes free speech. Farhad pointed out to him the simple fact that website moderation is better compared to the rules and customs of polite society than governmental censorship. For instance, the man hadn’t shouted his question out in the middle of our panel or he probably would have been removed. Instead, he politely waited his turn at the microphone during Q&A. That’s not “censorship.”
It was either that man or another who suggested the old “the only way to combat speech you don’t like is with more speech,” and as an example he said that there could be a SXSW panel devoted to sharing jailbait pictures while at the same time another panel could be a sexual assault victims’ support group. Yes, that was said. With a straight face.
The poor reasoning abilities of the Redditors was my only disappointment in the panel. I would have loved an intelligent discussion with people who disagreed with our criticisms, but they proved incapable of having it. I don’t think it’s because of lack of knowledge – I suspect the SXSW crowd is well-educated and rather accomplished, in general. Instead, I assume it’s because of a blindness that results when people identify so strongly with a community that they cannot abide fair criticism, even from those who would also consider themselves a part of that community.
What would an ideal question have been, in my mind? How about this: “Reddit has done a lot of good in terms of fundraising and awareness-raising. Is it possible to have a site that can accomplish that without also having the rampant bigotry?”
“Is there any kind of rule that could be instituted on Reddit that would prevent morally repugnant ideas like r/beatingwomen, r/jailbait, r/nazi, and r/creepshots without also preventing “blasphemous” ideas that may have value?”
“Is there a way to provide a forum to discuss bigoted ideas without reinforcing and normalizing those ideas?”
“Is it even possible to institute effective and thoughtful moderation site-wide on a site as large and diverse as Reddit? Who would train those mods? Who would pay them? Who would oversee them?”
“Do efforts like r/ShitRedditSays help by pointing out bigotry, or is it ultimately pointless because they have a rule against upvoting or downvoting posts? If everyone on SRS downvoted the bigotry they saw, would it make Reddit a better place?”
“What should Reddit’s – or any forum’s – responsibility be for policing what users do with private messages (considering that users of r/Jailbait were using the PM system to exchange actual child porn)?”
One woman during Q&A did ask a question I found genuinely interesting and would have loved to discuss more, which was basically about the bigotry that exists in our culture as a whole and how that impacts what appears on Reddit, and that could lead into an interesting discussion on whether or not Reddit is, in a way, inevitable.
But we couldn’t dig into her question, because by the time she asked it, 3/4 of the Q&A had been spent on lists of Reddit’s wins and insipid free speech metaphors.
So that was that, and the time was up before we even knew it.
Word got out immediately, apparently, that we had been critical of Reddit and specifically that some girl had had the audacity to interrupt the great and powerful Imgur guy. Now, the harassment I get daily has continued more or less unabated ever since I had the audacity to give guys advice on propositioning women at conferences two years ago. But it did seem to me there has been a bit of an uptick in the number of people I’ve blocked ever since the panel.* Here are a few examples:
You seem to dislike people speaking against your radical feminist ideology. Facts don't need protection from dissent. @rebeccawatson
— Taylor (@MurkaDurkah) March 9, 2013
— the danimal (@Danimal_J) March 11, 2013
Poor @rebeccawatson thinks everyone is upset with the empty space between her legs, when we're more concerned about the one in her head.
— Achron Timeless (@AchronTimeless) March 10, 2013
@becciewatson you fucked up at sxsw
— Tommy (@T_Maric) March 9, 2013
Note that the last one isn’t even properly addressed to me. It’s another woman who goes by “Beccie,” which is apparently close enough to the “Becky” many of my harassers call me in some bizarre attempt to be belittling. Apparently this isn’t the first time Beccie has had to deal with my angry fans.
As a side note, there was also this hilariously strange non sequiter on Austinist:
At one point, my friend (and new School of Doubt contributor!) Paul Robinson told me “Just reverted some vandalism on your WIkipedia page. Wasn’t the first and won’t be the last.” I made the horrible mistake of mentioning it in a Tweet. A taste of the response:
— Karl Eriksson (@matty_rio14) March 10, 2013
— chalupatime (@chalupatime) March 10, 2013
— Balzan Cauckinand (@LegendaryAsshol) March 9, 2013
@rebeccawatson Cries victim again and makes accusations without evidence, again. Stay classy Becs.
— Lissa (@DuchessofYanks) March 10, 2013
Evidence seems to show that @rebeccawatson 's Wikipedia page was NOT "vandalized" as she alleged. Could it be she exaggerated other stories?
— AmbrosiaX (@AmbrosiaX) March 10, 2013
— Sara E. Mayhew (@saramayhew) March 9, 2013
Now that I’m home, I just had a chance to look at my Wiki page history and sure enough, someone first made a minor edit to minimize Skepchick, and then a few hours later someone added in the fact that I’m “an insufferable cunt.” As Paul suggested and as the Wiki page history makes clear, this isn’t exactly new or clever. It is, though, worth mentioning when discussing how Redditors deal with criticism. Apparently, they deal with it in the same way that misogynist atheists and skeptics do (possibly in part because of the overlap between those groups): by shouting down, derailing, and bullying the critics.
When chatting with Adrien Chen after the panel, we hit on a point that I really wish we’d explored more thoroughly on stage: namely, how Reddit’s elevation of “free speech” over thoughtful moderation does lead to a silencing (and therefore a kind of censorship) of minority opinions. We went into it a little bit on the panel – I mentioned that if Skepchick comments were unmoderated, they would be invaded and a few angry anti-feminists would dominate every conversation. We’ve seen this happen on Reddit: r/feminism is moderated by anti-feminist Men’s Rights Activists, and r/TwoXChromosomes is regularly stormed by MRAs crying “But what about the men?” while feminists who tell them off get banned. Thanks to good moderation, commenters on Skepchick and in stricter subreddits like r/SRSWomen or r/AskScience are able to have interesting, wide ranging, and occasionally heated discussions without rape jokes and racist memes derailing the conversation.
But, it would have been great to draw the parallels between censorship and forums where the loudest voice wins.
Ultimately, though, the panel was worthwhile, and I very much enjoyed talking both on and off-stage with Farhad and Adrien, and with many of the people who came out. If anyone is considering a similar panel in the future, I’d recommend – drumroll please – more moderation of the Q&A. I noticed that during the SXSW keynote with Elon Musk, questions were written down so the more interesting ones could be chosen and asked as appropriate. That seemed to work well, but I suppose to some Redditors, they may as well have hosted that talk in a Beijing bureaucrat’s office.
*Interesting (perhaps just to me) side note: This weekend on Twitter a comment appeared in my replies: “@saramayhew Why dont you just ask @rebeccawatson directly about this and about the redditor statment before going too far?” While I’ve had Sara blocked for some time now, I must admit, my interest was piqued. I found that she had retweeted several libelous comments suggesting I was making anti-Semitic remarks at SXSW, and further that she had been Tweeting about me almost constantly, even including my username in her Tweets despite the fact that she knew I had blocked her. When I logged out of Twitter in order to compile the list of Tweets above, I realized this was also true of others I blocked long ago, like @AmbrosiaX, who had continued to Tweet obsessively about me despite being blocked and receiving no feedback. I’m still often told that if I don’t want to be harassed, I just have to ignore the bullies, so I mention this to once again drive home the fact that ignoring them does not make them go away. It just means that unless I click a few additional buttons, I don’t see people like Sara Mayhew spreading libelous information about me. Now that the above list is compiled, I’m going to log back in and once again enjoy the peace and quiet of a Twitter feed full of smart and intelligent people, but the hatred and the bile does not cease to exist simply because I’m blocking 99% of it from my view. I still believe the best way to combat it is to call it out and embarrass the people who are doing it.