Warning: This post contains graphic language.
In a place where anything went, it seems that more and more has got to go — and some of what remains is still exceptionally objectionable.
That place is Reddit, which calls itself the “front page” of the Internet, where members by the thousand have signed up and become “redditors” taking part in various online communities. While Reddit describes itself as “a place for real-time updates and citizen journalism,” many of its news posts come from conventional news outlets; other posts are collected in forums called “gaming,” “gadgets,” “funny,” and so forth, each of which has “subreddits” of related matter.
Some of of the posts are benign; others “hateful,” in the words of co-founder Steve Huffman.
Last week, Reddit interim chief executive Ellen Pao, who sought to remove some of the freewheeling, bulletin-board style Web site’s more objectionable content, resigned after a petition questioned her commitment to free speech.
In damage-control mode after her exit, Huffman — who replaced Pao as chief executive and whose handle on the site is “spez” — laid out what content would no longer be acceptable on the site, including spam, child pornography, publishing confidential information and “anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people.” Further explaining this last category of inciting harm or violence, Huffman wrote, “It’s ok to say ‘I don’t like this group of people.’ It’s not ok to say, ‘I’m going to kill this group of people.’”
“We’ve spent the last few days here discussing and agree that an approach like this allows us as a company to repudiate content we don’t want to associate with the business, but gives individuals freedom to consume it if they choose,” Huffman wrote in one of Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” sessions Thursday. “This is what we will try, and if the hateful users continue to spill out into mainstream reddit, we will try more aggressive approaches. Freedom of expression is important to us, but it’s more important to us that we at reddit be true to our mission.”
Yet, despite Huffman’s comments, “r/CoonTown” lives on.
CoonTown, as its loathsome name might suggest, is a subreddit for racists. CoonTown offers a buffet of crude jokes and racial slurs; complaints about the liberal media; links to news stories that highlight black-on-white crime or Confederate pride; and discussions of “black people appropriating white culture.”
Some examples of comments on CoonTown that, technically, are printable:
No. 1: “Have you ever considered black people as a whole and asked yourself, ‘What the f—k is wrong with them?’”
No. 2: “I f—king hate n—r lovers.”
No. 3: “Get with it, you stupid n—rs.”
Perhaps that’s enough to get the idea.
CoonTown might seem the perfect target for Huffman’s spiel against “anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people.” Even before his comments, subreddits such as “r/FatPeopleHate” and “r/S—tN—rsSay” were bounced from Reddit.
CoonTown persisted. Why? Huffman tried to explain, making quite the legalistic distinction.
“We’ll consider banning subreddits that clearly violate the guidelines in my post — the ones that are illegal or cause harm to others,” he wrote. “There are many subreddits whose contents I and many others find offensive, but that alone is not justification for banning. /r/rapingwomen will be banned. They are encouraging people to rape. /r/coontown will be reclassified. The content there is offensive to many, but does not violate our current rules for banning.”
CoonTown’s surprise at its survival didn’t prevent celebration.
“It was a rare double-loss for n—ers today,” read one thread. “First they found out /r/Coontown would remain. Second, they found /r/RapingWomen was to be removed.”
Reddit’s decision to reclassify Coontown as “NSFW” and to require an opt-in to view the discussion thread came on the same day that Pao weighed in on forces that have always been competing with one another on the Internet.
“Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet,” she wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post Thursday. “But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.”
This post has been updated.