Since then, several media outlets have covered the forum, though it hasn’t gained much in the way of actual traction. (As of this writing, it has 55 subscribers, most of whom joined late last week.) Most of those subscribers seem to have joined solely to shout down the concept of “philosophical rape,” or call out the forum’s creator for unforgivable trolling.
“I feel like this should be reported to the FBI,” one user wrote on an early post.
“I actually did already,” another commenter responded. “I had the info for their cyber crimes unit.”
And that’s a heartening response, right? On one hand, r/PhilosophyofRape is an extreme, self-evident example of everything that’s wrong with Reddit and the pseudonymous Web more generally: the lack of moderation or adult oversight; the anarchy; the quiet, fungal flourishing of fundamentally disgusting (even criminal!) chatter; the needless, never-ending trolls. (Because, to be clear, it’s absolutely possible that’s all r/PhilosophyofRape is — an indeterminable game of trolls.)
But whatever the exact motivations of the forum’s founder, r/PhilosophyofRape has also become a convincing argument for Reddit’s most fiercely held principle: that Internet users, given the agency, can effectively police and govern themselves. We’re so familiar with that philosophy of self-governance failing — the armchair sleuthing/digital witch hunts, the stolen nude pictures, the doxing and bullying and general abuse — but this is one instance, at least, in which the system worked.
For the uninitiated, here’s a quick rundown of how that system works. On Reddit, users can post to one of many thousands of topical forums, called subreddits. Each subreddit is policed by a moderator or a team of moderators, generally the people who started the subreddit, and they make all the rules. Reddit, the corporate entity, has a few rules of its own, mostly the ones they’re required to uphold by law: no child porn, no copyright infringement, no posting other people’s personal information.
But generally, Reddit believes, the inmates should get the keys to the asylum. Reddit doesn’t screen posts or forums or proactively monitor content, as a rule. Instead, the site trusts the proverbial crowd to set its own standards and punish users who don’t adhere to them.
“The system has its flaws,” Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager, told The Post in May. “But it’s a powerful system that for the vast majority of [the Web site] works great.”
That’s a critical policy — and not only as a philosophy on the Internet and the nature of self-governance. Because Reddit is the self-proclaimed “front page of the Internet” — a fair descriptor, given its profound influence on the greater media ecosystem — Reddit’s lack of moderation is arguably responsible for some of the more unfortunate cultural failings of the past couple years, from the misidentification of the Boston bombers (a case that was quietly settled just last week) to the ongoing Celebgate scandal.
In both the cases, more temperate voices failed to sway the larger forum community. Good/reason did not triumph; Reddit’s overtaxed administrators — there are less than a dozen for a community of more than 3 million registered users — eventually had to step in.
But things seem to be unfolding otherwise in r/PhilosophyofRape. The forum’s inaugural post — a kind of Elliot Rodger-style manifesto — was overwhelmingly voted down by readers, an expression of community disapproval. The most popular comment on the post, left last week, says only “kill yourself. Before it’s too late.” (“I would never [tell] someone to kill themselves,” another user followed up. “This guy, however, needs some sort of divine intervention.”)
In consequent posts to the forum, readers have pointed out the lack of logic in his arguments, the probability that he’s just a troll, and the best way to report him to police. They have, in other words, done the right thing.
And yet, lest you give humanity too much credit, Reddit still hosts plenty of unpleasant, NSFL and even illegal material: Far from the spotlight of Celebgate, a subreddit called /r/PhotoPlunder trades in the misappropriated nudes of non-celebrity women, most of whom lack the legal resources to get their pictures down. (The subreddit’s moderators claim they only allow photos that women have posted publicly, but when you’re sourcing from anonymous image host Imgur, it’s impossible to tell.) /r/watchpeopledie has nearly 45,000 subscribers; the provenance of the gore therein is frequently unclear. Meanwhile, Reddit has, since 2012, struggled with accusations that the site condones child porn — and while administrators have made it clear that’s not the case, there’s no question that underage photos have circulated in forums such as /r/youngporn.
Will anyone ever speak up there? Will anyone report those users to police? Thus far, that seems unlikely: /r/PhotoPlunder and /r/watchpeopledie are two years old and popular; /r/youngporn boasts more than 10,000 readers.
Maybe Redditors can indeed be trusted to govern themselves — to be responsible for their own souls, as Reddit chief executive Yishan Wong infamously put it in September. But neither their souls, nor their rules, seem to adhere to any standard code of law or morality. And missing that, Reddit will always be a quicksand of extremes: There’s abject depravity, sure — but there’s also, once in a while, real evidence that even anonymous, lawless people on the Internet can be a force for good.