The CEO of message-board website Reddit has been in the job for a few days, and he's already causing some redditors to choke on their cheetos.
In a posting on the site announcements page, Steve Huffman – cofounder of the website and new chief exec following the departure of the hugely unpopular Ellen Pao – said he will crack down on subreddits discussing "reprehensible" topics. (Hint, there are a lot of subreddits discussing reprehensible topics.)
"The overwhelming majority of content on Reddit comes from wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities. That is what makes Reddit great. There is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don’t have any obligation to support them. And we also believe that some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all," Huffman wrote on Tuesday.
"Neither Alexis [Ohanian – the other cofounder] nor I created Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen."
There's just one problem with that, which redditors were quick to point out. In a 2012 interview with Forbes, Ohanian declared Reddit "a bastion of free speech on the worldwide web," and said America's founding fathers would have approved.
Huffman didn't reply to people pointing out the free-speech U-turn, saying at the start of the comment that he was busy meeting staff.
It comes after his predecessor banned a spiteful subreddit called Fat People Hate: a forum that had 150,000 subscribers, and was dedicated to mocking and harassing overweight people.
The shutdown sparked confusion from redditors: was Reddit suddenly censoring forums, and if so, why was it starting with that one and not the ones with pictures of dead children, the ones that spread racist hate, and the ones advocating rape and misogyny? And if it was still a 100-per-cent bastion of free speech, why was it banning one particular message board?
According to Yishan Wong, a former Reddit CEO, Pao banned Fat People Hate because it was encouraging redditors to fire off abuse at people elsewhere on the internet. He said Pao resisted pressure from her superiors to censor more of Reddit; now she's gone, the company's board can clean up the site – which explains Huffman's U-turn this week.
"The most delicious part of this is that on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed [Ellen] to outright ban all the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge," Wong claimed this evening on Reddit.
"She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a shitshow. Ellen isn't some 'evil, manipulative, out-of-touch incompetent she-devil' as was often depicted. Ellen was more or less inclined to continue upholding my free-speech policies."
It's all shaping up to be a bit of a clusterfuck. The admins of Reddit have discovered that enabling unfettered free speech is great for building a huge audience, but it means you're ultimately building a platform that – to some on the outside – looks like "the man-cave of the internet" where it is OK to bully women, minorities, and anyone who is a bit different.
Of course, Reddit has many excellent, open-minded and friendly subreddits – too many to mention. Places where there is an amazing flow of information, days of arguments, smart wisecracks, and respect for one another.
Reddit is one of the top 10 most visited websites in the US, according to Alexa. And it may be going the way of Digg, which used to be one of the biggest link aggregators out there. Once valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, Digg introduced changes its readers didn't like, it withered, and it was eventually sold for just less than $20m.
Reddit is larger than Digg, and claims it had 163 million unique visitors in June, but the internet community is fickle, and redditors could find themselves a new home before long. ®