A Few Words On Reddit, Gawker, and Anonymity
Perhaps you've heard of neither Gawker nor Reddit. That would make you (a) isolated from internet culture and (b) quite arguably lucky.
But if you've heard of either of them, then you've probably heard about the internet-drama swirling around them in the last week. Here's the bullet: Reddit is a content-sharing site that's a microcosm of the internet. It has everything from funny cat pictures to the President of the United States answering political questions to bitter arguments about video game characters. Like the internet it mirrors, it also has a lot of crazy and creepy people and sub-forums devoted to their tastes. In the past, Reddit has been criticized for hosting child pornography and various "creeper" forums devoted to pictures of unwitting women and children taken in public.
Recently the Gawker family of blogs has started to report on and criticize Reddit's creeper subculture and Reddit's inconsistently tolerant attitude towards it. This criticism culminated in a Gawker post revealing the real-world name of a Reddit figure known as Violentacrez, a self-described troll associated with what Gawker calls "an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations," and with subforums like "Jailbait," which was about what you'd expect.
Gawker's actions — and the actions of some Reddit subcultures that oppose the creepers — has created substantial internet drama, including — and I'm not making this up — a broad movement by many Reddit moderators to ban links to Gawker.
I have a few criticisms of the ensuing drama.
Private Is Not the Same As Public: The First Amendment to the United States Constitution limits the actions of the government. It does not limit the actions of private individuals. If you're an ass on the internet, and a journalist (or "journalist") or angry nutball researches the traces you've left on the internet and reveals your true identity, your First Amendment rights have not been violated.
Though law is always slow to catch up to technology, there are gradually emerging legal norms limiting the ability of the government and the courts to use official compulsion to reveal your identity. That's a good thing, even if the doctrine is developing too slowly, particularly when it's law enforcement demanding the information. But there's no coherent legal theory preventing private individuals from outing you based on what you've revealed online.
Speech Is Not Censorship: Put another way, as we often say here, speech is not tyranny. Freedom of speech does not (and cannot, under any coherent legal or philosophical approach) involve freedom from criticism. Free speech does not mean "I have a right to say whatever I want without social consequences." That point is worth emphasizing because there seems to be a significant Reddit subculture that stubbornly denies it, and views criticism as despicable and a violation of free speech norms. These people are silly.
There's a Reddit subforum called Shit Reddit Says — "SRS" for short — devoted to linking to and criticizing Redditors acting like bigots and sex offenders on other subforums. Recently SRS has been associated with efforts to call out and apply social pressure against Reddit subcultures devoted to things like child porn and creepers. That effort, and SRS's mission of calling out ashattery, makes some Redditors angry to the point of unbalanced self-parody — they feel that Reddit is a place to act however you want without social consequences. (That doesn't surprise me; as I've argued before, some people become completely unbalanced when criticized about how they act, especially if the criticism has anything to do with race, gender, etc.)
The anti-SRS "Reddit should be a place where you're not called out for being a choad" sentiment leads to ridiculous behavior. Take this self-serious change.org petition against SRS, later mercilessly lampooned here. Or take this thread in which a Reddit moderator gets some Redditor support for his proposal that he be allowed to take over SRS to prevent harm to the Reddit community — a moderator whose qualifications include operating forums like /r/ImGoingToHellForThis, /r/spacedicks, /r/Gore, /r/beatingwomen, /r/StruggleFucking, /r/picsofdeadkids, and /r/rapingwomen. "The subs he moderates have nothing to do with the issue at hand, or his experience as being a moderator," says a commenter defending the moderator. "None of those subs break Reddiquette and it's a moot point bringing this up."
Creepers and pedophiles and bigots make up only a tiny minority of Redditors; people angry that they are being criticized make up only a slightly larger minority. Comments from Reddit administrators in the wake of the child pornography outcry has made clear that Reddit wants to be a free speech site that permits everything that the law does not prohibit. That's fine. I'd defend Reddit's freedom to publish what the law allows. But Redditors need not be taken seriously to the extent they believe they have a protected right to be free of criticism and ridicule and inquiry. You can argue all you want that forums like — oh, say, the /r/BeatingWomen subreddit — should be free to thrive without criticism. Moderators can indulge your feelings by banning critics. Moderators can decide to ban links to Gawker on the theory that if you take pictures of children in public and post them for the sexual pleasure of misfit neckbeards, you have a right to privacy that should prevent anyone from identifying you. But Reddit administrators and moderators and Redditors can't stop everyone else from calling out their conduct and their oddly inconsistent philosophy. Private individuals decrying, ridiculing, and even using their skills to identify Redditors are using a classic "more speech" remedy to speech they don't like. It's a feature, not a bug, of free speech.
Look, it's just swell that you read the Cliff's Notes on Nietzche and now you think you're some sort of ubermensch who has transcended the social norms of mere insects concerning your rape fantasies and crotch-shots of twelve-year-olds. I'm sure everyone in your subforum is very impressed. But we're not required to take you seriously or refrain from criticism. We're allowed to call you out, or even to point and laugh.
In this particular context, some Redditors assert that speech will be chilled if outing becomes common. "What if you could get outed just because someone disagrees with you?" they ask. This, too, is a speech problem with a more-speech remedy. People who out anonymous posters for petty or frivolous reasons will be treated as frivolous and petty by the community — and should be. When National Review Online blogger Ed Whelan outed blogger Publius in a fit of partisan petulance, he was widely condemned and eventually apologized. If enough people disagree with Violentacrez' private employer firing him, that private employer could face boycotts or bad publicity. (I am not a Texas lawyer and offer no opinion on whether his firing could have violated some Texas law.)
Ashattery Is Not A Zero-Sum Game: Put another way, in a fight between Frick and Frack, we can recognize that Frick is an asshole without diminishing our ability to recognize that Frack is an asshole. Is Gawker hypocritical when it expresses outrage about creepers? Yes. Gawker is, in fact, full of people who are relentlessly creepifying about women and kids and sex. Our ability to recognize that is not diminished by recognizing, and calling out, that Reddit has bustling pedophile, creeper, and bigot communities worthy of contempt. We can think both things at once.
Let me put it this way: I would not let the moderators and fans of the Reddit creeper forums around my daughters; I'd worry they would sexually assault the girls. I don't worry about Gawker writers and editors molesting my girls. However, if my girls were molested, I'd expect Gawker writers and editors to try to find ways to monetize it, use it to drive traffic, come up with banal, weakly ironic hipster-douchebag quips about it, pay witnesses to offer lurid details about it, and try to find clumsy and demi-literate ways to connect it to politicians they don't like.
The Internet Is Not Private: You're a fool if you think it is. The internet makes it easier, not harder, to figure out who you are, because the internet preserves your activities and allows your critics to crowdsource efforts to identify you.
As a result, the internet is the great leveler that restores anonymous modernity to something like a traditional small town. If you act like a dick in a small town, everyone knows it pretty quickly, and treats you accordingly. For decades or centuries, as we urbanized and anonymized and traveled, it became easier to be a dick without social consequence. The internet restores the status quo: your actions may have social consequences equivalent to what they would have been if you had acted out in the public square of a small town. I've written about this phenomenon before in the context of Vancouver rioters and Hermon Raju and Alex Kochno and Paul Christoforo.
Is this a bad thing? That's a question I've been struggling with for years. To the extent that I think that it's bad, it may just be because I disagree with the consequences that the marketplace of ideas produces in a particular case. If "Violentacrez" had said and did everything he did in public under his own name, I'd have no problem with the marketplace of ideas producing social consequences. So why, exactly, should Violentacrez expect to have a protected right to be free of those consequences? Put another way — why should someone who devotes himself to upsetting people, and who promotes creeper forums, not be treated like someone who devotes himself to upsetting people and promotes creeper forums?
Edited 10/17 to add: Gawker reports on a Reddit memo about their position on some of these issues.
Edited again: I have a follow-up post.
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