originally published May 23, 2014
I’m going to let you, my loyal readers, in on a secret. My weapon of choice with which I take aim at any number of strange stories, from murderous ice cream vendors to toilet gods, is Reddit. If you’re unfamiliar with the social news site, let me fill you in on how it works.
Reddit is split into roughly a gazillion communities, known as subreddits. When you join (which is free), you subscribe to the ones that interest you. For example, r/funny is where you’ll find everything from church sign typos to pugs dressed like the Blues Brothers. r/foodporn features exquisite shots of steaks and BBQ shrimp skewers and whatever else will make you regret eating Hellman’s mayonnaise with a spoon for supper. There are also subreddits for all types of fandom, from the Beatles to classic films to the TV show Community (not the happiest subreddit right now, trust me).
And naturally there are boobies. While I restrict my redditing to perusing my front page, which I have customized to my own wonky obsessions, and the r/Wikipedia subreddit, which is filled with a bevy of interesting and obscure topics like the ones I cited above, there are communities for all sorts of fetishes and quirks. And like any landscape in which freedom of speech is the guiding tenet, sometimes things go too far.
I’m offering this photo of an elephant driving a car because searching for images to represent r/jailbait will get me fired from my day job.
Reddit is comprised of a notoriously small staff. Volunteer moderators police a number of the forums, ensuring that posts in r/Modern_Family don’t feature online Ponzi schemes or links to bestiality. Also, the general public can upvote the best or most interesting posts, while downvoting the stuff they don’t like, resulting in a democratic front page of generally high-quality posts. The site’s administrators originally had no intention of hosting pornographic material. They didn’t want the hassle.
Then along came a moderator with the handle ‘violentacrez’. He offered to observe the obscene communities and yank down anything illegal. He created and patrolled a number of subreddits, and helped to ensure people could masturbate to Reddit without fear of stumbling across something they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, the ‘shouldn’t’ proved to be quite popular, with r/jailbait – featuring non-nude but provocative shots of teenage girls – winning the 2008 user poll as “subreddit of the year”.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper did a report on the subreddit, criticizing the site for hosting it. It’s one thing to allow users to stir in screenshots from Chicks Who Do Dudes XVII with gifs of dancing squirrels, but this community existed solely for the purpose of exploiting minors. Naturally, the people were outraged – so much so that they flocked to r/jailbait in droves, splattering the page with 1.73 million views on the day of Cooper’s broadcast.
Not long after the media explosion, r/jailbait was shut down. Free speech remained Reddit’s priority, but a line had to be drawn. Inevitably, some grotesque element of the public always forces a line to be drawn in the sands of anarchy. There’s always some twisted schmuck with one hand down his pants and the other frantically searching his immediate environment for something to fulfill his vulgar and societally inappropriate needs. And after r/jailbait disappeared, the next community to receive the media’s scandalous slobber was something called r/creepshots.
A creepshot is a subversive photo taken of an attractive woman, sometimes in the midst of a yoga stretch or maybe as she’s ascending an escalator in a short skirt. Once again violentacrez was part of this community’s moderator team. But the press was ready to strike back. Adrien Chen, a reporter from Gawker, threatened to expose the actual identity of violentacrez to the world. This was about to get real.
Michael Brutsch, the actual human behind the handle, begged Chen not to release his identity. He immediately deleted his Reddit account and offered to delete any and all of his contributions. But Chen had a story to drop and drop it he did. Michael was outed to the public, resulting in the loss of his employment and health benefits – not a good thing for a guy with a disabled wife to support. And while the ethics of the creepshot itself had already peppered the news, now there was a new kind of morality to debate.
How appropriate was it for Chen to drop Michael’s real identity in his Gawker exposé? Yes, Michael moderated a number of communities that, while they didn’t contain illegal content, were so close to the borderline of illegal the smell of entrapment must have been nostril-shattering. But he was not the only one. And isn’t the real question here whether or not Reddit should have been allowing these communities to exist in the first place?
The facts make for a messy truth salad. On the one hand, Michael was pivotal to the existence of communities that promoted grotesque invasions of privacy and pedophilic perversions. But on the other, he patrolled those communities to ensure there was nothing illegal being dropped into the trough of public consumption. Michael was bullied out of the online forum due to the negative publicity, and he received a number of death threats. The entire mess is just covered in an unpleasant stench.
Other subreddits have also forced the site’s owners into reconsidering its open-range, anything-legal-goes policy. Not surprisingly, r/niggers was banned for being filled with racist assholes. r/MensRights hasn’t been banned, though after flooding the Occidental College Online Rape Report form with a heap of false reports, the community is being watched closely.
When the subreddit r/findbostonbombers was set up last year in the wake of the Boston Marathon attack, two innocent students were falsely fingered by the community. One of them was discovered face-down in Rhode Island’s Providence River shortly thereafter. Still, Reddit remains firm – online witch hunts and the indulgence of despicable (yet still legal) proclivities are within the realm of Reddit’s open philosophy. Maybe those are sacrifices we must lay at the altar of online freedom, given that the alternative – no matter how nicely you dress it up – is censorship.
Do we want an internet that acts as an anarchic playground for everyone’s inner weirdness? Or do we want one that lands under government control, subject to the same moronic lobby groups who protested Murphy Brown’s baby out of wedlock or the scandalous notion of a gay wedding on a prime-time sitcom? Myself, I’ll just let the nutjobs do as they will and use the thing for information and story ideas.
And maybe some foodporn. That stuff is sooooo hot.