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Can we make an anti-racist Reddit?

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By DAVID A. BANKS, Cyborgology

I don’t recommend doing it, but if you search for “Charles Ramsey” on Reddit, something predictably disturbing happens. First, you’ll notice that the most results come from /r/funny, the subreddit devoted to memes, punsphotobombs, and a whole bunch of sexist shit.

Charles Ramsey, in case you don’t know, is the Good Samaritan that responded to calls for help by Amanda Berry- a woman that had been held captive for 10 years in a Cleveland basement, along with Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight. The jokes on Reddit are largely at the expense of Ramsey, poking fun at his reaction to a police siren or his reference to eating ribs and McDonalds. As Aisha Harris (@craftingmystyle) said on Slate: “It’s difficult to watch these videos and not sense that their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform.”

Image by JackInov/Reddit

Harris situates Ramsey as the latest instance of an obnoxiously persistent tradition of people of color being interviewed by local news reporters and subsequently lampooned and remixed on the Internet. Ramsey is a little different in that Antoine Dodson (of “hide your kids, hide your wife” fame) and Michelle Clarke (“Kabooyow!”) may not have reached national fame without the attention of meme makers and auto tuners. Ramsey did something that made front-page news across the country, which means there’s a lot more “source material” to go on. But his interviews on Anderson Cooper and George Stephanopoulos haven’t been nearly as picked apart and appropriated as that first interview. Perhaps its because in later interviews there’s less ducking from cop car sirens and more references to helping the poor.

The Anderson Cooper interview is interesting because in an otherwise continuously shot interview there are just three cuts. Two of the three happen just as Ramsey starts talking about the poor and lack of services in his neighborhood, but perhaps this is a different problem entirely. One certainly does get the sense however, that Redditors aren’t the only ones focusing on the wrong aspects of what Ramsey has to say.

What if we looked at the racist and classist jokes about Ramsey as a design problem? Racism and the ever-present and pervasive microaggressions that reproduce and sustain it are not going to disappear with the advent of a new tagging system, but there might be ways of tilting the scales a little bit so that people think critically about what they’re submitting. Technology has a certain capacity to frame social interaction, and that framing can have a specific political or social orientation. The hard part is getting the technology to reflect anything other than dominant narratives.

Submitted by Reddit user Vicdamone

Image via Vicdamone/Reddit

Most technologies appear to us as “neutral” because they conform to and reflect many of our dominant beliefs and organizational logics:  Very few people, for example, are working on how to administer domain names and IP addresses without or outside of the corporate-dominated Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  Designing a news aggregator or link sharing community that discourages racism (or rape culture, or any number of undesirable social phenomena) is hard to think about because we so rarely think or talk about racism as systematic phenomenon. This is reflected in the “report” option on Reddit (or YouTube, or almost any other social network), which assumes that individuals post specific offensive content, but there is no way to quickly amend or alter parts of the sociotechnical arrangement that might reward or just ignore the broader underlying factors that might encourage base behavior.

Providing feedback isn’t revolutionary but it might be undersold.  Reddit’s source code is open and available to look at on GitHub, but I can guarantee you that more people have downvoted or reported a link as inappropriate than chosen to contribute anti-racist code (whatever that might look like) to Reddit’s developers. A large part of this might be that coding isn’t as widely taught as it should be, but also because it is way more time consuming than reporting offensive content. There are two ways around this: 1) build tools that let non-coders alter site functionality and then provide decision-making tools that coordinate the implementation of the new functionality or 2) build alliances and networks of users (and potential users) and act in unison towards a desired goal.

Option 1 brings us close to what anthropologist Chris Kelty calls a recursive public. A recursive public is,

a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.

These actually existing alternatives not only do useful work, they also critique dominant power narratives. Again, I do not know what an anti-racist Reddit would look like, but I want those with the ideas to have a chance at implementing them.

Option 2 is already seen to some extent in the formation of /r/shitredditsays (SRS). SRS contributors quote and gather the terrible things fellow redditors say into a single subreddit. SRS gives users a means catalogue and comment on examples of unacceptable behavior on a site that, above all, values what white dudes think free speech means. While the subreddit expressly forbids users from forming “downvote brigades” and going to the original problematic posts to publicly shame users, it does happen and the existence of SRS is felt well beyond the confines of the domain name. It is also worth noting that while these racist images usually rank the highest on Reddit, there are also links to this thoughtful NPR article that asks the important question: “Are We Laughing With Charles Ramsey?” The most upvoted comments are decent, but are emphatic that everyone is laughing “with,” not “at.” I would respect someone more for at least acknowledging the possibility of “at” or even consider that it isn’t perceived that way for any number of good reasons.

Submitted by User Heyitsmeriz

Image via Heyitsmeriz/Reddit

Perhaps the design solutions necessary to sufficiently discourage racism on Reddit would make it unrecognizable. A web platform that relies so heavily on quantifiable upvotes, comments, and karma might very well encourage undesirable behavior. Things that are shocking or provocative garner a lot of attention, which almost always translates into karmic rewards. It might be worth comparing the quantification-heavy design of Reddit with the virtually number-less Tumblr interface. Tumblr always asks that you either put your identity on the object (leaving a note) or put the object on your Tumblr identity (reblogging). In either case, activity on Tumblr does not lend itself to the cumulative nature of microaggressions or the base desire for quantifiable attention. While I don’t have hard numbers to back this up, Reddit seems to get in the news for bigotry, hate, and violence a lot more than Tumblr. The relationship between quantification and problematic behavior might be a total coincidence, but I doubt it.

At the heart of the augmented reality thesis (and the digital dualist critique) is the acknowledgement that no technology is an oasis from the social, cultural, and political forces that surround it. The Internet is not an insignificant cultural artifact (like so much fungus on a log) nor is it an undefined Wild West. And, as the comparison between Reddit and Tumblr suggests, one network might encourage behavior that another discourages, making it extremely difficult to say whether “The Internet” as a whole encourages us to do anything. The racist jokes made at Ramsey’s expense are encouraged through the implicit promise of a receptive (read: racist) audience, and the history of preexisting memed interviews that went viral. Perhaps the best way to end this trend is the tried and true method of calling it out for what it is: racist.

David A. Banks  (@Da_Banksis an M.S/Ph.D student studying technologies that build and maintain public space. He is a regular contributor to Cyborgology. where this article first appeared. More at Davidabanks.org

Illustration by Fernando Alfonso III; background by Valerie Everett