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To save its soul, Reddit needs to do more than ban celebrity nudes

Reddit took action against CelebGate, but what about the rest of its site?


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 9, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 3:17 pm CDT

Life on Reddit, unlike on Facebook or Twitter, is what you make it. By creating your own front page out of any of the thousands upon thousands of subreddits, any user can alternately make Reddit into a collection of poorly-made memes, a news feed, a sports forum, or an ethereal collection of any pornography befitting the imaginations and laws of man.

It’s with that last mission in mind many Redditors cried foul when the website banned any and all subreddits related to the leaked stolen nudes of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence, Kirsten Dunst, and Ariana Grande. While site admins claimed the move was clearly one made in the interest of legality and decency, Reddit remains filled with all nature of horridly obscene sections devoted to such shock porn as /r/cutefemalecorpses and /r/SexyAbortions.

As Reddit attempts to grow out of its nerd-culture adolescence into a calmer, more mainstream adulthood, it’s administrators are finding themselves frequently between their values and public pressure. Unfairly or not, Celebgate (or “The Fappening” as Redditors have taken to calling it) was largely laid at Reddit’s feet. Their swift response of censorship has many Redditors worried their chaotically liberated community could become subject to the censorship many are avoiding when they visit the mostlyanonymous site.

Unlike 4chan, the actual source of the stolen images, Reddit has a distinct mission to achieve mainstream success. Moot, aka Christopher Poole, has taken few steps to create a friendlier environment on 4chan and refuses to even bother naming moderators (likely to avoid a nuts-taking-over-the-nuthouse scenario). Reddit, now the far more popular of the two, has long had a complex and often controversial network of mods and admins policing their own respective subreddits, largely trusting communities to police themselves.

And thus far, it’s worked in their favor. Reddit’s traffic continues to explode and investors recently threw $50 million at the site, making its total valuation $500 million.

In the last year, however, Reddit has often enough found its own hand forced by both internal and external pressures to cleanse itself of its less savory corners. The pressure picked up after last year’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. In the response to the citywide manhunt, some Redditors scanned images of the event in search of the suspects, wrongly incriminating innocent people (one of whom was later found dead under mysterious circumstances). The site swiftly banned the related subreddit.

After that, the complete banning of subreddits became fairly commonplace. The subreddit /r/jailbait had been banned before the bombings, and it would afterward be followed by /r/creepshots, /r/n***ers, /r/beatingwomen. and now /r/TheFappening. But the attempt to cleanse itself—usually with vote rigging as its stated cause—casually drove Reddit into a game of whack-a-mole.

While they’ve been largely successful at removing child pornography (admins cited the inclusion of underage photos of Olympian McKayla Maroney amongst the Celebgate leaks as the final straw), hate groups have found new ground to flourish. The r/n***ers subreddit, for example, has successfully been replaced by /r/whiterights and /r/greatapes, two subreddits that skirt the line between political viewpoints and advocating for anything from resegregation to genocide.

Then, of course, are the subreddits not easily categorized but nonetheless filthy and dramatically obscene, such as the aforementioned subreddits devoted to photos of female cadavers and aborted fetuses. While Reddit often points out it does not host the content—with most pictures existing on Imgur—that buffer may not be enough to protect it from public pressure, as was the case with the Celebgate photos.

Indeed, whether Reddit is to blame at all would be a functional debate until they claim responsibility to act. By banning /r/TheFappening, Reddit is subtly admitting its own complicity in the spread of the stolen private images. It is really their own action in some cases and inaction in others that makes Reddit’s defense of its ban seem more than a bit specious.

In a blog post entitled “Every Man Is Responsible For His Own Soul,” Reddit administrators attempted to explain their philosophy surrounding obscene content. “We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize,” reads the post. “Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event… Virtuous behavior is only virtuous if it is not arrived at by compulsion. This is a central idea of the community we are trying to create.”

Shortly after saying it would do nothing, Reddit banned /r/TheFappening. In a separate post from a system administrator, the site explained members of the subreddit, shortly before banning it, began straining the very infrastructure of the site itself. “We hit new traffic milestones, ones which I’d be ashamed to share publicly,” wrote user alienth. In the interest of being able to operate Reddit at large, they banned the subreddit for a mixture of moral and technical reasons.

As is their right: When Reddit banned /r/n***ers, I encouraged them to go further and have advocated for them to remove /r/TheRedPill, a Men’s Rights forum too often filled with vitriol and scorn for women. Reddit is a privately-owned entity and is functionally customizable to unheard of levels for a website, meaning no one has to see what they don’t want to see.

But if they hope to continue growing both the diversity of their community and their mainstream success (it’s likely no mistake this move coincided with the release of the official AMA app), they need to take control of their own site.

However, not too much control. Reddit is unlike any other place online because of the insane experience its freewheeling nature can provide. It can be heartwarming and funny as quickly as it can be tragic and emotional. When traffic statistics showed most movement on Reddit was within Reddit (rather than to an outside link), I wasn’t surprised. Whatever content the site may dig up pales in comparison to what its collection of communities actively creates.

So when the time comes to keep that community safe from content that, in the long run, is dangerous to the community’s continued growth, administrators need to provide succinct reasoning. If they banned /r/TheFappening or /r/beatingwomen because they were disgusted, that’s completely fine. Any sane, moral person would be.

But justifying that moral outrage becomes difficult in the face of their hypocritical allowance of other, arguably more obscene content. Quantifying what is reasonable to allow and what isn’t is a messy business outside simply obeying the law.

But once Reddit made the decision to ban /r/TheFappening, they became a moral actor. They’ve simultaneously set themselves and their users a standard of appropriateness and claimed they have no standards. When the next controversy surrounds Reddit, one can be sure they will only be so laissez faire when the world is not watching.

Photo via Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 9, 2014, 10:00 am CDT