Trash Talk

Following the departure of Ellen Pao as interim CEO of Reddit, a ruckus ensued over whether this was the result of sexist trolls or incompetent management.  The New York Times article about her resignation itself became problematic as it morphed from fact to commentary.

Ellen Pao became a hero to many when she took on the entrenched male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley. But sentiment is a fickle thing. Late Friday she fell victim to a crowd demanding her ouster as chief executive of the popular social media site Reddit.

Ms. Pao’s abrupt downfall in the face of a torrent of sexist and racist comments, many of them on Reddit itself, is quite likely to renew charges that bullying, harassment and cruel behavior are out of control on the web — and that Silicon Valley’s well-publicized problem with gender and ethnic diversity in its work force persists.

In explaining how the article, without notation, reinvented itself, the Public Editor explained:

“I don’t think it veered into opinion,” Mr. Isaac said. “It was analysis, backed up by reporting, and written under tight deadline.” He’s probably right. The issue is whether, in this case, the analysis swallowed the news.

If the same words are called “analysis” rather than “commentary,” that makes them less opinion?  Believing ones own beliefs doesn’t change them from patent commentary to truth.  Colbert’s truthiness doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough these days.

The new/old guy (yes, of course it’s a guy) who took over Reddit, Steven Huffman, immediately let the community know that some of Pao’s “reforms” were going to happen with her or without her.  An AMA was posted about the new “rules.”

The initial statement of the rules are best summed up by a comment at the AMA:

So speech that you like is fine, speech that you don’t like isn’t. Got it.

But subsequent examples suggest that it’s really just cleaning up the extremes, which appears to have calmed a lot of frayed redditor nerves. I’m relatively agnostic about reddit itself. I was invited to do one AMA, read there occasionally, but otherwise don’t comment. Most of the content is deeply flawed, sometimes dangerously ignorant, and often consists of angry rants.  This strikes me as a generally good thing, as everybody needs a catharsis.

But there remains an amorphous sense that the internet is out of control and rules are needed, even though the expression of rules is almost impossible to state without resort to vagaries that come down to what the powers that be like or don’t like. Most of us agree there is bad stuff in there, but what is bad defies doctrinal definition. It’s mostly Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity from his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I know it when I see it,” and it’s applied by every individual with a keyboard.

Social media businesses have asserted their right to control what appears on their pages.  It may stifle speech, but since there is no right to free speech in someone else’s house, it’s their right to shut out any damn thing they please.  As Mike Masnick explains:

 Obligatory xkcd:

Free Speech
Protip: Never pass up an opportunity to enjoy an XKCD comic.  Is it all subjective? Of course it is. But when it’s a private platform, they get to decide. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with their choice, but there isn’t anything you can do about except walk away.

That said, reddit, along with Google and Twitter, aren’t limiting expression for kicks, but because they believe they are doing what their respective users and community want them to do. For example, each has decided to remove revenge porn.  Not the iffy stuff that advocates want to send people to prison for, but the real, hard-core, revenge porn.

Since I agree that this is horrible content and should be eradicated, I have no issue with it. These companies may be no more capable of defining it then advocates or law-makers, but they can fall back on “know it when they see it” and trash it. They can do this without any First Amendment implications, and as long as they don’t start sliding down the slippery slope, I applaud their decision.

But can the slippery slope be avoided?  In looking at people’s thoughts on the Pao ruckus, I stumbled across an e-book on Amazon called The Internet of Garbage by a young lawyer, Sarah Jeong, a 2014 Harvard Law grad, who writes online rather than practices, and has gained a decent following.  While I find her legal analysis spotty, her principles conflicted and her writing often incomprehensible, she is gifted at snark.

So, Jeong has decided that she has the cred needed to divine what is, and what is not, garbage on the internet for everyone. Curiously, she may be right.  Old guys like me don’t have our fingers on the pulse of what digital natives consider over the top. Here, I rail against the war on all the undefinables, hate speech, microaggressions, the anti-isms, but what do I know?

Is there garbage on the internets?  Of course there is, though different folks consider it to be very different things. Does something have to be done about it?  Reddit seems to think so, but it seeks only to decide for itself.  Should I be given a vote? Hell, I wouldn’t even let me decide, as I am all too aware that I do not speak for most of you, and I don’t want to speak for anybody but me.

Does that mean Sarah Jeong’s in charge?  In a way, it does. Not Jeong, per se, but the millions of Jeongs, with their exaggerated valuation of their own opinions, confused principles and incomprehensible expressions.  As the future owners of the world, you get to decide what type of internet it should be, what is garbage and what is valuable.

I hope you decide to err on the side of free speech, by a wide margin, but if you prefer to sit on the couch in the basement and watch Harrison Bergeron over and over, that’s your call.  No one’s feelings will ever be hurt by the internets, but no one’s consciousness will ever be expanded by the breadth of thought, views and ideas in the world either. I hope you choose wisely.


14 thoughts on “Trash Talk

  1. LTMG

    From what I’ve read in the MSM and on blogs about Pao, nobody asks the very basic questions of whether she was a good leader or a good manager. From what I’ve been able to tell, Pao has mostly been an individual contributor in her career. According to the biographical information I could find, Pao hasn’t spent a great deal of time leading and directing subordinates. Has anybody opined that maybe, just maybe, she was out of her depth as CEO for Reddit lacking the experience to be effective?

  2. dm

    “In law school, after all, we learned that due process is what we get in lieu of justice. And what’s due process besides a series of rules that are meant to keep things as predictable as fucking possible and “You can’t tell anyone. The system is designed to preclude the existence of your rape. Let the Title IX office wave its hands blandly. Let the police lose your rape kit. Let the prosecutor drop your case.” – Sarah Jeong
    While due process is not the be all and end all of “justice,” isn’t it at least the most reasonable starting point? I worry about millions of Jeongs being out there seemingly ready to throw due process under the bus in favor of their “feelz.” It’s even scarier when done by a Harvard-educated JD.

    1. SHG Post author

      As I said, everything I’ve read from her appears deeply conflicted and unprincipled. Meet the future of law.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Squeezing law school in-between your engineering degree and an MBA may count count as conflicted but it certainly doesn’t foretell of some undisciplined future of law.

        Just because one can sufficiently master the subject mater and graduate isn’t necessarily an indicator of practical application.

        After she realized running Reddit was going to involve dealing with “crazy” people that offer up most of the “fun” content free of charge. I bet it must have been pretty tough on her. I wish I could have been in the meetings when it dawned on her that, for some reason or another, easily offended people are too fucking lazy to do anything but consume.

        I felt sorry for her. So, I offered her a job on the design team for my new action figure Troll line. There is some work there as well but the market study groups are nonstop fun.

        I haven’t heard back from her yet. But, I would like to think that if she accepts, she will at long last be able to bring together all of her talents as I am going to incorporate LED eyebrows into one or two of the new Trolls we will be rolling out this year and I want to sue the piss out of a few school boards that have sent me nasty letters.

        If she had any cash I was going to try and and get her to partner up with me on my new pudding-pop idea but I think I will have to take that to Kraft Foods, Kahlua, and Grey Goose.

        Who knows, Ellen might be approached to be a spokesperson though as my White Russian pudding pops are going to be huge, if I can get the packaging design right, with the female college Demographic.

  3. Jordan Rushie

    What I find interesting is that Sarah Jeong dyes her hair silly colors and calls that “free expression.” It’s supposed to cut both ways. You have the right to look silly in public, and I have the right to say you look silly.

    But under her definition, my mean and hurtful opinion is “harassment” and my expression should be banned from the internet. Her hair is protected as free expression, while my criticism of it is not.

    Freedom of speech is morphing into the right for everyone to be completely free of criticism, a hurt feeling, or have to endure the stress of hearing ideas contrary to theirs.

    1. SHG Post author

      There are other times when Jeong seems to defend speech quite well. But she, like so many, seems to think that her sensibilities are right and should prevail. Yours, not so much.

      1. Jordan Rushie

        In all fairness, she went to Harvard Law, which makes her opinions about legal stuff much more enlightened than someone who went to NYLS, Temple, or that Stetson place. Despite never trying a case, taking a deposition, counseling a client, or filing a motion in real court, Jeong is an expert on all things legal.

        1. SHG Post author

          But she has a book, and she writes on the internet, has a lot of twitter followers, so maybe she is a legal expert if “you are if google says you are.” If it’s the number of jury trials to verdict, she probably wouldn’t fare as well.

        2. Will

          I don’t think you have the slightest idea how law works.

          Experience far outweighs any education. Even ignoring that, no one can be an expert in all areas of their field. Just keeping up with the tax code is a full-time job, let alone family / real estate / international / criminal / constitutional law.

  4. The Real Peterman

    “reddit, along with Google and Twitter, aren’t limiting expression for kicks, but because they believe they are doing what their respective users and community want them to do”

    Or they’re doing it because they believe it will make them the most money (who wants to buy advertising on a page making fun of fat people?) the wants of their users be damned.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is a strong tendency for a direct correlation between stuff their users want and making money. And this is America, dammit. Making money is not only what we do, but it’s allowed.

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