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:
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.