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Parlor Talk: Reddit and the Ugly Side of Social Media

Posted by Kyle Baranko on July 15, 2015 at 12:00 PM

The technological revolution changed the world. Just as the industrial revolution created a manufacturing-based society, the tech transformation created a digital world that now has a dominant grip on every aspect of human life. Traditional hierarchies, based on information access and knowledge resources, have been eradicated. In many ways, the playing field has been leveled to give an equal voice to everyone who has access to a computer. The Internet, the most influential product of the revolution, is also the most powerful communication tool ever created. It connects people around the world with the click of a button and has led to a whole new realm of innovation and efficiency. But as with any technological breakthrough, advantages come with caveats.

The recent controversy surrounding the CEO of Reddit perfectly illustrates the modern dilemma of social media. Just as we have the ability to use the Internet for professional life and education, we have the ability to use the Internet for entertainment. The industries have rapidly shifted to accommodate changing consumer demand, including a variety of new startups aiming to capitalize on the digital revolution. Netflix was one of the first streaming services to take advantage of the web and ate into a large portion of the television industry. Amazon’s flexibility and initiative made it the standard of online shopping and speedy delivery. But to satisfy human desire to connect and communicate with one another, a whole new market was created: social media. Some of these websites are just fads, such as MySpace, but some of these sites, like Facebook, have become a fundamental parts of life in the developed world to the extent that it seems odd to operate without them. Each social media site serves a different purpose and therefore has different levels of professionalism. LinkedIn was founded to provide a digital sphere where professionals could interact and connect in order to maximize employment efficiency. Residing on the opposite end of the spectrum, Reddit was founded as a way for people to anonymously enjoy raunchy humor and voice controversial opinions. Registered users can post any sort of content, like links to memes, news stories, images, etc. The site acts as a sort of digital bulletin board, similar to the app Yik Yak for smartphones. I personally do not use Reddit, but I am a regular user of its sister site, Imgur. Imgur is essentially the same format but directly shares images rather than text or links. Both sites often refer to each other and usually have the same content. As a result, they share a culture unique only to these two social media platforms- a culture only possible because of the Internet and an emphasis freedom of speech around the world.

The contributors to these sites do not reside just in the United States. Imgur and Reddit are global, with content being uploaded around the clock. Users even take pride in the international atmosphere, often making jokes at the expense of other countries and informing one another about current events in local regions. Much of the content is silly humor that appeals to a universal audience, but there is also a lot of content that could be defined as political commentary and activism. On Imgur, most of the political posts lean left and support liberal viewpoints, but intense debate still occurs in the comments section. Most users are typically tolerant of different points of view, but the site still follows a pattern found in the other social media sites: mob mentality prevails. The content that reaches the front of the page is ranked according to popularity, with the most “upvoted” posts at the beginning. That means that unpopular opinions (or at least those deemed unpopular in this audience) do not reach as many voters, and therefore have less of an impact. But that also means that extremely offensive content can get to the front page if it gets enough votes.

Because the whole idea of these sites is predicated on the freedom of expression, it is obviously controversial when the operators decide to censor posts. Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao eventually succumbed to the same vile, derisive side of the website that she was trying to control. Over the years, she had tried to employ methods of censorship and control that would eliminate some of the hateful content that inevitably made its way to the front page, but instead repeatedly drew the ire of the website’s users, who are mainly young men and attacked her with disparaging comments. Her detractors argued that she attempted to destroy the pillar of what made Reddit so attractive: free speech. The criticism reached a boiling point with the firing of well-liked employee Victoria Taylor, and users created an online petition calling for Pao’s resignation. These websites bring great joy to many people, but on the Internet, even the slightest attempts to smooth rough edges can alienate a population. Pao decided to choose the moral high ground over business and paid the price. These websites will always have pernicious qualities, and CEOs need to decide from the beginning whether their company’s philosophy will completely tolerate the controversial opinions of all users or be regulated to weed out offensive content.

Categories: Culture: Anthropology

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