I am such a freaking sucker for those breathless, eyelash-fluttering “People on the Internet Doing Good” stories. It seems like every week or so, one of my co-workers comes into my cube to find me sobbing under the desk over a headline like “U.S. Woman Helps Cancer Patient Realize Travel Dream” or “Reddit Donates $80,000 to Orphanage After Man Trying to Save Kids Attacked With Machete.”
And God, don’t get me started on the Karen Klein thing. I love an underdog, particularly when middle schoolers are the opponents, and the story of 30,000 contributors (many of them Redditors) coming together to raise over $600,000 never fails to leave me a snotty, slobbering mess.
I admit it: I love the idea that My Generation can be arsed to care enough about something to throw $5 or $10 its way. At a time when every pageview-mongering cable news network worth its salt accuses 20-somethings of becoming Screen-Addicted Pornbots, it’s refreshing to see all that aimless, compulsive-click energy directed toward real people who are really suffering.
But it’s also helpful to remember that Reddit is, at its heart, composed largely of youngish dudes who like to roll around in the Internet. And remember what youngish dudes who like to roll around in the Internet mostly are? Dicks.
OK, I’m being slightly hyperbolic here. I’ve been on and off Reddit for years, and the site is chock full of gripping threads, including a contraceptive health debate, a crowd-sourced interview with "Animorphs" author K. A. Applegate and approximately one frillion photos of dogs doing moderately amusing things. Plus, it’s really fucking compelling.
Trip onto Reddit for ten minutes -- say, in pursuit of material for an xoJane article -- and you’ll find yourself crying hysterically two hours later over a Wikipedia article about Scholastic characters. Reddit’s creators initially began the site as a democratic link-sharing community , and it works pretty well. Most of the time.
Tucked not-so-discreetly among all of the heart-warming human interest stories, though, are the turnstiles of horror that keep me from jumping on the Reddit-love funtimes-train. There are actual subreddits like “r/beatenwomen” and “r/picsofdeadkids,” neither of which I particularly recommend perusing unless you want to give yourself the barf-nightmares. There are also possibly illegal, definitely skeevy niches, like “r/upskirt” and “r/creepshot,” most of which are garnished with such glowing commentary as “titty drive-by shot” or “I find this very easy to fap to.”
It’s worth noting that Reddit didn’t explicitly ban suggestive or sexually explicit content featuring minors until February 2012, and lots of the photos still up on the site certainly didn't involve questioning the unwitting subject about her legal age.
But it’s not just the non-consensual photography that leaves a gross taste in my mouth. Reddit’s entire site seems to be tainted with a faint, grimy layer of jerk patina, so that every post seems to invite scatological insults or personally humiliating commentary. Take this post, for example: a woman claiming to be 19 posted photos of herself inside her “dream home.” Though the user, whose account is now deleted, posted the thread in the squishy feel-good “Two XChromosome” subreddit, hundreds of commenters jumped on the opportunity to dissect her story past all point of natural skepticism.
Though many of the commenters took issue with the user’s age, quite a few also mocked her use of the phrase “Woman power!”, replying, “To be honest, as a guy I find this woman power thing very offensive,” and “When you can stand there and defend your rights while defending a male's rights, you have woman power.”
Or take this thread, where commenters casually referred to a photo of a woman without makeup as “It looks like the goat creature from Pan’s Labyrinth.”
Again, it’s that 17-year-old boy effect rearing its ugly head. Reddit prides itself on its refusal to censor the vast majority of its users, which means that they’re all free to arm themselves with the vaguely misogynistic jerkassery that some boys love to lug around in lieu of actual rhetoric.
Considering that Reddit users come together so often to help people in need, though, it’s shocking to me how readily they turn on users who are clearly posting in search of approval or advice. Even if that 19-year-old house purchaser was a scam, why bother creating a fake account about something so banal unless you craved praise? It’s the sort of idiotic humble-brag that, in real-life interaction, most people would probably let slide: “Oh, you met Bon Jovi? Wo-o-o-o-w.”
But Reddit’s structure and relative lack of moderation makes it startlingly easy to take potshots at people from behind the security blanket of anonymity. And, naturally, that’s exactly what Redditors love to do.
Somewhere, I'm sure that the original posters of those threads are wincing at their monitors. As much as we'd all like to declare immunity from the Internet, words can sting no matter how wreathed they may be in false IP addresses.
So what, though? Boys are boys are boys. I’ve learned from dealing with my baby brother that it’s often easier to just turn 17-year-olds loose into the frothy wilds of social lunacy for a few years rather than try to remind them that most humans are capable of being hurt by their actions. Teenage and 20-something groupthink is a powerful, smelly thing, one that often ends in punching and 3 AM text messages, and it’s often best to let it run its course.
Except Reddit isn’t the digital equivalent of six 23-year-old dudes furiously masturbating in a locked closet to the Greatest Hits of Sublime. Or, it is, if you gave those dudes influential social power and a pet reporter to ferry their actions out to the cable news cycle.
Forbes Magazine recently called Reddit’s 35 million users “a political force.” This, from a site whose users are lauded by their peers for saying things like, “Obamacare is the most sexist and discriminatory federal legislation since the civil war. It discriminates against men in the same sneaky way that Jim Crow laws discriminated against black Americans.”
I don't know about you guys, but the prospect of dudes like that acting as a "political force" is a scary (but realistic) possibility. When knee-jerk misogyny becomes the norm, anyone who resists becomes swallowed up in the tide. Reddit has 35 million users. That's a hell of a lot of young people in training to accept anti-woman snark as a consequence of participating in political discussion.
Reddit's social justice capabilities are immense and impressive. It lives at the uniquely youthful intersection of passion and levity, and that can go a long way. But unless it makes a concerted effort to clean up its teenage-boy act, I'm never going to be able to see it as anything beyond a largely mean-spirited circle-jerk.
Kate tweets (hardly ever about Reddit, but sometimes about circle-jerks) at @katchatters.