The social news website Reddit announced a swift policy change on Sunday night, implementing a new rule: “No suggestive or sexual content featuring minors.”
While the rule itself would seem to be one that even the most libertine Internet user could support, it came with a fundamental change in Reddit’s burgeoning number of user-created subsections, called “Subreddits.”
Reddit is a content sharing website where users can post links to websites and/or plain text, and carry on discussions with other users below the original posts. Users are encouraged to vote on a post based on its quality, using up or down arrows. The website surfaces the most popular posts at the top of its front page. But the website also contains many distinct “Subreddits,” other pages where users can post content centered around various different topics.
As Reddit’s administrators wrote in a post on the website: “As of today, we have banned all subreddits that focus on sexualization of children.”
Each subreddit is generally organized around a specific topic, and users can subscribe to see all the updates from a particular subreddit.
Aside from that, each subreddit acts very similarly to the parent website, allowing users to anonymously post text and links to content from around the Web. The user who creates a particular subreddit is automatically made the top moderator of that subreddit, and can remove content and ban users. Reddit’s administrators communicate with moderators via private messages on the websites.
As a result of the new policy, at least 29 subreddits, with titles ranging from “r/Teen_girls” to “r/preteen_boys,” were immediately removed from the website, according to a Reddit user who tracked the changes.
There are over 100,000 subreddits on the website currently, Reddit’s General Manager Erik Martin told TPM in a telephone interview, and the majority are not dedicated to the content that’s now been banned.
“Most of them are completely appropriate for all ages,” Martin said, “There are subreddits about everything from grilled cheese to NFL teams.”
Indeed, among the most popular subreddits (by number of subscribers) are “r/pics” — which is a subreddit dedicated to pictures that expressly forbids “not safe for work” (NSFW) content, and “r/aww,” which is described as “Things that make you go AWW. Like puppies. And bunnies… and so on…” Sad posts, like those about “pet loss” aren’t allowed, let alone anything more salacious.
But the new change also sparked lengthy, ongoing debates on Reddit itself and other social news websites, with some arguing that Reddit didn’t move fast enough over complaints that some subreddits contained child pornography, or didn’t go far enough, or was focused on the wrong socially repellant content that’s being shared on the website.
Others argued that the changes marked a worrisome new era of editorial control by Reddit’s administrators, a “slippery slope” toward censorship of the freewheeling website.
“Freedom of speech is a good thing. Common sense, tact and dignity is even better. Bravo admins. Long overdue,” wrote one Reddit user.
“Common sense, tact, and dignity ARE NOT BETTER THAN FREEDOM OF SPEECH,” countered another user.
“Why is a subreddit that has legal pictures of 15-17 year olds in sexually suggestive situations banned, but /r/beatingwomen is still up?” asked another user.
Still, there’s no denying Reddit had been moving in this direction. The recent change in Reddit’s policy came after Reddit shut down a particularly inflammatory subreddit, “r/jailbait,” in September 2011.
The “r/jailbait” Reddit, which was dedicated to sharing sexually suggestive images of prepubescent and adolescent boys and girls, was one of the most popular subreddits at the time of its shutdown. But it attracted the ire of the mainstream media and the online social news space alike in late 2011, after Gawker first reported on the section, later detailing how a 14-year-old girl’s photos meant for her boyfriend ended up passed widely around several subreddits and other websites.
Yet in the wake of the “r/jailbait” takedown, that type of content didn’t leave Reddit entirely. In fact, it simply dispersed to a host of new, similarly-named and themed subreddits, created by users intent on exchanging links to such photos.
Outraged by the reappearance of such content and the apparent complicity of Reddit’s administrators, users of the comedy website SomethingAwful.com, who had since September been protesting Reddit over the content, on Sunday called for a new, unified strike, a: “Redditbomb.” In short, SomethingAwful asked all of its members to complain to local Parent Teacher Associations, politicians, churches, news outlets and the FBI about the underage sexually suggestive content on Reddit.
“Send the ‘Redditbomb’ to local politicians schools and churches,” read one line of SomethingAwful’s post, “Let them see that their children are using a website that exploits and sexualizes children, requesting that children submit their own nude photos.”
“The Redditbomb came together in a few hours, and was widely disseminated to various media sources and such,” explained one of the authors of the Redditbomb post on a different social news website, Metafilter. “The [Reddit] admins had their chance to fix it; they didn’t just fuck up, they actively refused, doing nothing beyond what was necessary to get the spotlight off of themselves. This was the next step; if they will not voluntarily take responsibility for the fact that Reddit is used to trade child pornography, then goddammit they will be forced to take responsibility.”
But as Reddit pointed out in its post announcing the new “no underage suggestive or sexual content,” rule, it has never allowed child pornography on the website. In fact, Reddit doesn’t allow any original content to be hosted on its website aside from text. The rest of the content that appears on the website is just thumbnail images of links to other websites, including image hosting servers. If child pornorgaphy had been posted “on Reddit,” the actual file would have been located on another website.
As Reddit’s administrators wrote:
In the past, we have always dealt with content that might be child pornography along strict legal lines. We follow legal guidelines and reporting procedures outlined by NCMEC. We have taken all reports of illegal content seriously, and when warranted we made reports directly to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who works directly with the FBI. When a situation is reported to us where a child might be abused or in danger, we make that report. Beyond these clear cut cases, there is a huge area of legally grey content, and our previous policy to deal with it on a case by case basis has become unsustainable.
Reddit’s Martin elaborated to TPM: “The legal definition of child pornography doesn’t even cover alot of things that we’ve now elected on our own to ban. To imply that we’ve ever allowed things that are illegal is inaccurate.”
However, as Martin also explained, Reddit’s administrators are walking a fine line, attempting to enforce minimum standards as the website grows and gains a new audience, while allowing the users to retain the ability to post anonymous and engage in free-for-all discussion, attributes that have characterized the website since it was launched in 2005.
“We don’t impose our own moral judgement on the platform,” Martin said of the website’s administrators, “We try to have as few rules as possible, because the more rules you have, the more you move away from being an actual platform. That’s not something we’re interested in doing. There’s a lot of stuff on Reddit that I find personally offensive, but we don’t make policy changes based on what I or anybody else finds offensive. There’s lots of things on other social media websites I find offensive, too.”
Speaking of which, there’s still plenty of nudity and sexual content to be found on Reddit following the ban, perhaps the most notable of which is Reddit’s “GoneWild” subreddit, which features a steady stream of what amounts to amateur pornography. However, that website and other related sexual content on the site is marked with a disclaimer “you must be at least eighteen to view this reddit.” Martin said that these websites would remain up, but pointed out that there were other sections that where family friendly as well.
“There are a few great parenting subreddits, where parents can post videos for and of their kids and other advice” Martin told TPM, “Our goal for Reddit is to make it a platform for all different kinds of communities. We hope parents want to come…One of the things we’re working on is helping people navigate to different subreddits more easily, based on their interests.”
Martin said that Reddit would continue to enforce its new policy against underage suggestive and sexual content by relying on a combination of administrator and moderator vigilance, as well as letting users flag inappropriate content using the “report” button that’s been available on Reddit since shortly after its inception.
However, Martin also shied away from making any broad changes to Reddit’s overall simple, anonymous-friendly architecture.
Anonymity is “absolutely a cardinal value,” Martin told TPM, “There are lot of things people don’t post on Twitter or Facebook that they post on Reddit, because they don’t want to have to deal with blowback from their employer, or have to explain it to some relative. It’s just a different experience. We don’t want to have it tied to your real world connections, unless that’s what you want. We’re never going to add Facebook connect to Reddit.”
In January, Reddit reported 2 billion pageviews, a new record for the website. The website was also the spawning grounds of the Web’s mass blackout in protest against the antipiracy bills known as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).