Reddit, Police Thyself

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Tools cannot judge of their own use. The hammer does not rebel at striking pavement, the brush recoil at distasteful composition. This is true of the internet and its tools as well. What is bittorrent? A way to easily transfer large files between peers. Used by many people in legitimate ways, by pirates for illicit purposes. Bittorrent can’t choose to allow one and deny the other. If it could, it would no longer be a tool.

What is Reddit? A way for millions of people to collaboratively promote links and discuss them more or less anonymously. Used by many people in legitimate ways, and by pedophiles for illicit purposes. Reddit has decided to be more proactive in their policing of the site. If Reddit ever was truly a tool, it isn’t any longer.

Not that this is a bad thing, exactly. It’s just not going to work. To paraphrase Churchill, this was the worst thing Reddit could do, except for every thing they could have done.

Some people are worried that it’s a slippery slope thing. First, they came for the pedophiles, that kind of thing. Or a free speech thing. Where can I safely discuss the superiority of the Aryan race with a community of like-minded bigots?

Really, though, the practical changes are minimal. Reddit is banning and more carefully enforcing existing bans on child pornography. That’s more or less the entire thing. Reddit is unlikely to break its appeal by “ban creep,” looking for more and more reasons to mow down their community. They’re not like that. They’ll play whack-a-mole with kiddie porn subreddits until either the bad guys stop coming to Reddit or they find some way to exist without being shut down. In either case we’ll stop hearing about it, and in either case it’s just a drop removed from the bucket.

Their other options aren’t any better. Just do the minimum legal required? The world will look at Reddit as a cesspool instead of the vibrant community of communities that it truly is. And they can’t mess with the basic idea of the site by restricting the creation of subreddits or other changes to the mechanics.

The danger to Reddit is a little more subtle than these immediate, practical concerns. The danger is that they will no longer be viewed as a tool, a machine through which people can trade things. Now there is a ghost in the machine, and the ghost is watching. What if the creators of Bittorrent altered the protocol irreversibly so that it would detect child porn being transferred? You’d say good, I’m not a pedophile and this isn’t a problem for me, so no worries. But you’d also view Bittorrent differently, not the organization, but the tool. It would, like Reddit, have changed its aspect in a fundamental way.

In the meantime, the world is not changing. It’s a terrible world and a terrible internet, and no matter what you do, create, or promote, someone will find a way to use it for something awful and hateful. People are like that. And the better the tools, the better with which to commit misdeeds. The greater the edifice, the greater the shadow it casts – and the internet is the greatest edifice of our time.

But the world was built, and will continue to be built, by tools that don’t question their use. It doesn’t mean that something like Reddit (or Twitter, or Facebook, or Flickr) can’t be useful, powerful, and popular. But it’s important to recognize the difference between tools and things that are useful. It’s useful to have a permit, rubber-stamped and recognized by the powers that be, when you’re building a house, but you don’t build a house with a permit. For that, you need a hammer.