The internet’s ugliness has been revealed in so many different ways these past few months, it almost makes you want to pull the plug on all of it (I can’t of course, because Apple already removed my Ethernet port before I could get the satisfaction). Blow up(s) at Reddit over whether we can post pictures of fat people. Terrorists using Twitter and other social media to call for more murders. That whole sordid affair around Gamergate.
It’s not like any of this should be surprising. For all the value the internet creates, it also has the dark power to bring out the inner animal inside all of us, unmoored by social conventions. Often you don’t even need to look into the far reaches of forums to see the full spectrum of quality, as the best and worst content are often sitting right next to each other (just take a look at our comments every once in a while).
Freedom of speech is crucially important to the success of user-generated content sites, but it is also one of the most challenging problems to deal with these days. For startups just trying to build out their products, it seems hard to fathom spending significant time debating community standards and limits. Isn’t the point of free speech is that it’s free?
No, and it never was.
Every single tech company – every single one – that has user-generated content makes political decisions every single day about freedom of speech. Is a profile picture or a video obscene? Should a joke on Twitter that was copied from another person be deleted? Can users create hate groups on the platform? Can an app report casualties from US drone strikes?
It’s political to remove them, and it’s political to keep them. It’s just as political to take one of these actions as it is to do nothing. It’s always, always political.
That politics is compounded by a much more globalized web than existed just a decade ago. Countries around the world have vastly different standards for what counts as decent and obscene, and often have very different laws when it comes to what information can be published. International expansion is key for almost every startup at some point in their growth cycle, which means that these issues inevitably come to the fore.
“We support freedom of speech” is no longer a workable policy. It literally has no meaning, because everything is political. Allowing one piece of content can often mean losing the content of another faction who adamantly disagrees. Startups have to make choices.
Chuq von Rospach, a developer community manager, described this quite clearly on his personal blog in his analysis of Reddit’s moderator situation: “The thing I’ve always told people interested in community management is this: if you’re running a sports bar, and you have a gang of bikers move in, you have two choices. You can either eject the bikers, or you’re running a biker bar.”
Startups, which have often been entirely ignorant of the issues around freedom of speech in the past, are now confronting a world where they need to have a well-defined position on the issue, in a world with few guideposts to make the decision easier. Startups appear to be trying to feel out the issue, allowing and blocking content in a case-by-case fashion, but that can only take them so far.
Here’s some simple advice: don’t sweat it and just make a choice. Draw the line, and enforce the limits. I think for many founders, there is palpable concern that they protect one of the most important provisions of the U.S. constitution, the First Amendment. This is not surprising, as freedom of speech online is heavily tied up with the cyber-libertarian origins of the internet.
The reality for founders is that they have products to run, not political movements to launch. Freedom of speech is useful only in so far is that it allows users to experience the startup’s platform and participate on it appropriately.
Most founders default to more freedom, and that’s a good thing, but that doesn’t mean limits are going to completely undermine U.S. democracy. There’s maybe just a wee bit of arrogance when a founder thinks that their startup is the only dividing line between broad, participatory political speech and the decline of Western Civilization. You can’t write a political treatise in an Amazon product review, and yet, somehow the country seems to be fine (minus the Donald, of course).
The internet is a big place. There are many, many places to post content. Brands compete. The marketplace of ideas is built around the notion of a huge number of publishers. Every startup doesn’t have to host its own marketplace. The debate about free speech at Reddit neglects the point that freedom of speech is not limited to just Reddit. Reddit exists among a broad spectrum of publishers.
Rather than handle free speech as issues come up, founders should be aggressive and proactive, and not be afraid to take a crisp editorial line. For user-generated websites, community is often everything in making these companies successful.
Startups are laser-focused on their user growth, as they should be. But a slight change in the growth curve to avoid a free speech time bomb is worth it. Don’t draw lines that piss off a majority of users, but also realize that the people complaining the most are likely a small minority. They will find their own outlet, every time.
When it comes to global ambitions, that editorial viewpoint may get challenged by the rules in different countries. Decide where to compete. Google made a courageous decision years ago to leave China following a number of incidents that made it obvious the company could just never effectively build its presence there and maintain its values. That was a costly decision, but so would undermining what makes the company successful in the United States.
There are more internets than ever. Different citizens and different communities live far apart from each other on the internet, to the point where they effectively live in incompatible bubbles. We often think of the best startups as universalizing, and to some degree that is true.
However, the present issues over freedom of speech are making that universalism much more challenging to create. For founders building startups in 2015, it’s well past time to think about what the limits of speech are, before there is a blowup and the Twitterati start going nuts. The internet can be an ugly place, but only if we never come through and clean it up. For some startups, it’s well past time for a power washing.