A dagger of the hive mind
Most Facebook invitations go deservedly ignored, but the announcement by Washington University Tech Entrepreneurial Venture Capital (wute.vc) that Alexis Ohanian will speak at this school merits consideration. Ohanian co-founded reddit.com, an increasingly influential website. Though wute.vc intends for Ohanian to discuss entrepreneurship in the virtual marketplace, Ohanian’s invitation prompts more interesting questions about the nature of online communities, specifically the rift between their values and praxis.
Primarily, Reddit is a content-aggregator, a site to which users submit links to other websites. The most popular or useful links receive commendation from users, and a complex algorithm determines the “hottest” links. While Reddit began as a source for news, and some still use it to keep informed, most links lead to sites with thought-provoking questions, papers about astrophysics, or (of course) funny pictures of cats sitting in small boxes. The site occasionally makes headlines with large-scale altruism. Last winter, the atheists of Reddit raised over $200,000 for Doctors without Borders. Celebrities occasionally give informal interviews on the site, particularly when promoting a new movie or book. The clout of Reddit became unmistakably clear when President Obama himself fielded Redditors’ questions late last August.
Reddit, however, has a big problem. As the most famous New Yorker cartoon of all time observed 20 years ago, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Online communities like Reddit develop “hive minds” that engender hegemony and excuse community bias. A brief visit to Reddit demonstrates that the typical user is a white male with some proud progressive social values. The most popular posts cater to this demographic. In Reddit’s largest community for political discussion, users are far more likely to cite “Mother Jones” or “Huffington Post” than the “National Review.” Consistent with this worldview, Reddit provides encouragement for gays freshly out of the closet, and successful comments support tolerance.
Despite broad espousal on Reddit for gay marriage or the legalization of marijuana, some posts betray alarmingly unconscious misogyny. Unlike Facebook where users are held socially responsible for obnoxious posts, the anonymous nature of Reddit permits disinhibition. Consequently, the top comment on a post of a picture of a woman holding her new kitten will invariably mention her breasts. The number of rape jokes in some threads can be alarming. All of this really got out of hand several days ago, when a Redditor submitted a photograph of a young Sikh woman who doesn’t shave her facial hair. The comments were initially nasty or mocking. “I’m still turned on,” wrote one Redditor. “All asses are nice in yoga pants…..jk,”said another.
How is this possible? How can a site whose users treat “The Colbert Report” as holy writ and condemn the Westboro Baptist Church look daggers at religious beliefs? How should a community regulate offensive content like this, if that’s even possible?
Certainly, it’s not the place of government to approve every comment on the Internet. Free speech must remain protected. One of the burdens of free democracy is protecting the rights of S.O.B.s. As odious as the comments were, none was hate-speech; nobody proposed violence or discrimination against Sikhs. While sites like Reddit employ moderators to remove hyper-objectionable content, excessive regulation defeats the purpose of democratic content management.
A hive mind is an unavoidable conclusion of any community. In the real world, it’s why people tend to try to live where others hold similar political opinions. As Reddit’s community promotes the same offensive comment, whether about Sikh customs or women’s breasts while all the while congratulating each other for being progressive and tolerant (especially in communities for politics or atheism), they risk appearing sanctimonious. If regulation curtailing the establishment of a hive mind is impossible, then it’s up for the users to acknowledge their prejudices and work to improve them. This requires a certain degree of collective self-awareness. Reddit should take heed of Oliver Cromwell, and always “think it possible [they] may be mistaken.” To some degree, Reddit does this. The Sikh woman in question, Balpreet Kaur, actually commented on the thread, and many Redditors apologized. However, for a hive mind to be responsible and healthy, corrections must be internal, rather than external. The community itself must be held responsible for eliminating offensive content.