I'm no big fan of Gawker, the lead property in Nick Denton's stable of weird-yet-successful online web-zines.
But this weekend Gawker is running with a pretty big story, a public outing of a man they claim is the "in real life" identity behind the massive year-long controversy over disturbing and barely-legal content on several of the forums at reddit, perhaps the most popular site on the Internet. The story is here: Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web.
To its credit, the Gawker story does more than just name names; it tries to help explain the deeper story of what is going on here:
This is how Violentacrez, Reddit's creepiest user, also became its most powerful. Sure, he was responsible for the absolute worst stuff on Reddit, and by extension, some of the worst stuff on the internet. But Violentacrez was also seen to be, as Chris Slowe put it to me, "a trustworthy and a positive member of the community." He moderated more than 400 subreddits and had many high-profile friends, amassed over many years. His stable at times included hundreds of popular mainstream subreddits, like Funny and WTF, that reach audiences of millions. Violentacrez further solidified his reach by becoming a mentor to other moderators. He created the first FAQ for Reddit's rather unintuitive moderator interface. He also helmed a number of subreddits dedicated to providing guidance and camaraderie for other moderators, including the essential modhelp.
Similarly to 4chan, a site I wrote about last year, reddit at times seems to find the exploration of the boundaries of free speech to be its entire raison d'etre:
many of Violentacrez's most offensive subreddits were created just to enrage other Reddit users. At this they were very effective. What happened was, some do-gooder would stumble upon one of his offensive subreddits and expose it to the rest of Reddit in an outraged post. Then thousands more would vote the thing to the front page of Reddit. Cries to censor it would sound out, to be almost inevitably beaten back by cries of "free speech!" The idea of free speech is sacred to many Reddit users, a product of the free-wheeling online message board culture from which Reddit springs. If you criticize someone else for posting something you don't like, you are a whiny fascist.
However, Adrian Chen, the Gawker columnist writing the article, doesn't see things the same way:
Under Reddit logic, outing Violentacrez is worse than anonymously posting creepshots of innocent women, because doing so would undermine Reddit's role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women.
I am OK with that.
The web is full of trolls, the web is full of barely-legal content, and the web is full of controversy, so you might wonder why you'd bother paying attention to this story.
One reason is a bit hard to explain, but Choire Sicha (who was one of the original creators of Gawker, but who has gone on to do other things) tries to explain: A Handy Test for Reddit Users: Are You on the Internet Right Now?:
Sometimes it's hard to tell if you are on the Internet or not. For example you are almost always typing into a box on a series of screens on your computer. Because of this, there are whole sections of the Internet that are pretty sure they are not on the Internet, because, they are just boxes, right? You could be typing into anything, who knows if it's public. This was true about LiveJournal for a long time. When you would link to a posting on LiveJournal, back in the day, you would get outraged emails about invasion of privacy. Because in their minds, they were just typing in their diary. That happened to be readable by others. Any others. On the Internet. Sometimes the youngs on Tumblr think they are not on the Internet, and also some members of Reddit think they are not on the Internet! And so there is a to-do.
Sicha's essay is partly meant as satire, but it's also partly meant to try to help you understand why people, particularly people much younger than me who have grown up in a new world, are genuinely confused:
in their minds, they were just typing in their diary.
It's horrible that these parts of the Internet exist, and that people behave awfully on the Internet. And it would be nice to just close my eyes and cover my ears and go "La-La-La" and not pay any attention.
But, as I wrote a year ago, this stuff is real, and it is important, and I think Gawker is at least to be commended for forcing this discussion to continue to occur, and making people continue to think about, discuss, and debate topics such as trolling, privacy, and anonymity on the Internet.
But when you read the articles by Chen and Sicha, you don't need to follow all the links.