Censorship and the Social Complex

I want to begin this by saying I am a proponent for free speech.

In running this site, I encourage our contributors to express themselves, naturally, without exception. However, I also thoroughly vet each contributor to ensure that the content they are adding is of some significant value. It is for this reason that you don’t see a great deal of ‘cursing’ (I like to call them ‘colorful metaphors’) or any remarkably offensive commentary on this site.

But just to make it clear, I fully support free speech. People deserve to submit the ideas they want to out into the world without concern that they will not be allowed to speak their mind. However, it should also be understood that there are sometimes consequences to the action of issuing forth ideas and concepts that other people may find offensive. This is, in point of fact, another critical aspect of free speech; understanding that if you can say whatever you want, others can say whatever they want regarding what you said.

I also believe that, as someone who is trying to build a community, those who help define and develop a community are allowed to determine what sort of community it is. If I make the statement that I want Doc Palindrome to be representative of a positive and supporting group of creative people, then I would not endorse discussion that is negative or hurtful to those same people. I firmly believe that this is my right as the founder of this site and the primary driver of content.

However, it can be argued that there are many online locations that seek to build community that have a similar mission statement, initially, but are far more open about contributors, building an online social component that allows people to share ideas and experiences and then have others react and respond. These, of course, are social networks and include Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram, and many others.

From the earliest days of the internet; from those first primordial steps into the electric landscape; people have sought to interact with others from around the globe. User groups begat chat begat Live Journal begat MySpace and every level in-between. The ability to find someone that is into; and will celebrate; the things that you are into has a massive appeal. It could be argued that the very idea of websites, in general, evolved from this very simply idea:

‘I like this thing. I want to tell people I like this thing. I will build a website about this thing.’

As a people, we are often just simply reaching out to other people who are like us. It’s our way of feeling less alone, less empty, less marginalized. If you are super into comic books, or role-playing games, or soccer, or lampshades, or ottomans, or The Waltons, you now have the opportunity to talk with others who like the same thing as you with less risk of seeking them out and failing.

You can make your thing.

So, when does a thing belong to the community?

Over the last few weeks, this has been a hotpoint question for the users of Reddit, an internet aggregate maintained by both the private, corporate ownership as well as their user population, and contributors to Gawker, a news and gossip blog site situated in Manhattan.

At Gawker, the question revolved around the removal of a potentially damaging article by founder Nick Denton. This resulted in the resignation of two members of Gawker’s news staff which Denton followed with a memo that defined the purpose and scope of the company to the remaining staff. In this memo, he went so far as to condemn the site, itself, saying, ‘The Gawker brand is both confusing and damaging.’

This was on the heels of Reddit founder Steve Huffman returning to the company he built after six years and enacting a wide range of rules and regulations. Reddit has long been ‘the Wild West’ of the internet, where anything goes. This has led to a variety of content that is, ultimately, unmatched in variety and accessibility. It’s as easy to follow the latest on comic books, programming, sports, and cooking as it is to find the latest on celebrity rumors, drug culture, and pornography.

The lack of restriction was, for the most part, beneficial to Reddit, enabling multitudes of readers and contributors to interact with one another with the content; mostly links to other parts of the internet (articles, images, videos, etc.) but also original content. The audience originally developed from those who might want to have an anonymous outlet for interaction to a massive community of users who shared every form of data with one another.

However, when you build a community, there comes a point where you will have those who want to be hurtful. This is especially the case when you offer complete anonymity as this allows one to be cruel to others with no repercussions. Keeping this community healthy becomes a necessity, no matter how open-minded a founder may be.

This presents a quandary: who does your community alienate? Establishing rules and regulations  will drive away those who want to be able to interact with your site without restriction but were likely responsible for building your community. Failing to do so will alienate those people who are present out of a desire to access data they could not find elsewhere who could help to ensure a healthy environment.

There really isn’t much of a choice. The users who are relying on anonymity to engage those aspects of themselves that are hateful, cruel, or unhealthy are, quite simply, parasites. They came to be part of your community in order to drive their negativity without consequence, they stayed because the reactions of those folks who are present for less venomous motivations fed into that dark side, and; were you to avoid creating and maintaining restrictions; they would eventually leave, anyways, following the more positive members of your former community and locating another place where they can enact their malignant desires. Of course, when the law is lain, the parasites will run, anyways, leaving, in theory, a healthy community behind that is aware of the ramifications of being hurtful.

This is what occurred with Reddit.

Amidst the outcry of censorship, Redditors flocked, en masse, to a site called Voat.

Developed out of Switzerland and launching in April of 2014 as WhoaVerse, the site was changed to Voat at the beginning of 2015. A news aggregate and social network in the vein of Reddit, the philosophy behind Voat is that anyone can say whatever they would like, as long as it’s legal. When Reddit users began to migrate to Voat, the site began to experience regular intervals of downtime as there was a struggle to handle the massive influx of traffic, which only became more significant with the more recent flood of new users given the new philosophy of Reddit regarding offensive or hurtful material.

There is a great deal of controversy over all of this. The Gawker situation seems to have, largely, stabalized, but the Reddit/Voat movement is still very much alive. There are those that say that Reddit’s new regulations and the strictness of the moderators have gone too far while there are certainly plenty of users who are remaining with the classic aggregate site. Voat, meanwhile, has enjoyed a massive level of success, especially considering that the site is just over a year old.

The conversation is that Reddit went too far but, even now, several ‘subverses,’ have been deleted on Voat with no explanation from the owners of the site (although, given the content of these, one can extrapolate the reasoning behind this). The transparency with which Reddit has always operated is clearly not in place with Voat, which is something new to those who made the switch. As much as Reddit cracked down on content that they considered damaging to the community, Voat has been shown to be willing to eliminate extreme content.

Ultimately, the vast majority of people involved with these online communities, from both the corporate moderators to contributors to readers, have nothing but pure intentions. There will, however, always be a small minority of people who want to inflict rather than inflect due to some form of damage that has been done to them. While they may act, parasitic, these poor folks are, ultimately, simply seeking someplace to belong, much like the rest of us.

Personally, I have found both the Reddit and Voat communities have something to offer. In many ways, navigating Voat is a bit more fun as it is such a new entity and I feel that I have a great deal more to offer, overall, to that community. However, with the sheer quantity of content Reddit offers, and the overall social penetration of the site, I shall continue to utilize Reddit until other options present themselves as being as viable.

In other words, my point of view is pragmatic: where can I offer or gain the most? The answer is, currently, both communities have a great deal to offer and I have no desire to delve into those areas that Reddit no longer wants to foster. Besides, I can certainly understand why one would want to have a level of control over a community was built by their own toil. If I discovered that this site had content that was harmful to people in a significant way, I would, in all likelihood, have to make a similar decision.

I will always support free-minded speech and the individual’s right to saying what they want. However, the other side of free speech is that private organizations may choose to engage their free speech by ensuring that commentary aligns with the mission of that organization. This isn’t any form of attack on free speech, but rather, an exercising of that very same concept.

This is the internet!

If someone reading this has a desire to spew hateful, harmful, or dangerous ideas and needs a forum to do so, you can actually build your own!

Just don’t expect me to show up.

About the Author

Jesse Edmond
Jesse Edmond has been writing for a long time. A really, really long time. And no one cares. Not one iota. No one will even mention all those incomplete sentences that he just used because no one cares about Jesse's writing. Enjoy, anyways, you ingrates.

1 Comment on "Censorship and the Social Complex"

  1. “Inflict rather than Inflect” is a brilliant turn of a phrase. Excellent exposition on a subject I know little about, very informative and in the truest sense…democratic.

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