The more that I read Adrian Chen’s story about Violentacrez, who the writer labeled “the biggest troll on the web,” the more angry I became.
Not anger in the sense of uncontrolled emotion, but anger as someone who has managed online communities for a long time and helped, in whatever small way, to establish this field as a profession. Most of that anger was not directed at the troll, but at Reddit. If you prefer, you can substitute disappointment for anger – they both work.
Let me be clear. Michael Brutsch, the troll in question, disgusts me. I don’t have any compassion for him. I would have fired him myself if he worked for me. His actions are deplorable, his explanations are ridiculous. He is responsible for his actions.
This story is not an attack on anonymity because he wasn’t anonymous. The moment he told other Reddit members who he was, that anonymity vanished. He trusted people who turned on him and gave him up. Chen just put the pieces together – the pieces that Brutsch shared with others.
If he was truly anonymous, if he wouldn’t have been so brazen as to do these things and then tell people who he was, there is a very good chance he would have still be an unknown. Perhaps he wanted the attention and is feeding off it – since that is what trolls often exist for.
I am a firm believer in the idea that everything that you do reflects on everyone you associate with. When you do something bad, it doesn’t just hurt you. It hurts your family, your friends, the company you work for, the publisher of your book, the conference that you’re speaking at – whoever. Whoever is affiliated with you. Brutsch, and those who had associated with him, are now feeling those consequences.
People like him exist and it is our job, as community managers, to do the best that we can to limit their impact – to limit how much they harm the communities that we manage and use our communities to harm others. And that is why most of my anger is directed at Reddit.
Reddit Consciously Looked the Other Way and Profited
I have felt uneasy about Reddit for a long time. When someone cites them as a great example of a forum or community, it makes me pause. The Reddit community has done a lot of good things. But, history is full of groups that promoted bad things while also doing good things for some. In at least few notable instances, I have been very disappointed with the powers that be at Reddit and the lack of leadership that comes from the top on serious, sensitive issues.
For an organization that people promote as being community-centric, it’s hard to justify the fact that they seeded their community by lying to their members and creating fake accounts, where the site’s founders and others would act like several different people. That demonstrates a willingness to play with the emotions of others, to allow them to get attached to people who don’t exist. That result – playing with the emotions of real people – is exactly what trolls seek and a philosophy that Brutsch continued.
There are very few things that a group of smart people will agree on. Politics, religion, sexuality, sports, fashion, music… no matter what it is, smart people will disagree. But, one of the few areas that exists where most or all smart people will agree is the sexualization of children. They will almost universally agree that it is wrong. It is one of a small number of issues that most of us can get behind.
It is an issue where Reddit could have taken a stand. They didn’t. They sat back, watched the traffic and cashed the checks. Anderson Cooper had to call them out on the “jailbait” section last October before they took action against it and shut it down.
Reddit can’t claim they weren’t aware. Alexis Ohanian, who co-founded the site and has turned into a bit of a media darling, made a blog post announcing the winners of the community voted 2008 Reddit awards. Linked in the post? The jailbait section. For winning the community vote, Reddit sent him a trophy. Reddit told CNN they now regret sending him the trophy. I wonder if Ohanian, who was in control of Reddit at the time, does. The sale of Reddit to Condé Nast made him a lot of money.
There is a picture on his Wikipedia page of him protesting the SOPA and PIPA legislation. You know what would have been a great way to protest that legislation? To take responsibility for your own space and not be something people can point to and say “yeah, that is why we need this.” They could have sent a very clear message that online communities can take care of themselves and don’t need that level of government intervention. But, they didn’t. Instead, they proved that traffic and revenue will make management look the other way.
4 months following the Cooper dust up, they continued to allow images that sexualized children. Finally, thanks to mounting criticism and pressure, they banned those images. But, even when did they so, their announcement was worded in a way that suggested they were forced into doing it, that they didn’t want to. That they were not doing it out of choice, but simply because they were “protecting Reddit’s ability to operate.” They made it a free speech issue – not an issue of taking responsibility for their platform.
They had the chance to take a strong stance and lead, but instead they punted. They went for as long as they could stand, accepted the traffic as long as they could.
That isn’t leadership.
Reddit Endorsed Brutsch’s Actions By Giving Him Power and Authority
And now we’ve got the Violentacrez story. This is what Reddit reaped. It was only a matter of time until it exploded. They would much rather you think of them as “that site the President answered questions on.” But, once you read the Violentacrez story, you won’t. I won’t rehash his actions, but what I want to focus on is Brutsch’s involvement with Reddit.
Brutsch says he was close to a number of early employees at Reddit and, while his jailbait section was active and successful, he was given a special badge, further demonstrating they were aware of him and his contributions. But, what really strikes me, what is possibly the worst section to read for those of us who manage online communities, is this:
Violentacrez’s privileged position came from the fact that for years he had helped administrators deal with the massive seedy side of Reddit, acting almost as an unpaid staff member. Reddit administrators essentially handed off the oversight of the site’s NSFW side to Violentacrez, according to former Reddit lead programer Chris Slowe (a.k.a. Keysersosa), who worked at Reddit from 2005 to the end of 2010. When Violentacrez first joined the site and started filling it with filth, administrators were wary and they often clashed. But eventually administrators and Violentacrez came to an uneasy truce, according to Slowe. For all his unpleasantness, they realized that Violentacrez was an excellent community moderator and could be counted on to keep the administrators abreast of any illegal content he came across.
“Once we came to terms he was actually pretty helpful. He would come to us with things that we hadn’t noticed,” said Slowe. “At the time there was only four of us working so that was a great resource for us to have.”
Administrators realized it was easier to outsource the policing of questionable content to Violentacrez than to dirty their hands themselves, or ostracize him and risk even worse things happening without their knowledge. The devil you know. So even as Jailbait flourished and became an ever-more-integral part of Reddit’s traffic and culture—in 2008 it won the most votes in a “subreddit of the year” poll—administrators looked the other way. “We just stayed out of there and let him do his thing and we knew at least he was getting rid of a lot of stuff that wasn’t particularly legal,” Slowe said. “I know I didn’t want it to be my job.”
Wow. Not only did they allow this type of content and encourage it, they actually gave him control of it because they did not want to “dirty their hands themselves,” according to Chen. Once again, this isn’t leadership. “I know I didn’t want it to be my job.” Slowe is a programmer, so I don’t know that it should have been his responsibility. But, it should have been someone’s. When it came down to it, no one stepped up to the plate, so they turned a blind eye to what was going on in the name of what was easy and what would result in traffic. I cannot respect that stance and that is why Reddit makes me uncomfortable.
Brutsch appeared on “Anderson Cooper 360” recently and, while he tried to paint a sympathetic picture, he offered poor excuses. But, do you know what else he did? He turned on Reddit and blamed them for facilitating his behavior. “Reddit encouraged and enabled this sort of behavior, and I shouldn’t have been a part of it,” he said. Imagine that.
To the general public, Reddit will be seen as an example of an online community and, since they trusted him to moderate in this way, what will naturally follow is scrutinization (by some) of the practice of having volunteer moderators. “Why would you ever let a volunteer do that?” That’s not fair, but Reddit’s actions make it relevant.
In reality, for most responsible community managers, volunteer moderators work great. I’ve had some tremendous people. But, whether you have paid or volunteer moderators, they need management and, clearly, Reddit did not do that. They did not carefully select moderators, train them, monitor and manage them.
Reddit is coming under legal scrutiny now, as they should. Unfortunately, innocent online communities, run by diligent managers, may well feel a consequence for their actions. After all, stories like this help plant the seed for legislation, new laws and other forms of intervention. That’s not always bad. Or nothing like that may happen. You never know. But, the old phrase, “a few bad apples spoil the bunch” is well founded. It is normal for a few people who don’t take responsibility for their space to cause stress and further obstacles for the rest of us and, to whatever small or large degree, that will be the case with Reddit.