First up, read this. It’s an impressive piece of investigative journalism regarding a Reddit user known as “ViolentAcrez” — a notorious user for his practices of posting creepy photos of often-underage women without their consent. The piece describes the reporter Adrian Chen’s (successful) attempts to unmask ViolentAcrez and publicly shame him for the things he has spent the last few years doing.
Fair enough. As a number of people have said in relation to this story today, the “free speech” so beloved of Reddit users does not mean the same thing as “free of consequences”. And while Michael Brutsch, the man behind the handle “ViolentAcrez”, has not technically broken any laws with his activities — he wasn’t posting child pornography or anything illegal, simply reposts of images that were already in the public domain on Facebook and other services, and later voyeuristic images taken without the knowledge of the people depicted — the fact stands that his behaviour was more than a little creepy, inappropriate and actively harmful in a society that is, for the most part, actively trying to improve attitudes towards women.
I’m not denying any of this. While I find the tracking down and public shaming of a notorious Internet troll a little creepy in and of itself, what Chen did in the name of journalism is a far cry from what Brutsch has been doing for the past few years — and probably for the best in the long run. Brutsch will certainly think twice — or at least be a lot more careful about his “social media footprint” — before trying anything like this again. There’s a lesson to be learned in all this — if you’re a dick on the Internet, sometimes it will come back and bite you in the ass.
There is something that bothers me about this story, however, and that’s been the reaction to it. Specifically, the negativity directed towards the entire Reddit community as a result of this story and surrounding issues. For those who haven’t been keeping up on this story over the past few days, a number of Reddit subforums, or “subreddits” as they’re called, completely blocked all Gawker links in a showing of solidarity for Brutsch who was, despite his behaviour, regarded as a valuable member of the community and a “necessary evil” by many — while he was a notorious troll, the Reddit staffers made active use of him to police the less salubrious parts of Reddit and ensure that nothing that actually was illegal was being posted. A “man on the inside”, as it were.
Because certain parts of Reddit decided to show their support for and/or actively defend Brutsch’s behaviour on the grounds of “free speech”, apparently all of Reddit is now something to be reviled — a “cesspit”, as I saw it referred to earlier today.
This is the bit that makes me uncomfortable — an entire community being blamed and ostracised for the behaviour of one man in particular, and also for that of those who support him.
I’ve been on Reddit. I haven’t been on there for a while but I enjoyed a brief stint on there a while back. I joined some interesting discussions on a variety of topics ranging from gaming to TV shows via funny pictures and an accidental excursion into naked photographs that users had taken of themselves. (In the latter case, the notorious “gonewild” subreddit, the majority of comments were in fact, body-positive — particularly on the pictures of those who had been brave enough to post a picture of their obviously-overweight body — rather than perverted, which I found to be interesting. Also, it genuinely was an accident that I found myself in that subreddit — Reddit’s main screen gives little to no indication what “gonewild” is all about. In retrospect, I should have thought about it a little more before jumping in, but hey, I’m pretty hard to shock. But I digress.)
I didn’t spend long enough to make any particular friends there, but I have heard plenty of stories of people getting to know each other and making lasting friendships or relationships through the site. There are plenty of stories of Reddit communities pulling together to support others, too — stories of helping people through difficult times; stories of helping people who are struggling for money; stories of, in short, human helping human. I know at least one person personally who is using a specific subreddit for support in getting help for some of their personal problems and issues. There is plenty that is positive to say about Reddit.
And yet for the obnoxious, totally inappropriate actions of one man and his supporters — some of whom, it seems, have been or are on Reddit’s staff — apparently this entire, incredibly diverse Internet community should be ostracised.
Something really doesn’t sit right with that for me. To generalise one of the largest communities on the Internet as all being scumbags like this just seems both dangerous and unfair. I have plenty of friends who enjoy using Reddit for completely innocent purposes, be it discussion, promotion of things they have been working on or discovering interesting new reaction .GIFs. I know that they’d be the first to distance themselves from the sort of behaviour that Brutsch has exhibited, and yet if you were to take what a number of commentators are saying at face value, you’d have to brand these people as deviant perverts and assholes, too, simply by virtue of the fact that they’re Reddit users.
This is not helpful.
I’m fully aware that I’ve been guilty of this sort of thing in the past — not specifically with regard to Reddit, but with 4chan. I’ve referred to that place as a “cesspit” before and certainly it has more than its fair share of trolls and unpleasant people there — but equally now I realise that there are also plenty of other people who just make it their hangout of choice. They, subsequently, become guilty by association with the “/b/tards” who are responsible for the majority of objectionable material and behaviour on 4chan (and, by extension, the rest of the Internet. And they’re probably pretty pissed about that.
The same thing is happening with Reddit. As much as Reddit would like to market itself as a “social news” tool, let’s not be under any illusions — it’s nothing more than the world’s biggest forum. Like most forums, it has tons of subcultures and cliques, most of whom stick to their own neatly-carved niches for the most part. Some of these subcultures and cliques are objectionable in nature, and it’s up to the site admins and moderators to determine what to do about that — something that they haven’t done a great job with so far, and something they need to work on.
However, the mere presence of some objectionable subcultures and cliques does not mean that the entire website as a whole is somehow objectionable. It’s the same as saying that a particular city is a “cesspit” because, say, a greater-than-average number of registered sex offenders live there. Or the same as saying that all people who like a particular thing are a bunch of assholes. Or, in fact, the same as almost any other unfair, unsubstantiated generalisation. It’s not helpful — all it does is turn everyone outside that group against them, and everyone inside that group becomes defensive. The two sides inevitably clash, and things just get worse and worse rather than better. It doesn’t help anyone.
So by all means think that Michael Brutsch is a creepy old pervert whom you wouldn’t want anywhere near your children. By all means criticise those who supported him — including members of Reddit’s staff.
I agree with you.
But take a moment to think of the thousands — more likely millions — of people who make use of Reddit on a regular basis and have absolutely nothing to do with this before you start branding the entire community as pond life. Would you want to be made guilty by association with something you had no involvement in whatsoever? I doubt it very much. So quit doing it to others.