We could have seen this coming.
Last Friday, Adrian Chen of Gawker, Farhad Manjoo of Slate, and Rebecca Watson of Skepchick gave what observers called an unbalanced and negative critique of the web community in their SXSW panel “It’s Reddit’s World: We Just Live in it,” which began with the question, “How is Reddit’s power altering Web culture — and should we celebrate it, or fear it?” Watson then breathed new life to the fire Monday evening with an even more disparaging post about her experience on the panel that somehow failed to see how persistently condemning the site didn’t win her any favors with the crowd-now-moved-online. More fuel for the Tuesday presses at an otherwise mostly dry South by.
The biased talk and the subsequent backlash aside, the panel also suffered from a delectable rumor: that Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian "dropped out" from the panel discussion because he could tell "the deck was stacked" against him and he was, essentially, too chicken to deal with confrontation.
In a phone interview Monday afternoon, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin said that this was far from truth; Ohanian had no idea he was on the Reddit panel “because Slate’s PR never confirmed with him” that they had put him on their panel. “I don’t want to accuse them of doing a dirty trick” said Martin, who went on to say the whole process “was handled poorly,” in his opinion. Despite Buzzfeed also confirming Ohanian being unaware of his spot as a panelist, both Forbes and Watson perpetuated this rumor of a yellow Ohanian unable to keep commitments in their blog posts about the panel’s aftermath.
Tuesday afternoon comes around, and Ohanian tweets about the "false allegation" that is Watson's blog post, along with a link to his rebuttal of the whole SXSW panel controversy in a post on Hacker News.
The “front page of the Internet” has had a rough past year, (or their best, depending on who you talk to). In fact, the year was so rough it’s safe to say Reddit has a PR problem: only stories about its dark underbelly ever reach the public consciousness.
Reddit may throw fundraisers for the needy or find bone marrow transplant donors, but only Internet-centric sites like the Daily Dot, Daily What or Hyper Vocal print those good deeds up. People being good on the Internet rarely gets press, unless it's something overwhelming like raising just shy of a million for a bullied bus monitor.
Despite thriving subsections dedicated to everything from cooking to losing weight to make-up, or safe online spaces fostering acceptance like r/gaybros and r/gonewildplus, Reddit has predominantly been branded by the media as the scary part of the Internet. (No one has heard of 4chan yet.) Social media shares driven by faux outrage explain Reddit to most non-web savvy users as an immoral place where abusive atheists, stalkers, cyberbullies, misogynists, child pornographers, perverts and weird middle-aged villains like violentacrez lurk online.
This was why, then, that both Redditors and non-Redditors found the SXSW panel to be more than a little lacking, and their community in need of some defending.
Imgur founder Alan Schaaf, who was no doubt also annoyed by the overwhelming negative tone in a panel discussion that did not advertise itself as a Reddit bash-fest, took to the mic during the Q&A section of the panel to mumble aloud a list of positive things the Reddit community is also responsible for. As a protest, its execution was a little odd, but Schaaf actually owes his livelihood to Reddit, having built his site (and community) out of a need first noticed on Reddit. Schaaf’s site has gone on to fuel not just content on Reddit, but on icanhazcheezburger and Buzzfeed too. No, Reddit’s incubator-like effects on small businesses was not discussed on the panel either.
Erik Martin of Reddit told me via gchat that he thinks we are still talking about this panel “because there's not much else from SXSW that's interesting” this year.
“People felt it was very one-sided” said Martin, before mentioning he doesn't “disagree with any criticisms” brought up in the panel discussion, as they are important conversations to have.
“We recognize these tough issues about Internet communities and we are not afraid to engage with them” added Martin, who then went on to summarize a Reddit employee’s participation in a SXSW panel on cyberbullying, which attendees tweeted relatively nice things about, including “emotional,” "fascinating,” “constructive,” “uplifting” and even... “positive.”
Ohanian echoed a similar sentiment in the Hacker News post defending his absence at the Reddit SXSW panel, as almost an afterthought:
"I do believe there's a discussion to be had about promoting civility (and curbing bigotry, assholish behavior, etc) on social media -- these ills exist on wordpress, on youtube, on twitter, and yes, on reddit -- but when one can't even honestly invite participants, let alone frame the debate, we all miss an opportunity."
Support for Ohanian's post is high, but that's nothing new: he is the king of one of the most influential sites on the web. Feminists pointing out the problems with reddit--now synonymous with the Internet, and in general, society--is just like every other day on the Internet, too. That's not a bad thing: Reddit's jerk problem and the fight it's spawned will continue to provoke valuable online discussion--especially on you-know-where.
Photo credit: Barry Pousman