More than 15 years after its inception, Fark.com, one of the internet's most prominent link aggregators, decided to ban misogyny in its notoriously irreverent comments section. Is it only a matter of time until other sites follow suit?
In a message posted yesterday, Fark founder Drew Curtis said it's no longer acceptable to make rape jokes on the site, or call women "whores or sluts," or suggest that a female victim of a violent crime was "somehow asking for it"—you know, the kind of stuff that pervades Reddit threads and comment sections all around the internet.
From a human decency perspective, it makes a whole lot of sense—just as banning the "jailbait" subreddit a couple years ago made a whole lot of sense. But while the banning of jailbait or the deploy of similar moderation techniques on other sites spurred cries of "CENSORSHIP" throughout the virtual land, Fark's, perhaps improbably, has been met with measured responses and general acceptance.
I am really pleased to see different sites deciding not to privilege aggressors' speech over their targets'
It's a step forward for Fark, for sure, but is it a step forward for internet communities everywhere? Probably not yet, but it's a move in the right direction, and it may spur other websites to consider moderating their comments more closely.
Sure, Fark isn't the powerhouse it was in the early 2000s, when all my high school friends were obsessed with the site. But it's still got a large community and moves like this will probably keep it relevant for years to come.
"I am hoping it will convince other web communities to make a similar decision," Curtis told me. "Now that we've done it I feel like a complete ass for waiting so long. So will everyone else who makes the same call."
He's likely right on that last point. Moderating speech online is tricky, and there's the whole "slippery slope" argument to be made about censorship. Let's be clear here: privately owned websites are obviously not required to respect the First Amendment, but there's a mandate on the internet that anything and everything goes that there's this de facto assumption that you should be able to say whatever you want, anywhere on the internet.
— hair systems (wigs) (@a_girl_irl) March 26, 2014
But Fark's move is more likely to actually facilitate truly free speech, rather than restrict it. And it's a sign that women's rights are thankfully and finally being taken a bit more seriously of late (take a look at what Gawker finally did over at Jezebel last week for another example).
"I would say that these sorts of decisions are exactly what we need, and in fact align with the spirit of free speech because they actually encourage more speech, not less, and give voice to those who otherwise would be shouted down, drowned out, or scared off," Whitney Phillips, an internet researcher who is currently working on a book about internet trolls at Humboldt State University, told me.
In other words, if "the internet" is filled with trolls who post rape gifs in comment sections, anonymous individuals who call all women sluts and whores, and people who ask female members of online communities to show their tits every time they participate, women are more likely to simply stay out of the discussion rather than join it.
antagonistic speech infringes on the speech of those who are silenced by that kind of abuse
Fark certainly never got quite that extreme, but the point stands: If a site is a violent place for a woman to go, why would she go there?
"I am really pleased to see different sites deciding not to privilege aggressors' speech over their targets'," Phillips said. "That tends to be the default position in so many online 'free speech' debates which suggest that if you restrict aggressors' speech, you're doing a disservice to America—a position that doesn't take into account the fact that antagonistic speech infringes on the speech of those who are silenced by that kind of abuse."
Curtis agrees, and it's hopefully just a matter of time until others follow suit.
"I view Fark as not a country with a government but a house party," he said. "I'm glad everyone came to my house party but if you insult the other guests, the host, [crap] on the food, argue that the furniture sucks, want to tell everyone about how cool the other house party is down the road, well then we'll show you the door. Go have all the free speech you want out in the street."