Over the weekend, The Verge published an interesting post drawing the connection between Reddit and London’s famous Speakers’ Corner. It’s not a huge leap to make, in fact, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian explicitly names the landmark as one of the site’s inspirations.
In May, during Reddit’s most recent explosion of dickhead behavior, he wrote:
You know what inspired Reddit? Speakers’ Corner in London. I studied abroad in London for a semester and it really inspired me. I came back States-side and started a phpbb forum, and then a year later Steve and I made Reddit. It’s a place where literally anyone can get on a soapbox and talk about what matters to them.
But there’s a flaw in drawing a direct line from Speakers’ Corner to the roiling mass of brilliance and bile that is Reddit. Online – especially on forums like Reddit – people don’t have to own their awfulness.
Until Reddit finally shut down the unjustifiable pustule of putrid racism /r/coontown, it was entirely possible to be a member of that actively hateful hive and present yourself in the world as civilized person.
I may not love the fundamentalists, hate preachers and bigots that swarm to Speakers’ Corner but they show themselves, they face challenges from the crowd directly. They do not have the armor of an anonymous avatar or an assumed name.
Anonymity of the Web is a necessary thing in many ways, it protects minority speech, allows spaces where marginalised voices can be heard and where whistleblowers and dissidents can share their realities. But the fetishization of free speech is also a problem. Free speech shorn of responsibility for that speech trends towards humanity’s ugliest impulses.
Reddit is far from worthless. Reddit is the place that spawned Caine’s Arcade and the global gift giving of the Secret Santa program, but it also still plays home to communities that are like bare wires crackling with the current of hatred.
Show your faces, bigots. Let’s debate with our names, faces and true beliefs.