City or Pub?
D. Paul Angel
A lot has been going on with Reddit of late, which got me thinking about how we view the Web, and the sites we visit. I am not a Redditor, though I have used it occasionally, and I personally know many good, solid people who use it very positively. It would be easy to limit my thoughts on just Reddit, but I think it is more valuable to use Reddit as a lens to examine a larger question: are we visiting Cities on the Web, or Pubs?
Even as far back as Geocities and Angelfire days, websites were talked about in terms of being “Communities.” Like a city. You had your little plot of land to do with, or not do with is, as you pleased. You had neighbors doing their thing, and you were invited to interact. My own foray into this world came via Slashdot, where I was an active poster under the handle Shadow Wrought for many years.
Slashdot uses a moderation system whereby a small set of random Users are giving a small amount of points to spend upgrading or downgrading posts from -1 to 5. So you can browse comments at 1 and not see anything posted anonymously (default 0) unless it’s worthy. It also eliminates most of the trolls and worthless posts as well. Reddit uses an upvote system which feels vaguely similar, except there is no limit on how many votes you can spend, nor on how high a post can go.
Slashdot also allow Users “Journals” predating, if I remember correctly, even MySpace, and certainly Facebook and Twitter. The Journals eventually gave editorial control to the Users as well so that only those whom you had marked as friends could reply to your entries. Again, I think Reddit allows something similar in that there are curated subreddits for which membership is controlled, and abuses result in banishment.
In both circumstances, and nearly across all of Social Media as far as I can tell, the idea that these are communities is reinforced. Websites become the equivalent of Common Carriers, distancing themselves from the content they store. Slashdot makes clear that the poster of the content is the sole owner of it, and bears no responsibility for what is said. I’m sure everyone else is nearly, if not exactly, the same. This, again, reinforces the idea of a Community, and that what you say in your own “home” is up to you.
What got me thinking of all this today was a tweet on my feed from Wil Wheaton, retweeting a screenshot from Reddit showing dozens of subreddits dedicated to rape and misogynest violence. It made start to wonder at what point does the negatives a site like Reddit allow, outweigh the positives, such as giving a safe, electronic home to widely dispersed people? As I was pondering this, I began to wonder if “Community,” ie a City, is really the right frame to be thinking about the Web?
This isn’t actually the first time I went down this path, but it’s the first time I followed the thought all the way through. I have a Facebook account that I rarely use, but am trying to “get better at it.” A friend asked what I meant by that and I came up with the analogy that, for me, Facebook is like a neighborhood restaurant in which I don’t particular like the food, atmosphere, or service. However, it’s where all my friends go since it’s convenient for everyone. So, if I want to see them, then that’s where I need to go. When you follow that analogy though, you realize it’s on point in another regard. Cities, our real life communities, exist to take care of us. They are not built for profit. When they are, as in the old mining towns, they are anything but beneficial to the people.
Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Slashdot, MySpace, Fark, WordPress!, etc., etc… all exist to make a profit. So when you have your little plot of land on Reddit, its really more akin to renting a backroom at the local Pub. Without people coming to the Pub, it’ll close up shop. Without people coming to Reddit, it’ll close up shop too. It is the visits to Reddit, or any other site, that make that site money. The “community” may exist, but it does so for its benefit, not yours. This is why, I think, that “Pub” is likely a better descriptor than “City.”
Which, opens up an entire can of worms, if not bucket of snakes. If your neighbor in the City decides to fly the Confederate flag and invite people over to degrade women and minorities, there’s not much you can do. They have a right to personal expression, and the City is not allowed to stop it until it crosses certain thresholds of criminal behavior.
A Pub though, is different. If a table decides to start making degrading comments and is abusive towards other patrons, the Pub is well within their rights to ask you to either STFU or leave. In fact, it’s usually expected. If you see that behavior at a restaurant, and the management simply ignores it, chances are you’re going to leave. At least that seems to be the case with the Slashdots, Farks, Twitters, and Facebooks of the world, but as near as I can tell, it has not been the case with Reddit. Here’s where the bucket of snakes get dropped: at what point do the other patron’s actions and words make you need to leave an otherwise great place? Everything else is good, except for knowing that they rent out their back rooms to everyone from Nazi’s to NAMBLA. At what point can you no longer, in good conscious go there?
If it really is a community, you understand that the City has to rent space to everyone and you ignore it as best you can. But if it’s a Pub, if your presence there earns them the money to stay open so they can rent their space to groups dedicated to attacking women, people of color, and the LGBTQ communities, do you find someplace else? And, if you do, where is that line drawn?
In a City, the power ultimately rests with the people, and while it cannot stop the hateful speech of some of its citizens, if enough voices decry it, it can at least take the power from the bigots. But in a Pub, if the management shows it has no interest in curbing the abusive behavior of some of patrons, do you have any choice but to leave? Or, having invested so heavily in making the Pub a good place for you and your friends, do you keep going and nagging the Management to make it better?
I am asking these questions in all earnestness because I really don’t know for sure. I don’t know where the line needs to be drawn, but I am very much curious about your thoughts? City or Pub? Is there a line to be drawn, and if so, where?