The Mad Kingdom of Reddit and the Dog Brain Phenomena (or why Pao failed)

Troll+FaceReddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, which is weird, because it looks like a 1990’s bulletin board. Sparse, it is populated by Redditors, anonymous individuals who post, critique, and comment on its content in real time. It has become a battle ground over free speech with the latest casualty an interim CEO, Ellen Pao, falling on her sword in the past few weeks. Reddit’s motto is “The front page of the internet”, it should probably be “The best and the worst the Internet has to offer.”

In some respects Reddit is a sub-section of the entire Internet. The Internet has good stuff and bad stuff. Reddit has good stuff and bad stuff. Mainstream Media frequently emphasise the dark side of Reddit, because hey, we all like to be outraged, and Reddit can produce some outrageous content.

The site itself is divided into categories of content. For example; This Sub Reddit is for Wellington, New Zealand. Users post items of interest and the community can upvote them or downvote them as they will, and comment as well. Moderators, who are generally not paid, make sure that rules are abided by and removes content when necessary. Overall, it mostly self regulates. Karma points are earned by each user whenever another user upvotes their post or comment.

Reddit has always warred with itself over content. A lot of content has been banned over the years including the sub reddit “jailbait”, for obvious reasons. But a massive war broke out when Ellen Pao became the Chief Executive of Reddit and started to try and clean up the site.

It was always going to end badly.

Pao set about trying to bring the site under control by banning a tonne of content, the most controversial being the sub reddit “fatpeoplehate”, which had a staggering 150,000 subscribers. Pao had an idealistic view that she could get rid of the trolls, haters, and other nasty users from the site along with their content. It was an admirable view, but it clashed with the free speech aspect of the site.

The worm turned. Allegations were flying in all directions as a couple of senior Reddit staff were sacked. One who ran the very popular “as me anything” service, which has seen the likes of Barack Obama, Richard Attenborough, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and hundreds of others participate in real-time Q&A sessions.

That appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back with unpaid moderators launching a protest that saw the most popular sub reddits set to private so that they could not be publicly accessed. A subsequent petition saw over 200,000 people asking for Pao to be sacked. In the end she stepped down.

Pao subsequently wrote a blog for the Washington Post describing her experiences. It is my opinion that her idealism coupled with naivety was her downfall. As the CEO for what is effectively a massive advertising company, she failed. She wrote;

The internet started as a bastion for free expression. It encouraged broad engagement and a diversity of ideas. Over time, however, that openness has enabled the harassment of people for their views, experiences, appearances or demographic backgrounds. Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the internet. But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.

This is nonsense. It is Pao’s experience of her time as CEO where she was deliberately targeted that colours her view. The Internet was created for war, it was designed to withstand nuclear attacks and remain a military grade communications system. The Internet has a small minority of trolls that are simply given too much oxygen, either by people like Pao who see them as a scourge to be removed or by main stream media that can spin out click bait stories based on their comments.

The trolls are not winning. They are a tiny minority of people who suffer from online Dog Brain. Basically, when anonymous and online these people have no inhibitions. It’s like being blind drunk. Generally suffering from some mental illness they pour out their rage on the world. The best thing to do is ignore them.

It’s an age thing. In general, the more mature of us are less likely to post anonymous comments. Twenty-five percent of Internet users have posted online anonymous comments across the age range while forty percent of users between the age of nineteen and twenty-nine have posted online anonymous comments.

It allows something called the “online disinhibition effect” or “Dog Brain”. When anonymous, you throw away your normal constraints on behaviour and say things you would never say to the actual person’s face. Ever.

Online content providers are starting to stop its practice. Popular Science being a high profile example, saying that “a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story, recent research suggests” citing the online disinhibition effect.

It shows our underlying character, well, some of us, “New communication technologies do not fundamentally alter the theoretical bounds of human interaction; such interaction continues to be governed by basic human tendencies” so the study tells us.

Pao heightens this view that the Internet is full of people who want to harass you. This is simply not true. Ellen Pao took on a community of 36,000,000 users. Even if only .1% of that population is a troll, that is 36,000 users she pissed off. To expect nothing other than a hate campaign is naive. I’m not saying it is right, I am saying it is naive.

Pao’s role as CEO was to increase the user base. Thousands of redditors defected during her time. She failed to do her job. Reddit is a private company who’s ultimate goal is to increase its revenue by increasing its user base and selling advertising.

The incoming, old, CEO is working on a Content Policy, which is what Pao should have done in the first place rather than wading in on her moral high-horse. Getting the community to self-regulate itself should be the ultimate goal and the weight of the non-trolls versus the actual trolls will cause that to happen. When that does, Reddit will be seen as a safer place to participate. The trolls will withdraw to other sites where they can get oxygen.

It is unfair for main stream media to target just Reddit. The number of sites on the Internet that are dedicated to hate speech of all kinds, that promote the grossest of crimes, that are used for nefarious purposes, is gigantic. It is literally in the millions. Those sites have no self-moderating community. Reddit does, and that’s a big difference.

The Internet allows for the dark side of humanity to manifest itself in a very personal way. The Dog Brain phenomena. It’s not just Reddit that suffers from that and we will never clean it up until all anonymity is gone.

I’ve just Reddit for a few years and I find it to be an excellent place. Personally I’ve never suffered any trolling. I use to keep up with Aviation advances, the latest humour, trending global news stories, my local city, and a range of other topics. Yes Reddit has illegal content and it is well known that users of that content are captured by the spy agencies as part of their meta data gathering. Being anonymous on Reddit does not mean you are anonymous on the Internet.

The was is continuing in Reddit and always will. After all, that’s what we really invented the Internet for, to look at pictures of cats and fight with each other.

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