If there's no god, how come Reddit just downgraded the atheism subforum?

Reddit steps up its editorial role. But will it have to take responsibility for what goes on within its walls?

Reddit has announced a major shake-up in the way the site looks to new users, swapping out the "politics" and "atheism" subreddits with popular alternatives including "books", "earthporn" (pictures of beautiful places around the world) and "explainlikeimfive" (where users are tasked with explaining difficult concepts as though the listener were a five-year-old).

The change affects the default subreddits, which make up the front page for users who haven't logged in or have just created an account. Once an account is made, a user can change their front page at will, unsubscribing from subreddits they don't like and joining smaller forums for more niche interests, from r/economics to the notorious r/beatingwomen.

The addition of new subreddits - at total of five, with r/television and r/gifs making up the count - is relatively uncontroversial, but the removal of the politics and, particularly, atheism is more surprising. In her blog post announcing the change, Alex Angel, Reddit's community manager, explained their decision:

We could give you a canned corporate answer or a diplomatic answer that is carefully crafted for the situation. But since this is reddit, we’re going to try things a bit differently and give you the real answer: they just weren't up to snuff. Now, don't get us wrong, there still ARE good parts about them. Overall, they just haven't continued to grow and evolve like the other subreddits we've decided to add.

Both subreddits have become strongly identified with a particular niche in their overall community, with r/politics morphing from a stronghold of Ron Paul-supporting internet libertarians to one of equally fervent left-liberals and r/atheism being colonised by (and to a large extent creating the stereotype of) the sort of Dawkins-loving, Sagan-worshipping meme-creating atheists the Guardian recently characterised as "anti-theists".

Both groups have taken the shift relatively well, with a highly recommended post on r/atheism pointing out that "by removing this subreddit as a default, the admins of Reddit have done the right thing in creating neutral set of default subreddits which does not raise any particular view above another". Similarly, this comment catches the zeitgeist at r/politics:

I consider myself very liberal, fiscally and socially, and I hate this sub. I unsubscribed forever ago. This sub has become a joke and the personification of a stereotype, that until I came here, thought only existed in the minds of the extreme right. Hopefully this is a wake up call.

Nonetheless, this reshuffle poses a risk for Reddit. The organisation – owned by the same holding company as Condé Nast publications – has a huge interest in portraying itself as an entirely neutral platform, something more akin to Twitter or Facebook than anything else. That lets them wash their hands of responsibility for travesties like the aforementioned r/beatingwomen, as well as put off decisions like banning r/jailbait (a subreddit dedicated to sexualised photos of under-18 year olds) and r/creepshots (a subreddit dedicated to sexualised photos of women taken without their permission).

Even the default subreddits were, ostensibly, chosen impartially. They were the largest subreddits on the site at the time the idea of a default was introduced, and so when a bunch of them decided to block Gawker in protest at Adrian Chen's unmasking of the man who ran the above subreddits, even though the company had given them a degree of legitimacy, it still managed to argue it was entirely in the hands of its users.

That is no longer true. By adding new default subreddits based on "a few key factors: traffic to the subreddits, rate of subscriber increase, average number of users online, and number of submissions/comments being posted", and, crucially, by removing old ones because they weren't "up to snuff", Reddit has taken on a far greater editorial role than ever before. That has obvious benefits (stuff like that in this article won't end up on the front page anymore), but it also means that the company is taking ever more responsibility for what appears on its site. The next time there's a scandal over content or behaviour, will the Reddit staff step up to that responsibility?

Richard Dawkins and others pose with the atheist bus. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Florence Foster Jenkins shows the delight of love's delusions

This new film about a notoriously bad singer, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, is an unsually honest portrayal of how relationships work.

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice is all very well. The real-life heiress and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) practised her whole life. “An hour a day!” she boasts in Stephen Frears’s marvellous film. “Sometimes two.” But it isn’t talent that enables her to reach that prestigious venue in 1944. She is wealthy enough to be able to hire it on a whim and to give away a thousand tickets to servicemen returning from the war. Some might wonder if those soldiers hadn’t suffered enough.

What packs the place to the rafters is her reputation. Florence is still known today as the world’s worst singer. Reaching for a note far beyond her range, she would launch herself at it in the manner of someone trying to dislodge a ball from a tree by lobbing a boot. It’s possible that some of the shrieks she emitted were audible only to dogs. The poor blighters.

In a clever, clinching decision by the screenwriter Nicholas Martin, it is Florence’s uxorious husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who provides the dominant point-of-view in the film. His glasses are not merely rose-tinted, but heart-shaped. The couple’s domestic arrangements may be unconventional – St Clair slinks off each night to see his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at his own apartment, paid for by his wife. But it is with Florence that his true loyalties lie. He is a master at coaxing favourable reactions from those in her orbit. When the young pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) comes to audition for Florence, the sound of her voice wipes the inno­cence from his eyes; he emerges from her drawing room with something resembling post-traumatic stress disorder. But St Clair conducts the young man’s reactions with a nod, a tilt of the head and a widening of the eyes to produce a response that will be broadly flattering to Florence.

In a rich and nuanced performance, Grant radiates warmth. He indicates to others the delighted expression he wants them to adopt for his wife by first adopting it himself, then watching them follow suit. Listening to a reporter filing copy over the phone about Florence’s concert, he makes his presence felt after hearing the phrase “appreciative applause”. The journalist hastily amends the adjective to “thunderous”. Contented, St Clair moves on.

It could be argued that the script deprives Florence of agency in her own story, so that she exists merely through her husband’s eyes. Then again, there is every danger that, without the prism of St Clair’s devotion through which to filter that story, Florence would have been left as cruelly exposed on the screen as she is when she takes to the stage. A similar insurance policy was taken out in Isn’t She Great, in which Bette Midler played the trash novelist Jacqueline Susann. Any scorn or snobbery from the audience was absorbed before it could reach Susann by the device of putting her husband, ­Irving, in charge of the storytelling. There was no question mark in that film’s title because it was rhetorical. Irving wasn’t asking.

It was to be expected that a director as humane as Frears would not mock his subject. What is magical is the way he modulates our reactions to Florence just as St Clair does on screen. We are still laughing when a recording of the real Florence Foster Jenkins is played over the end credits, but our laughter has become even warmer. The question of whether the title character is oblivious to her own flaws is left moot, as it was in the case of Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s film about the legendarily dreadful director. But then most of the people around her are harbouring delusions. Even St Clair isn’t entirely self-aware. The movie opens with him indulging his thespian tendencies with excruciating results. There is only one full scene in which he doesn’t appear but it’s an important one: Florence confides to Cosme that St Clair can’t act. It is her little secret.

This is an unusually honest portrayal of love as a system whereby two people can maintain one another’s delusions to the point where they almost cease to be delusions at all. If you don’t tell me I’m a prize ham, I’ll keep secretly replacing the champagne flutes that shatter when you practise your scales. That sort of thing. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred