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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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue