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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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