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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

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 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era