Reddit matures, and apologises

The site's general manager has apologised for its conduct during the Boston crisis.

Reddit's general manager , Erik Martin, has apologised for the site's role in creating and spreading misinformation related to the Boston Marathon bombings:

Though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened. We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Tripathi, as have various users and moderators. We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure. We hope that this painful event will be channeled into something positive and the increased awareness will lead to Sunil's quick and safe return home. We encourage everyone to join and show your support to the Tripathi family and their search.

The apology is interesting, because it reflects how the rest of the world views Reddit far more than how the community views itself. The decentralised nature of the site means that almost everything that Martin is apologising for is actually the fault of its users, rather than the company which runs Reddit and which Martin is in charge of. The subreddit, r/findbostonbombers, was set up by, and moderated by, normal users; it was Reddit's users who posted personal information, and Reddit's users who led the witch hunts. Viewed from that angle, blaming "Reddit" for this tragedy seems like blaming "Twitter" for naming rape victims; a useful shorthand, but not something we'd expect the head of the company to apologise for.

But the Reddit community is still centralised in a way that Twitter isn't, and that has repercussions. Go to the front page of Reddit without being logged-in, and you'll see the same list of content that everyone else will - and the same that many logged-in users see, as well. Hit up Twitter, on the other hand, and the site doesn't show you a thing until you've told it who you want to follow.

In other words, Twitter is a communications medium through and through, but Reddit – while not a publication in a traditional sense – has elements that we recognise from more conventional news sites. That means the site walks a fine line between trying to enable as much freedom for its users as possible, and having to deal with their mistakes as though someone on a salary made them.

Previously, the administration has been pretty unambiguous in declaring that it is not responsible for its users actions, beyond the site's "park rules":

A small number of cases that we, the admins, reserve for stepping in and taking immediate action against posts, subreddits, and users. We don’t like to have to do it, but we’re also responsible for overseeing the park. Internally, we’ve followed the same set of guidelines for a long time, and none of these should be any surprise to anyone…

  1. Don’t spam
  2. Don’t vote cheat (it doesn’t work, anyway)
  3. Don’t post personal information
  4. Don’t post sexually suggestive content featuring minors
  5. Don’t break the site or interfere with normal usage of the site for anyone else

Those rules are not particularly restrictive, and #4 was only strengthened from the incredibly laissez-faire "no child pornography" last February. Beyond that, the admins have tended to stay silent in the face of what would seem to be noteworthy controversies, like the outing of Violentacrez by Gawker's Adrien Chen and the subsequent widespread banning of Gawker media links from the site.

So it would have been easy for Reddit to respond to this latest problem in much the same way. Blame its users, point out that it has rules to prevent the worst of it and that it is deliberately laissez-faire about the rest, and wash its hands of the whole deal.

That it hasn't is a sign of maturity from the administrative team. But it also means that there's going to be a lot more controversies which they'll be expected to have a view on in future, unless the Reddit community matures at the same time. The chances of that happening soon remain slim.

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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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times