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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”