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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Twitter is rolling out (slightly) longer tweets

Plus the demise of the dot-at. 

We've heard rumblings for a while that Twitter plans to move away from its simple USP (140 characters per tweet, a list of chronological tweets on your timeline) in favour of a more curated, less restrictive model. 

Today, the site announced changes that will reduce the limits on tweet length, but not in an extreme way – rumours that the site planned to kill off the character limit entirely seem unfounded, at least for now. Instead, usernames and media attachments like links, polls or images will no longer be included in the limit, which will come as a relief to anyone with a long handle or media brands (naming no names) which often tweet links. The company says the changes will roll out over the "next several months".  

This probably doesn't mean you'll be able to have a poll, a picture and a Periscope livestream in a single tweet, but it does mean you could potentially @ in unlimited numbers of people. For anyone who has been harassed on the site, this isn't great news - at least in the past trolls' audiences were limited by tweet length.  

The site is also killing off ".@": the method used by users who want replies or direct addressals to be seen by all their followers. At the moment, any tweet starting with an "@" doesn't feed onto the main timeline, and can only be seen by selecting "tweets and replies" on a specific user's profile.

In future, Twitter will recognise which tweets are actually replies and hide them, but non-replies which start with an "@" will still display in feeds. You'll also be able to retweet yourself, or quote your own tweets, so you can make replies appear on your followers' feeds if desired. The press release also toe-curlingly suggests that you could use this function for when you "feel like a really good one went unnoticed". 

The move suggests Twitter wants users to post media-filled tweets, and doesn't want to punish those that do with decreased space for a message. The social media site recently brought live-streaming app Periscope, which will also beneift from the change.

The company explains in the press release that the original 140 character limit, based on the length of a text message, is a little out of date. Now, apparently, tweets have become a "rich canvas for creative expression". You heard them - go forth and Periscope. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.