Can the linksharing site shed its sexist reputation? Photo: Reddit.
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Reddit’s woman problem

The linksharing site's latest upheaval highlights a deep-seated distrust of women among some users. 

As you may have gathered by now, linksharing site Reddit is going through a bit of a rocky patch. Victoria Taylor, a popular employee who acted as a kind of link between the site's volunteers and its administration, has left the company - not, it seems, by choice - and in response, moderators the site over pulled the shades on many of its most popular sections (known as "subreddits"). 

The resultant backlash against CEO Ellen Pao has been shot through with ugly strains of both misogyny and racism, hinting that, while most subreddits are now back online, Reddit's problems are far from over. Pao was already unpopular for her decision to ban controversial subreddits like "fatpeoplehate" and "transfags" last month, but now a petition calling for her removal has collected over 200,000 signatures. Its wording is far less distressing than some of the user-posted comments on anti-Pao subreddits, but it still offers disturbing insight into the minds of those who want her gone.

The petition starts off factually: 

Ellen K. Pao is a lawyer and the Chief Executive Officer of the Internet company Reddit Inc. She was appointed interim CEO of Reddit Inc in November 2014 and Reddit entered into a new age of censorship. 

Then, things take a turn for the worse:

Pao lost her gender discrimination case against venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, on March 27, 2015. A vast majority of the Reddit community believes that Pao, "a manipulative individual who will sue her way to the top", has overstepped her boundaries and fears that she will run Reddit into the ground. 

To an admittedly small minority of users, Pao evidently represents a threat to their free speech utopia. Last May, in fact, Pao made it clear that Reddit does not aim to be a "completely free-speech platform". This makes sense, of course: as publishers of the website, the company is liable for whatever is hosted there. Disturbingly, though, Pao's gender - and her status as a Silicon Valley woman who has taken public action against sexism - are being used as weapons against her. 

Pao’s case against Kleiner Perkins was founded on what sounds like a culture of sneaky, under-the-surface sexism, where male employees weren’t punished for the same “sharp elbows” she was pulled up for in progress reports, and female employees weren’t invited on group ski trips. Pao maintained that for these reasons, her gender held her back from promotion at the company. She lost, but is appealing the decision.

A comparable culture pervades the site she is now responsible for, yet its manifestations are far more open. Reddit is around two-thirds male, and its largest demographic is men between 18 and 29 years old. Back in 2012, one user asked “Why is Reddit so anti-women?” on the AskReddit subreddit. The 2,000-odd posts left in response listed endless examples of women posing as men simply so their posts wouldn’t be downvoted or trolled. 

An interesting explanation put forward by several users on the thread plays into the phenomenon Laurie Penny calls “nerd entitlement”. As user eikaiwar put it, “A lot of guys on reddit are bitter because they view women as having an easier time in areas redditors tend to struggle in.”  In other words, some less confident, “geeky” men find it hard to respect women and the structural prejudice they face, since they, too, may have faced something similar while growing up. 

In the wake of the AskReddit post, The Wire asked Erik Martin, the site’s general manager, for his take on the "woman problem". He acknowledged that it was “something we've thought about and read a lot of commentary about for a long time". Interestingly, he highlighted Reddit's roots as a "coder community". He also implied that the site has a relatively hands-off policy when it comes to issues like this: 

Reddit’s a big enough site that you are going to find horrible, vile people in certain threads and sections." 

Gender breakdown varies wildly from subreddit to subreddit ("Mommit", for example, was over 95 per cent female as of last year, while gaming, sports and car subreddits tend to be overwhelmingly male) and Martin also suggests that users should stick to those "communities" in which they feel "comfortable". Yet TwoXChromosomes, a subreddit for "women's perspectives", became a target for trolls when it appeared on the site's main list of subreddits after a redesign last year. As one user put it at the time, "we can call say goodbye to a safe place on reddit for women". 

Efforts to curb Reddit's nasty, underlying sexist culture are necessary – morally, legally (in the case of hate speech and some of the more risque porn subreddits), and for the sake of the users who will steer clear of the site until it cleans up its act. Reddit prides itself on its 20m unique users per month, but it will struggle to build on those numbers it if keeps its reputation as a place where women, and anyone who hopes to curb racist and sexist content, are not welcome. 


Now listen to Barbara discussing Reddit's woman problem on the NS podcast:

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

The Depths of Hell
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Review: “Self-Portrait as Hairless Dog”, Alex Jones, 2018

Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

The self-portrait as self-abasement has a long history in art: Caravaggio gave his own face to the severed head of Goliath being held aloft by the young sword-wielding David; Stanley Spencer once depicted his sunken haunches, grey skin and squashed genitalia (alongside his wife’s sagging body) next to a carefully depicted leg of mutton; Michelangelo meanwhile showed himself as an empty flayed skin in The Last Judgement  in the Sistine Chapel.

What to make, then, of the mocked-up photograph currently scarring Twitter’s collective eyeballs which the radio host, conspiracy theorist and provocateur Alex Jones posted, portraying him as a hairless dog lying on a kitchen hob?

This strange, Hieronymus Bosch monster, stares expressionless at the viewer anticipating a moue of distaste. The Jones-hound is unapologetic, fleshily pink in a pose that carries uncomfortable references to Renaissance nudes.

Titian’s Venus D’Urbino shows a voluptuously sensual woman: the thoughts she is meant to evoke can only be carnal. But it is harder to see the Jones image, however coquettish, as drawing the panting male gaze. Is his nakedness a reminder that we are all born of original sin and creatures of shame, like Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden? Is his canine persona an acknowledgement that we nothing but animals?

The kitchen hob on which this squidgy hybrid lounges clearly alludes to the flames of hell. Rogier van der Weyden showed the flames licking at terrified sinners in his Last Judgement of 1450: this, he says, is what happens to those who err from the ways of the Bible. Jones’s burners are off, but his face shows no fear: here is a creature that would luxuriate in hellfire as if it were as pleasurable as a hot shower.

It is hard not to interpret the Caravaggio, Spencer and Michelangelo depictions other than as as expressions of self-loathing, of a disgust so profound it came to the fore almost despite themselves. Jones, though, looks complacent, even contented. Medieval bestiaries are full of such fanciful creatures; often they are emblems of evil, the Devil’s playthings that are beyond redemption and settled in their fallen state. This, perhaps, is closer to the truth.

However, the cleverness of the image ultimately lies in something it doesn’t show. The animal’s plump tail covers, almost coyly, its genitals and what Jones’s expression says is: don’t worry, if you are looking for bollocks, well, that’s me.

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.