Brianna Wu: Reddit Is Screwed. Can Another Site Step Up?

Last week, Ellen Pao, Reddit's former interim CEO, declared that online trolls are winning the battle for the internet. Pao's tenure at Reddit had been fraught from the beginning; she controversially introduced policies that would ban particularly racist and sexist subreddits, much to the chagrin of vocal "free-speech" advocates in the online community. She was also the subject of racist and sexist attacks against her from the start. In the wake of her July 10 departure, serious questions have been raised around the community's ability and willingness to combat racist and sexist harassment in its midst.

Brianna Wu, video game developer and co-founder of Giant Spacekat, is also no stranger to online harassment. During the Gamergate controversy, Wu — along with game designer Zoe Quinn, video game critic Anita Sarkeesian, and countless others — was targeted with an unbelievable onslaught of online misogynist vitriol. Wu, in particular, became known for her refusal to back down to the army of trolls, her vocal opposition in the #gamergate movement, her continued fight to have better representation of women in video games, and her badass swagger — complete with red-tinged hair and leather boots.

Saturday, at a #BlogHer15: Experts Among Us keynote panel titled "Creating a Safer, Saner Online Culture" (along with Digital Sisters founder Shireen Mitchell), Wu emphasized how she's not alone in this abuse. "Women have been intimidated and harassed in technology ever since its inception," she said. "I think what happened this year is that it's reached such a critical point, you can't ignore it anymore. When the CEO of the tenth most trafficked website in the world can't even do her job because she’s getting so much misogynistic harassment, that is a problem. I think this is the year technology hit rock bottom."

I think this is the year technology hit rock bottom.

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Wu keenly feels the repercussions of Pao's departure: "I think Ellen Pao is one of the smartest, most talented women in the tech industry, and this entire saga has been a discredit to her leadership," Wu told Refinery29. "[It's] because of her integrity as a business leader that she stepped down. I frankly don’t know if Reddit can survive losing her."

As interim CEO, Pao was charged with ushering the community board site into a new era of commercial viability, Wu says — but the users started a petition accusing Pao of a "new age of censorship," as the company removed five subreddits with offensive and hateful themes (though many other problematic subreddits were left untouched). Wu sees this as a difficult problem that Reddit faces: How can the platform be commercially viable if it has forums that spew hateful ideology?

After Pao's departure, Reddit did make a point of establishing guidelines regarding harassment online. Last week, Reddit's co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman outlined the types of prohibited content, including spam, illegal content (such as copyright material and non-consensual pornography), publication of private and confidential information, and content that harasses, bullies, abuses, or incites harm or violence against individuals or groups of people. Huffman explained that other questionable items, including NSFW content and that which "violates a common sense of decency," will be "classified," requiring a sign-in and opt-in to view. This means places like subreddit r/CoonTown — known for being one of the most racist and hateful subreddits — will still exist. They'll just be hidden. Many argue that these efforts don't go far enough.

"Seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic to me," Wu says of these changes. "I'm happy they're getting rid of the forum specifically about raping women. That's great. Mazel Tov. But no, I don't think it will work."

The problem with Reddit — as many op-eds have pointed out — is that it's reluctant to take a stand. "Reddit doesn't have a vision and [doesn't] have the leadership for it," Wu says. "There are so many Reddit users who are on there for r/Science, r/IAmA, r/GirlGamers; they care about these forums. That is the core of Reddit. There are people who are going to continue to use the site, if you can get the worst offenders out of there."

There are so many Reddit users who are on there for r/Science, r/IAmA, r/GirlGamers; they care about these forums. That is the core of Reddit.

Of course, trolls inhabit the internet in a variety of places. It's just a matter of how much power individual online communities give them. Part of the issue is that there are so few women in technology. In Wu's experience, different platforms vary widely in their rates of harassment and abuse, and this has plenty to do with how diverse each company's team is. "Pinterest has a one-percent harassment [rate]," Wu says. "You know what company has the most women engineers I know? Pinterest. You know which social media company had women involved from the beginning? Pinterest. When it’s baked into the DNA, you get a product that’s safer. It's not rocket science."

"The [number] of death threats I've gotten on Facebook is, like, four," Wu continues. "Twitter, I do see them making changes, and I know women at Twitter who are working to solve [harassment] problems." So, Reddit stands out in not taking harassment seriously enough? "I think Reddit is screwed, yeah," replies Wu. If there is any hope for the platform, Wu says, it requires Reddit to take definitive action: Either be a bastion of free speech at all costs, or make a site that's safe for everyone. The latter, Wu says, might not even be possible.

"With all respect to the people working at Reddit, you’re not going to change Reddit culture into a place that is safe for women," Wu said in her keynote. (While men and women are both likely to experience name-calling and embarrassment online, women are more likely to be targets of sexual harassment and cyberstalking.) "So we need women going out there to start their own companies. Engineers build societies," she emphasizes, "so this is a question of whether women get included in building the future of the human race — and it’s incredibly important."
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