Supplemental to my Forbes post: A conversation with a Reddit moderator, with background on the Gawker, Reddit and ShitRedditSays wars

Published with consent from the sender, who wished to remain anonymous. Contextual follow-up questions and answers follow. Related Forbes.com post here.

Hi Deanna,

To understand what’s unfolded over the last couple of days, it’s important to know that there are two distinct things happening simultaneously.  Because they started in such quick succession, many people got the impression that they were a single event.  This has led to a lot of the wild speculation and unfounded assumptions by people who concluded that reddit moderators were uniting in defense of pedophiles and voyeurs, which isn’t at all the case.

There are four parties involved in two wars right now.  The first war involves former reddit user Violentacrez and Gawker Media blogger Adrian Chen.  A bit over a year ago, Chen hoaxed reddit with a fake story about dying of cancer and choosing physician-assisted suicide[1].  Given the emotionally-charged nature of the topic, reddit users were understandably incensed when it was revealed that the whole story was faked for the purpose of insulting reddit users.  Emotions ran high, tempers flared, and the end result in a nutshell was that reddit users came to hate Adrian Chen, and Adrian Chen came to hate reddit users.  From time to time, he runs disparaging posts about reddit in his blog and on his Twitter feed.

Violentacrez was a prolific and longtime but highly secretive member of reddit.  He moderated 152 subreddits (categories on reddit), the majority of which he himself created[2].  Some were useful, productive places: /r/help is a place were new users can go to ask questions about how reddit works.  Some existed for raw shock value: I have been told that /r/picsofdeadkids lives up to its namesake.  Violentacrez was a unique individual, but his interest in shocking and offensive subreddits is not something shared by other prolific moderators.  Most of us just sit and delete spam and try to keep posts on-topic.

Because of how prolific Violentacrez became, he became a symbol for many people.  To some, he personified the anarchic commitment to near-total free speech that many reddit users value, even if they did not personally find his offensive subreddits tasteful.  To others, he represented everything that was wrong with reddit, a user who had free reign to shock and disgust without apparent regard for the feelings and sensibilities of others.  To Adrian Chen, it seems that the latter is the case.

With his loathing for reddit now directed at one specific reddit user, Chen had a tangible target.  While his blog posts on Gawker Media could never do any damage to reddit, Chen could have an impact on a single user.  Especially a user with a history as controversial as Violentacrez, who had gone to great lengths to obscure his real world identity.  Last week, several users with whom Violentacrez regularly conversed reported being contacted by Chen, who was fishing for information on Violentacrez.  Some talked, some did not.  Earlier this week, Chen informed Violentacrez that enough information had been collected to personally identify him.  Chen stated that he would publish an article on Gawker with Violentacrez’ real name and other personal information.  Violentacrez subsequently deleted his reddit account and other aspects of his online identity, including his Facebook and Twitter feeds.

It is those last two bits of information that are often left out of the reporting on this topic.  Other moderators—moderators who had nothing to do with Violentacrez or any of his seedier subreddits—were spooked.  We are often the targets of public outrage for reasons far less “acceptable” than the moral outrage against Violentacrez’ participation in some of the darker back alleys of reddit.  I had a teenager in Canada follow me around the website for nearly a month, harassing and threatening me, because I had removed an inappropriate (just a relatively minor rule violation) submission of his from one of the subreddits I moderate.  He was not initially banned and I even offered constructive tips that might help him rework his post to get it in compliance with the rules.   For this egregious infringement of his free speech liberties, myself and other moderators of that subreddit got called faggots on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis for months.  Reddit provided us with no way of blocking his messages, and the administrators refused to block the user.

And comparatively speaking, we had it light.  Other places on reddit deal with far more serious topics.  There’s /r/politics in the middle of the election season, /r/worldnews as the Middle East continues to experience upheavals, /r/IAmA where the President of the United States stopped by for a crowdsourced Q&A.  Moderators in these subreddits are deal with millions of users on a daily basis, and they’re all volunteers.  Sometimes mistakes are made, and sometimes enforcing a rule is viewed as unpopular.  These people have had users threaten to call child services and have a moderator’s children taken away because of a disagreement about grammar (seriously, this happened).  Moderators get cult followings of people who hate them without ever having met them.  We are exposed to the vengeful desires of some of the most unstable and dangerous people in the nation, who threaten our very lives and livelihoods, all the while remaining safe behind their own veil of anonymity.

As moderators, we’re not demanding special treatment or trying to offer a defense of creepy and unethical behavior.  We just want to know that our private lives will remain private as we remove spam and keep cats out of /r/dogs.  When a blog network like Gawker has its bloggers running hit pieces on unpopular moderators, exposing everything from names to criminal histories to employment records, we’re alarmed.  We don’t engage in the management of debauchery that Violentacrez did, but we know that doesn’t protect us from being the targets of a witch hunt.  It’s happened before and it will happen again: people get upset and start a witch hunt over the most trivial of things.  If I had removed a post from one of Gawker’s bloggers instead of a Canadian teenager, would I now be the next target up on the list for stalking and harassment?  Would my volunteer activities in my free time justify threatening calls to my colleagues and my family?  I certainly don’t think so.  But that’s exactly what Chen has done at Gawker.  He’s taken his personal dislike for a person and used that to justify publishing private and intimate information about a person on the internet, where any unbalanced psychopath has access it.

We don’t want to be the next victims of such a pitchfork mob.  We know that they happen without rhyme or reason.  So we debated amongst ourselves and decided to unify in opposition to Gawker.  There will always be angry people on the internet, but we’re not going to volunteer our time and effort to curate content for a blog network that can pour money and research teams into harassing and threatening us.  We’re not going to line their pocketbooks with page views while they simultaneously work to destroy us and our lives.  We’re a volunteer janitorial service for reddit, and it’s absolutely not acceptable for well-funded blog networks to allow their employees’ personal vendettas to ruin our families.

We’re not defenders of child porn or the exploitation of women.  We’re deleters of Viagra advertisements, helpers of confused users, and cultivators of community.    And we won’t let Gawker use us as tools in our own undoing, nor will we let them destroy the communities we’ve built.  When the reddit admins were unwilling to take action to protect us, we came together and took action to defend ourselves.

That’s the first war: Reddit/Violentacrez vs. Gawker/Adrian Chen.  That’s the one we moderators got involved in for our own—and only our own—protection.

The other one, the nastier one that’s getting conflated with the first conflict, is a subset of reddit users fighting another subset of reddit users.  There is a community on reddit that calls itself /r/ShitRedditSays (commonly referred to as SRS), and claims to be in the business of calling out horrible bigoted comments made by other reddit users.  This seems like a good idea in theory, but the execution leaves much to be desired.  Importantly, while SRS claims to be an advocacy group for oppressed minorities, the majority of its members, as determined by their own demographic survey[3], are straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, and/or heterosexual men.  This has had the unfortunate result of members of privileged majority groups leading hateful attacks on oppressed minority members who disagree with the strident ideology of SRS.

SRS has, over the last several months, declared itself the de facto moral police of reddit.  Its community leaders identify other reddit communities in need of destruction, and then through vote manipulation, comment invasion, or media pressure (or some combination of the three) cause its target to buckle and, eventually break.  They have done this to reprehensible places like /r/jailbait which disappeared after Anderson Cooper talked about it on CNN, but they’ve also done it to positive communities like /r/LGBT, formerly a haven for LGBT folks on reddit, now a hateful source of SRS dogma and doctrine where genuine LGBT people feel unwelcome and frightened.

The most recent SRS target was a place known as /r/CreepShots.  About a month ago SRS launched an initiative dubbed “Project Panda.”[4]  The goal of this initiative was to create a media blitz of negative publicity for /r/CreepShots, forcing the hand of the reddit administrators in much the same way as Anderson Cooper’s exposé helped get rid of /r/jailbait.  They describe members of the /r/creepshots community as “predditors” and suggest that its members perpetuate acts of violence against women.

Let me be unequivocally clear: I abhor the content of /r/CreepShots.  I find it to be distasteful, invasive, objectifying, and, well, creepy.  I am not alone in this assessment.  Its existence made us very uncomfortable.  But we had no control over it.  We couldn’t shut it down or effect policy changes at the administrative level.  We had no communication with its moderators.  Our only tenuous connection to the place was that we knew Violentacrez, and Violentacrez was predictably one of the /r/CreepShots moderators.  We did not tell him what to do, and he did not discuss what went on in the place with us.

Some SRS members, egged on by the extreme levels of vitriol and bile coming from their community leaders, took it upon themselves to do more against /r/CreepShots than was publicly encouraged.  They began collecting intimate details about participants in the community, in much the same fashion Chen collected details about Violentacrez.  Reddit accounts were linked with alleged Facebook accounts, telephone numbers, street addresses, employment history, and in some cases even arrest records.  Two days ago, an anonymous SRS member approached the most powerful moderator of /r/CreepShots, and blackmailed him with the threat of publishing all his personal data if he did not shut down the subreddit and turn it over to her[5].  He complied with her demands.

This was insufficient placation for the enraged SRS community.  While their goal had been achieved and yet another reddit community destroyed, they had collected personal data on dozens of reddit users (though they had not done any vetting of this data).  This data was then dumped on a Tumblr blog named “Predditors”—the same name used by SRS.  Over two dozen people who had irritated SRS in some way were labeled sexual predators, had faces and names attached to their reddit accounts, and all of this information was simply dumped into the public.  The tumblr blog has since gone behind a password protection; it is speculated that its author may have become concerned about exposure to legal liability for having provided pictures and links to Facebook accounts of people labeled by the blog as sexual predators, despite not having verified that the information being dumped actually had anything to do with the reddit accounts in question.

Reddit has very few site wide rules.  Posting people’s personal information—for any reason, at any time—is one of the verboten items.  It is unclear to many moderators why SRS has managed to evade repercussions for its repeated organized violation of this rule.  It is certainly baffling that they may engage in blackmail, a federal felony, without being removed from the site.  Many moderators have expressed public frustration to this effect.  SRS document dumping is threatening the safety of our users in much the same way that Adrian Chen threatened the safety of our moderators.  There are real world consequences to these actions.  We moderators can protect ourselves to a limited extent against a single blog ring.  We know who they’re targeting and what they’re trying to accomplish.  SRS, on the other hand is a constantly-morphing group of people with nebulous and unpredictable motivations and goals.  We have a very hard time protecting our users from them when reddit administrators don’t seem to enforce their own rules.  Many of us think SRS should be banned outright.

I apologize for the length of this message.  I thought it necessary to be thorough in order that the situation can be properly understood.  Almost all reddit moderators had nothing to do with and want nothing to do with /r/creepshots.  We did not institute the blockade of Gawker in order to protect people who bring harm to women and children.  We did it in order to protect ourselves from those who would do harm to us, merely on account of someone with whom we became accidentally associated, either on the whim of a spiteful blogger, or the rage of a besmirched rule violator.  We think /r/creepshots is pretty awful.  We also think the way SRS managed to get rid of it is awful.  One does not pile wrong upon wrong until righteousness is reached.  But ultimately the fight between SRS and the rest of reddit is not one that the moderators will have much involvement in.  That ignoble honor rests upon the site administrators.

All we want to do is get back to deleting spam, helping users, and growing our communities.  We don’t want to be involved in drama, least of all a war between free speech and smut.  We’re steering as well-clear of that one as we possibly can.  Our actions had nothing to do with that.  We sought only to protect ourselves from a blog network with no moral compass and our livelihoods potentially hanging in the balance.

Some final notes: You may quote me as you wish.  However, I do ask that you change my name, as I don’t want to be the next up on anyone’s hit list.  When I say “we” and “us,” I refer to a group of high-profile moderators who I feel would largely agree with my sentiments.  I do not refer to any one person, nor can I speak for 100% of the people 100% of the time.

PS: Sources!

[1] Stryker, Cole.  ”Gawker’s Adrian Chen Pretends to Have Cancer to Prove That Reddit is Sexist.”  Posted 10 March 2011.  Accessed 12 October 2012.  http://www.urlesque.com/2011/03/10/gawker-adrian-chen-cancer-lucidending/

[2] Stattit. “violentacrez  - stattit - moderator statistics.”  Accessed 12 October 2012.  http://stattit.com/user/violentacrez/

[3] Twentygraph. “[Meta] The Long Wait: Thurvey Threesults : ShitRedditSays.”  Posted 11 October 2012.  Accessed 12 October 2012.  http://www.reddit.com/r/ShitRedditSays/comments/11c3f2/meta_the_long_wait_thurvey_threesults/

[4] Unknown author.  ”We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.”  Posted 19 September 2012.  Accessed 12 October 2012.  http://www.reddit.com/r/RedditBomb

[5] SilversunPickups.  ”/r/creepshots has been removed due to doxxing of the main mod.”  Posted 10 October 2012.  Accessed 12 October 2012.  http://i.imgur.com/AL52y.png

FOLLOW-UPS: Quoted items are my questions, and regular paragraphs are his responses.

The follow-up to that on urlesque says that Chen wasn’t lucidending. But it seems the damage was done; did anyone ever find out if lucidending was real? Or if Chen was involved?

I honestly do not know.  I have suspicions that it was just another hoax, since we get them all the time on reddit.  Some people just love the attention.  But you’re right: the damage was done.  Whether people are still operating under the assumption that it was Chen, or they’re upset because as a result of the whole thing he called redditors “gullible idiots,” Chen has few friends on reddit. 

Questions (and these are intentionally prickly): in your self-organizing, why not take action against Reddit itself, demand more protection, accountability, etc? If you don’t want to be associated with jailbait’ers, creepshot’ers, etc., isn’t there a way for yous to come together and be like, “Not okay?” This came up in the podcast interview I did last night; Jaclyn said that she felt like the libertarian values combined with the bro culture of Reddit leads to a lot of shoulder shrugging and turning the other way. It’s a function of privilege; if it doesn’t hurt/bother you, you don’t do anything. But then the shit came down, and the unsavory subreddits’ actions could indirectly hurt you, so you took a stand… against Gawker. That’s the part that’s a bit baffling to me. I mean, not baffling on the surface, I see everything you’re saying here. But I struggle with people who see injustice and don’t do anything about it. 

It’s largely a limitation of the way reddit’s power structure works.  Moderators of one subreddit have absolutely no control what goes on in other places.  We can ask nicely, we can demand tersely, but the ultimate say resides in the moderation team of the subreddit in question.  When we request tools from the admins, they usually agree that our requests are a great idea, and promise to add them to the features queue.  That queue is very slow moving.  Here’s a link to all the changes to reddit pertaining to moderators: http://www.reddit.com/r/modnews — as you can see, not much of serious consequence ever happens.  We try to do the best we can, but our hands are tied by the tools available to us.  And when prolific moderators do unite to try to expunge some of the awful garbage that goes on in the niche subreddits, we’re often seen as bullies trying to strong-arm people, and the result is the exact opposite of what we want: those sleazy niche places become even more popular thanks to the attention our efforts brought them.  It’s like when children do the exact opposite of what their parents want for no other reason than to be defiant.

With the mound of salt that I’m not a redditor, only a sometimes observer, I looked at SRS and agree with at least the statements about what they say they’re trying to do. (My politics are very, very left.) I saw the survey, and while the numbers do skew heavily white and dudely, there are certainly higher percentages of marginalized-ish people there than on the site as a whole. Plus, some would argue, it’s good to have allies participating. That said, I’m not a fan of any kind of lulz tactic, which seems to be at the heart of the activity. It certainly isn’t changing the overall culture of reddit being fairly toxic to non nerdy straight white dudes. […] I’m feeling fence-y about them at the moment, and want to make sure I portray folks fairly. 
I agree that there is merit to what SRS claims it wants to to.  The problem is that they don’t actually do that.  They stalk, harass, threaten, and demean people.  They invade discussion threads and turn them into a pile of in-joke nonsense, voting down all the real discussion.  I’m gay, and I’ve been on the receiving end of nothing but vitriol and hatred from them.  They terrify me, especially now that they appear to have directed their attention toward moderators, just as we all feared.
I’d love nothing more than a group the size of SRS on reddit dedicated to eliminating bigotry and prejudice.  It would do wonders towards advancing the cause for equality.  But SRS has actually had the exact opposite effect.  Bigots have been emboldened because they see being targeted by SRS as a mark of pride.  Allies have run away because they don’t want to be the next target.  And us moderators have had our jobs made an order of magnitude more difficult.
It’s hard enough being gay in the southern US.  My state has no employment protections for LGBT people.  I can be fired at any time for being gay.  And now I’ve spent several hours today scrubbing my reddit profile of any mention of where I live now or where I have lived in the past.  I had to lock down my Facebook and delete my Twitter account.  I had to pay my domain name registrar extra fees to protect my personal information in the domain registry.  SRS favorite tactic to “win” arguments is to create a false dichotomy: either you’re with SRS or you’re a pedophile/pedophile apologist.
And now that they’ve directed their attention on moderators, I have to be extra careful, or one of their loony members might just decide to call up a local TV station and try to spread all sorts of nasty rumors about me.  In the south, that puts my life in danger.  Truth is irrelevant to angry mobs.  I am legitimately terrorized by them.  And that really sucks.
The part that sucks the most, though, is the part where people start to believe that what SRS actually does (not what they say they do) is representative of feminism.  I believe in equal pay for equal work.  I find rape culture in society disgusting.  I am appalled by puritanical slut-shaming of sexually-active women.  I know who both Lilly Ledbetter and Todd Aikin are, and that the latter is a sitting congressman running for the US Senate scares the hell out of me.  I know that feeding someone a few drinks is not the same thing as getting consent.  If someone called me a feminist, I’d embrace the label.