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Reddit isn't the problem, the internet is

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Reddit is an internet phenomenon.

Founded in 2005, it is a heaving, ugly-yet-functional content machine. To the casual observer, it is a monstrous spectacle; a vast forum supported by a near-indecipherable interface, filled with such myriad topics that one wonders where to start. Yet, despite its unfamiliar design, it succeeds in providing some 164 million unique users with a space to post and discuss just about anything they so please.

Just about. 

Having sailed close to (and often against) the ethical winds for many years, Reddit is beginning to address its internal demons - demons like user discussion of rape, fat hate, white supremacy and "cute corpses". After an internal revolt and the resignation of Ellen Pao from the position of CEO, co-founder Steve Huffman has taken the reigns, attempting to clarify what Reddit is and what it stands for in the process. 

Huffman's quandary is a tricky one: to allow Reddit to remain the "Front page of the internet" - a forum in the true, classical sense of the word - and a profit-making website (it made $8.3 million last year, a figure which shrinks in stature when you compare it to the $100 million BuzzFeed generated from its 192 million users) that doesn't appear to support and further discussion of illegal, hateful and ethically wrong activities, or make money from it.

His solution - a vague middle ground of hiding abhorrent material from the wider web, limiting access to users who sign in and go hunting for it - only serves to highlight the issues of the murky medium in which Reddit exists: the internet. 

Internet

One of the internet's many "bad guys"

Reddit is, in some ways, a microcosm of the wider web: a place where nice and nasty people brush up against each other, share views in positive and negative exchanges and go seeking things that they wish to see - some of which will upset and threaten those who wouldn't choose to go looking for it. Since the inception of the World Wide Web, this strange digital space that exists on server boxes around the globe has allowed people to take their conversations from the corporeal world and reproduce them in a place that laws, rules and ethics are still trying to figure out. It's a messy, long-winded process, and Reddit is at the sharp end of it, even if their solution is blunt. 

But at least Reddit is trying to keep its own house in order. A dig through comparable sites like 4Chan, 8Chan, or the string of forums that exist on the so-called Dark Web and peer-to-peer networks such as Tor makes Reddit's current battles appear comparatively mild. There are forums where child pornography is shared, where weapons are illegally bought and sold, where people trafficking is the top subject of the day - but they don't have CEOs governing their policy rules, they're just getting on with it.

So long as the internet remains a place where people can share things anonymously, be it a hateful opinion, an expression of an extreme belief or content of an illegal nature, there will be a discussion of how we stop it from happening, coupled with a mumble about "freedom of speech". In the main, we don't know how to stop it, other than shutting it down and hoping to find where the bugs scurry to next.

Many will disagree with Huffman's solution and with Reddit's continued practices - but I doubt we have a better solution. Even if we were to pull the plug on Reddit and clear the server banks, the problem wouldn't go away. It would just find a deeper, darker corner, and wait for the mainstream web to point a finger at it again. Just like issues of racism, prejudice behaviour and abuse don't disappear in the real world as soon as you make them illegal, they won't disappear from the web just because we've taken away their forum. As we grapple to understand why people do bad things in the real world, so will we struggle to comprehend why they do it in the digital. Arrest them, educate them, and hope someone much smarter than us comes up with a solution in the long run.

Follow David Cornish on Twitter: @d_cornish

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