The Internet -- always ablaze with controversy -- is a wildfire these days with revelations about more pernicious government spying, deals between governments and corporate "hacker companies", and Ellen Pao's resignation as head of Reddit.
I'll have things to say about the rest later this week but the Pao blaze is shining brightest right now and there are some important lessons to be drawn from it.
Since last Fall, Pao has been the "interim CEO" of the privately held corporation (a subsidiary of Conde Nast) that owns one of the Internet's most remarkable phenomenon. In its ten years of existence, Reddit has grown so large and become so complex that it defies definition.
At its core, it's a message board system, but with 160 million users and tens of thousands of message boards under its roof tied together by dizzying interaction, it is the closest thing the Internet has to a city. True to Internet culture, it's run by a kind of anarchistic democracy. People start message systems (called "subreddits") whenever they want about whatever they want and users who start them moderate and control them. You can post text, photos, links to any kind of content you want (including videos) and people answer each other constantly.
For the most part, it works wonderfully, making it potentially a model for larger societies -- except that in this case the "mean user" is male between 18 to 29 years old and living in the United States. Whether that particular demographic is a cause or an effect, the fact is that this is no utopia. While most subreddits are friendly informative communities talking about the subreddit's subject, there are subreddits that are virulently sexist, homophobic and racist. Reddit can, and sometimes does, quickly turn into a lynch mob of immature young men acting destructively and viciously.
Ellen Pao was brought in to deal with the craziness; the craziness has forced her out.
Reddit has developed a way of concentrating that collectivizing energy by building a system of sharing and conversation that is, for the most part, regulated by the people who use it.
What's it like? Make a list of the first five things you did today: maybe rising, eating breakfast, perhaps reading a paper or watching the news, riding or driving someplace and starting work. Now search for each activity on Reddit and you'll find several subreddits on that very topic: people sharing information, debating it, providing links on it, posting photos or videos of it. Few of these people, who share their knowledge of and often personal details about these subjects, have ever met in person. In fact, they don't really know each other because Reddit protects the identities of all users -- you can post without submitting your email address.
Such freedom and anonymity is a paradise for those atomized people who, like most of us, crave a community and personal communication but who, in our battered societies, don't often find it. It is the dream of the Internet realized -- human communication at its most free.
The problem is that true freedom and elevated human consciousness that would flourish in a truly free world can't happen on a message board -- not now anyway. Reddit is an oasis surrounded by the scorching desert of oppressive and distorted societies that produce the ignorance, pained anger and isolated bigotry that seems to increasingly plague our world.
The Reddit community, given its demographic, includes people who share the bigotry and destructive nastiness that emanates from their tortured lives and, hidden behind the wall of anonymity, they act that out. Reddit is a magnet for bullying. There are constant harassment campaigns against individuals that start with a post or two and then explode into long threads of vituperative attacks.
Women who express feminist thinking often face long threads of outrageously sexist insults and even threats. The sexism is not only responsive. A subreddit called "TheFappening" famously specialized in nude photos of people, including celebrities, most of them women, few published with consent and some of them taken when they were underage.
Some subreddits are not much more than long threads of shockingly racist rants. In fact, one subreddit, called "Coontown", is a gathering place for racists with over 10,000 members. It's not alone. After the Charleston mass shooting in a church, for example, a subreddit was organized expressing admiration and support for racist murderer Dylan Roof.
As Pao herself put it: "In my eight months as Reddit's CEO, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly on Reddit. The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity."