Reddit‘s traffic was off the charts. In fact, there were so many people flocking to Reddit, a site that normally gets more than 1 billion pageviews each month, that it was actually in danger of crashing. Unfortunately for the team at Reddit, those eyeballs weren’t looking at high-profile Ask Me Anything interviews or hilarious viral videos — they were looking for nude celebrity photos.
One or more hackers stole nude or semi-naked images from multiple celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton, and posted the private photos to 4chan last Sunday. The images then spread to a subgroup on Reddit known as “The Fappening,” a masturbation reference. That Reddit page quickly became a hotbed for user activity, and the new frontline in the Internet’s never-ending battle between decency and free speech.
“This nightmare of the weekend made myself and many of my coworkers feel pretty awful,” Jason Harvey, a systems administrator at Reddit, wrote in a long post Saturday night. “I had an obvious responsibility to keep the site up and running, but seeing that all of my efforts were due to a huge number of people scrambling to look at stolen private photos didn’t sit well with me personally, to say the least. We hit new traffic milestones, ones which I’d be ashamed to share publicly.”
According to Harvey, Reddit’s team held “an internal emergency meeting” on the day the photos were first posted to the site in order to figure out how to handle the situation. The priorities, in no particular order, were to keep Reddit from crashing, dealing with members of the media and community asking for comment, processing requests to take down images due to copyright violations and weighing the potential for backlash among the Reddit community if the team removed posts. (Not long after, it did begin removing content after learning that some of the images in the celebrity cache were of minors.)
“Meanwhile, we were having a huge amount of debate internally at Reddit,” Harvey wrote. “A lot of members on our team could not understand what we were doing here, why we were continuing to allow ourselves to be party to this flagrant violation of privacy, why we hadn’t made a statement regarding what was going on and how on earth we got to this point. It was messy, and continues to be.”
Reddit has come under pressure many times in recent years to crack down on some of its users’ indecent activity, only to err on the side of free speech. But perhaps no incident has garnered the level of mainstream media attention that the celebrity photo hacks did last week.
On Saturday night, after nearly a week of wrestling with the issue, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong published a blog post attempting to clarify the company’s philosophy once and for all.
“We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize,” Wong wrote. “Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event.”
The reason, as vaguely suggested in the post’s title and only stated in slightly more concrete terms in the post itself, is that “every man is responsible for his own soul.”
“We uphold the ideal of free speech on Reddit as much as possible not because we are legally bound to, but because we believe that you — the user — has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that it is your responsibility to do so,” Wong wrote. “When you know something is right, you should choose to do it. But as much as possible, we will not force you to do it.”
Judging by the response that followed, the post succeeded in clarifying little, and satisfying no one.
He’s making a case that Reddit is a safe haven for any evil behavior, as long as it’s not spam, vote cheating, or specific violent threats.
— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) September 7, 2014
Reddit disavows responsibility for banning stolen-nude posts because “you’re responsible for your own soul.” Uhh http://t.co/qQeBol1ZI7
— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) September 7, 2014
Just another reminder that Conde Nast owns Reddit.
— Steve Kovach (@stevekovach) September 7, 2014
The intended impact of the blog post was further undermined when someone else at Reddit decided to ban The Fappening subgroup at almost the exact same time as the CEO explained why Reddit would refrain from banning subgroups. As Wong admitted in an update to his post, “Those two events occurring together have created great confusion.”
On this point, at least, the Reddit community appears to be agree.
The reason for The Fappening’s demise, according to systems admin Harvey, came down to Reddit’s team playing whack-a-mole with copyrighted content and underage images:
The mods were doing their best to keep things under control and in line with the site rules, but problems were still constantly overflowing back to us. Additionally, many nefarious parties recognized the popularity of these images, and started spamming them in various ways and attempting to infect or scam users viewing them. It became obvious that we were either going to have to watch these subreddits constantly, or shut them down
Reddit is doubling down on legitimate newsgathering efforts. It’s pushing for more general-interest users with the launch of its first app, devoted to the most sanitized of its offerings, the Ask Me Anything series. But it’s still Reddit, a service where (almost) anything goes. There are plenty of NSFW subreddits still up and running, some of which are all too similar to The Fappening — at least for now.
Reddit bans r/TheFappening by spares r/photoplunder, a sub dedicated to stolen nude pics of “normals.” Its tagline: They should know better.
— Neetzan Zimmerman (@neetzan) September 7, 2014
Even some members of Reddit’s team appear to be uneasy about the balance the service has struck.
“The pseudo-result of all of this debate and argument has been that we should continue to be as open as a platform as we can be, and that while we in no way condone or agree with this activity, we should not intervene beyond what the law requires,” Harvey, the systems admin, wrote in his post. “The arguments for and against are numerous, and this is not a comfortable stance to take in this situation, but it is what we have decided on.”
Every man is responsible for his own soul. That burden extends to the entire team at Reddit.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.