You hit the nail on the head. The vast, vast majority of these connections are benign: people finding a sense of identity and community when they’re feeling alone or hopeless — [even] about a shared love of an obscure Pokémon, which is wonderful. And yet, these same platforms that we champion for those really either innocent or actually quite virtuous connections also can connect folks around antisocial ideas. Those kinds of communities and connections are certainly not good for society. They’re not good for business, either — you know, toxicity, harassment.
Now, in all of our defense, in 2005, the Internet was much smaller and more — I wouldn’t say “civil,” but it was just a much smaller community, right? And so, in a way, we could ignore it because it wasn’t an obvious problem. But the end result is the situation we’re in today, which is clearly an obvious problem.
As a pioneer in the space, how do you think about ways to counter some of the negative effects?
I think a big part of what is changing is this mind-set around how to deal with toxicity or harassment. I funded Sentropy because they have built software to actually do the [online moderation] work, scalably. I mean, you can try to have thousands of human moderators, but it is soul-crushing, difficult work. And we actually now have the technology to automate a lot of it so you don’t have to read over thousands and thousands and thousands of [posts]. It’s not fully automated; it’s just a difference between humans moderating 1,000 pieces of content versus humans moderating the 10 problem ones.
After the killing of George Floyd, you decided to step down from Reddit’s board of directors, requesting that you be replaced by a Black candidate. What motivated that decision?
Like a lot of people, I had been spending a lot of time at home with my family. Having hard conversations and really thinking about the work that I’m doing, and, basically, the legacy I want to leave behind for my daughter. She’s 3 now. And in, like, 10 or 15 years, she’ll be a snarky teenager asking me questions about what I did, how I make my money, and what kind of a world I’m helping to create for her. And she’s got a mom [Serena Williams] who, all of her life, she’s going to hear all the amazing things that her mom has done for so many people and total strangers. And, you know, I’m a competitive person. I know there’s just no way for me to have the kind of impact in the world that Serena has had. But I still want my daughter to be very proud of me and the work that I do.
It was a very hard decision, but as soon as I made it, I knew I made the right choice. And it was validated, frankly, by the fact that, within a few weeks, Reddit finally enacted a policy banning hate communities. And I was so happy that my resignation prompted that. I was relieved that they honored my request to be replaced by a Black director. It definitely had the impact that I hoped it would have. I mean, it is like night and day since my resignation in protest — 2,000 communities banned, an actual hate speech policy in place. You know, how ironic is it that now I’ve had more impact in a few months than I did in years? Part of me was like, Geez, maybe I should have just resigned sooner. [Laughs.] But I knew that this was going to be a first step and not the last.
How do you balance banning groups or what Sentropy is doing to improve discourse with charges of curtailing free speech?
We have to acknowledge the fact that every one of these entities is a private company, which has the right to do what they want to do in order to have a successful business. And it’s become more and more clear that having a healthy community, having a platform that’s free of hate and harassment is actually really good for business. Advertisers want to be there. Users want to engage there. There’s actually a strong business argument for curbing hate and harassment in your platforms.
Every few years, there’s some quote-unquote free-speech platform that gets founded in response to changes or policy changes that have been made. But the thing that all these platforms ultimately realize is that you hit a ceiling because people actually do want moderation because there’s always going to be some portion of the user base that exploits it to the point where people are just, like, Oh, this is annoying. Either they consider it spam or they just consider it just sort of low-effort content. The great irony here is all these platforms fail because it turns out there’s only a small number of people who actually want a fully unfettered, unmoderated platform.
How optimistic are you in these efforts to have a more productive, respectful dialogue, so that as your daughter grows up, the world that she encounters will be different than it is now?
Look, I don’t want to be too starry-eyed about this. It’s not going to be solved quickly or soon. What’s most important to me, though, is she sees the work that I do be part of a positive change. So, yes, this is the open Internet and at the end of the day, communities of hate, let’s say, will still find places to fester. But it’s really important they don’t have that kind of validation of being a part of major platforms. So I think the way it plays out is existing platforms adapt to create the user experience the vast, vast majority of people want, which is, I won’t say totally free of harassment, but actively working against it. Really built around this idea that, yes, you can find your home here. And live up to that.
KK Ottesen is a regular contributor to the magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kkOttesen. This interview has been edited and condensed.