All eyes on Reddit.

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Policing Reddit Could Kill Reddit

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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On Monday, when I wrote about the travails of Ellen Pao at Reddit, I noted that cleaning up the troll-infested caves of its vast ecosystem will not be an easy task for anyone. Its freewheeling, "anything goes" culture is a big part of its appeal to users, and the large number of users is a big part of Reddit's appeal to investors. It's also worth noting that this approach is substantially cheaper than trying to keep a close eye on Reddit's ever-expanding universe of subreddits.

But Reddit really seems to want to tidy things up a bit, or at least force the trolls down to the basement where they won't frighten the visitors. Steve Huffman, a Reddit co-founder who is returning as Pao's successor, has announced that the company will continue to take steps to curtail undesirable content. Potentially offensive forums will require users to opt in, and anything that "harasses, bullies, or abuses" will be entirely off limits. So a forum whose title is a vile racist slur will be reclassified for opt-in status. But the "Raping Women" forum will be banned outright.

Huffman is laying out some much clearer guidelines than Pao did, which is a good first step (and exactly what I said Pao should have done). On the other hand, that's no guarantee that this will prevent users from staging a mass exodus.

Like many technology companies, Reddit benefits from substantial network effects. This is economist jargon for something that is more valuable when there are other people using it, the more the better. The classic example of this is the fax machine. The first fax machine is an expensive doorstop. The second is perhaps modestly valuable. The 10 millionth fax machine hooks you up to a lot of people and puts yet another courier out of business. In other words, Reddit is so vibrant because so many people are using it -- and the fact that so many people are using it makes a lot of other people want to join, too.

Network effects are wonderful for a technology firm when it's growing. Early movers can gain an advantage that is very hard to displace, because once everyone else is using Microsoft Word or a Playstation, there's a cost to switching away. On the other hand, investors (and antitrust lawyers) often assume that network effects are more durable than they actually are. In fact, they can be quite fickle. Once your network starts shrinking, the collapse can be sudden, because every node that gets subtracted from your network makes it less valuable to the people who remain. Networks that start growing often start shrinking--and a modest decline can quickly prompt a stampede for the exits. Anyone remember MySpace?

And so the problem that Reddit has is this: Having attracted a bunch of people on the promise that they could say anything they wanted, the company risks alienating those people, shrinking the network and shrinking itself right out of existence. Reddit would probably be a better place if the fat-shaming hobbyists and racist trolls were surgically excised. But they won't be; they'll be forced out bluntly, along with others, and that will drive away many of the users Reddit would like to keep.

Deciding what is offensive is inherently a political act, because one man's deep truth is often another person's deep offense. To take one obvious example, do you treat conservative Christians who say terrible things about gay rights activists the same as gay rights activists who say terrible things about conservative Christians? Men's rights activists the same as feminists?

We are all more attuned to the offenses against our own beliefs than we are to what may seem terribly offensive to others. And with the culture war raging hot, it is going to be very hard to make choices that don't look as if you're taking sides. Even if you try to be scrupulously fair, chances are that you will miss something, causing one side to understandably point out: "See, they crack down on us, but not on those equally offensive other people!"

Reddit is trying to avoid this by splitting the baby in half: designating much of the worst content as questionable, and then segregating it, but not banning it. It's far from clear, however, that this compromise will work. I don't think a lot of people are going to mourn when the racist subreddits are segregated. But those are among the most notorious cases precisely because most people can agree that racist epithets are not okay. The border cases are likely to be more numerous, and the decisions will convince some users that Reddit is not for them.

Steve Huffman has a tough job in front of him, and I certainly wish him the best of luck. I suspect he'll need it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net