Reddit: free speech comes with price

According to ousted boss Ellen Po, ‘the trolls are winning’ at online discussion forum, one of the most visited sites in the world

For the last decade, Reddit has marketed itself as the “front page of the internet”.

The online discussion forum, which recently surpassed 164 million unique monthly visitors, made its name through free-for-all discussions, allowing people to post news and comment behind anonymous usernames.

Its commitment to free speech made it the 27th most popular website in the world by traffic, and one of the most influential too.

But free speech comes with a price. And as Reddit is finding out, it is not always conducive to profits.

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Recently resigned Reddit chief executive Ellen Pao says the issue is that a large portion of the internet audience enjoys edgy content and the behaviour of the more extreme users; it wants to see the bad with the good. This makes it harder to get rid of the ugly.

However, to attract more mainstream audiences and bring in the big-budget advertisers, content platforms must hide or remove the ugly. In terms of user numbers, Reddit is not far behind BuzzFeed. Yet BuzzFeed broke the $100 million mark last year, while Reddit made just $8.3 million.

But, as Pao points out, community management becomes ever more difficult when user numbers climb, especially when that figure is over 100 million a month.

Hours after the ousted chief executive declared "the trolls are winning", her replacement – Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman – took to the site to say Reddit would be making changes, banning spam, incitement and bullying, as well as anything "actually illegal, such as copyrighted material".

“We believe there is value in letting all views exist, even if we find some of them abhorrent, as long as they don’t pollute people’s enjoyment of the site,” he said, adding that the offensive nature of some posts/threads is not justification for banning.

The clampdown represents a major change for the site, which was very permissive of all kinds of content until now. Many think the move is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg. Only time will tell.