What does anonymity mean? Reddit, activism, and “Creepshots”

By December 6, 2012 Blog No Comments

Recently I returned to an article I had drafted about anonymity in online communities, begun while I was running on fumes during post-dissertation submission. As I have been working on it, the Reddit-Violentacrez incident has been shaping my thinking about anonymity.

But what does anonymity mean?  This is the question that my neglected article-in-progress focuses on and a question that has appeared in other musings about online communities (see, Whitney Phillips, for example).  In my dissertation research, I created a long list of questions that I used to code the four sites I examined in my dissertation, as well as others I was looking at to test validity.

I created this list inductively after tracking several sites, and when I began my research I thought I would end up with a “yes” and “no” type table.  Yes, /b/ on 4chan.org is anonymous (please be warned, /b/ is not safe for work and can contain sexually explicit and violent images as well as offensive language).  No, World of Warcraft is not anonymous.  Instead, I ended up with a continuum.  4chan.org is pretty anonymous, but not entirely —for example, the site tracks IP addresses.  World of Warcraft is pseudo-anonymous or aliased–as people use names distinct to that space.  However, layers of reputation based on traceable behaviors, group membership, and other factors including Blizzard’s behavior tracking make the site not very anonymous. These nuances seem to have an impact on outcomes.

Before speaking more about anonymity in relation to the Reddit-Violentacrez incident, a brief note on Reddit is probably necessary for people who aren’t tapped into online communities.  Reddit.com is the self-named “front page of the internet” – a sprawling posting board system loosely focused on “news” where users post content and other community members can vote their posts “up” or “down.”  Community members can also rate individual responses to a post up or down.  The number of up or down votes decides where the post will appear on the page—both the front page of the site or the front page of boards within the system.  These boards within the system are “reddits” and users also have the capability to create their own reddits.  Users on Reddit have names, but they are usually pseudonyms, and it is possible for a user to use a name only once.  (I won’t go into the more complicated aspects of identity such as friends and karma on Reddit here.)

With 43 million active users and more than three billion page views during the summer months of 2012, Reddit has become incredibly popular and is now the fountain-point for many online memes and cultural content.  Yes, you read that correctly:  43 million users a month makes Reddit’s monthly user base around the size of Kenya, slightly larger than the population of Argentina and slightly smaller than the population of the Ukraine.  Its prominence was, perhaps, cemented in October, when President Obama visited Reddit twice, the first time for an “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) thread and the second time on Election Day to urge Reddit-members to vote.

Reddit has a policy of radical free speech tied to very minimal rules, although it advises people to adhere to the informal rules of the site, which is a far longer list than the site’s list of formal rules.  The somewhat radical version of free speech that the Reddit administrators enforce is not uncommon among online communities or activists arguing for a “free” internet.  The idea among these groups is that if a speaker is not actually breaking the law, then the speech should be permitted.  This is a very radical idea of free speech that is a combination of online culture and liberal-democratic societal norms.  It also tends to be a conception of a right that doesn’t actually exist within any legal system and a norm of interaction that does not exist in any more heavily regulated online community.

Over the past few years, Reddit has received attention for its political activism and for the money it has raised for charity. It has also received attention because it was one of the first sites to decide to go dark in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA).  The website blackout is said to have influenced policymakers’ opinions on the two bills.

PBS has made a short documentary about the culture of Reddit, which contains information about the system itself.  And, while Reddit has gotten a lot of positive press, this video also discusses the dark side of Reddit, beginning that section on the misogyny on Reddit, saying: “Reddit is overall a nice place, but its relationship with women is complicated.”

As a friend pointed out, using a Facebook classification of relationships to describe the misogyny that appears on Reddit is something of an understatement. Although to be fair, in the PBS documentary, filmmakers do discuss Reddit’s “complicated” relationship with women in greater detail and note that sexist and misogynistic content is constantly up-voted by Reddit users.  However, the documentary concludes that:  “The conversation that mainstream Reddit is having because of SRS (the reddit: Shit Reddit Says) is developing into real hard examination of their morals and principles and character.”

The public was recently reinvited into this examination of morals, principles, and character because Reddit was in the news again for its complicated relationship with women.  The first time Reddit hit the national press for its misogynistic content was for a reddit named “Jailbait.”  Jailbait was a place for users to post photos of underage girls, usually without consent and, as Adrian Chen points out in his article about Violentacrez, often lifted from Facebook pages and other social media. After a lot of negative publicity, including Anderson Cooper publicizing Jailbait on CNN, the Reddit administration removed the forum.  However, other reddits appeared with similar content, one of which was called “Creepshots,” which was populated with photos of young women in public places, photos all taken without the knowledge of the young women, many of whom were underage.  When asked to remove Creepshots, the Reddit administration initially refused, saying that because the content was technically legal it was in line with its policy of free speech – however, ultimately the administrators shut it down (although, it is difficult to keep the content off Reddit).

Then, last month, Adrian Chen wrote a piece that revealed the legal name and identity of Violentacrez, a very prominent user on Reddit.com, whose list of accomplishments on the site include being the founder of Jailbait.  It seems that sexualization of children was something he was particularly interested in and, as many writers subsequently pointed out, this interest was NOT about trolling but was a genuine personal interest for Violentacrez.  However, because he also founded a series of offensively titled reddits that he says were created to troll other users (e.g. Hitler, Jewmerica, rapebait, incest), the Jailbait materials are often mentioned alongside his trolling activities.

Additionally, Violentacrez augmented his online persona with healthy amounts of “real life” information about himself.  It was this real life information that allowed Adrian Chen to track him down, interview him, and write a piece about him that revealed his legal identity to the general public. These revelations led to him being fired from his job.  As a result, Violentacrez was put in the awkward position of trying to explain on cable television why he would engage in this type of online behavior.  Similarly, the administrators of Reddit were put in the difficult position of explaining their free speech policy, which protected a space for people to post such content.

There was a firestorm of online commentary on the issue because it crosscut so many hot button topicsMany people were shocked by the existence of an extremely highly trafficked forum on such a popular website operating with the explicit consent of the site administration.  Others were angry with Adrian Chen for unmasking Violentacrez, arguing that exposing him was too harsh and that the real life implications for Violentacrez were too extreme.  People also pointed out that while forums such as “Creepshots” were an outcome of the free speech policy on Reddit, they were a minority of forums in the Reddit community and were not what Reddit was about.  Personally, what grabbed my attention was the fact that Violentacrez was also a trusted moderator on Reddit and someone who attended “real life” meet-ups of Reddit users. As others have noted, this means that the administration of Reddit was not neutrally enforcing a policy of radical free speech that happened to cover the Jailbait forum, but that it was specifically supporting Violentacrez activities on the site.  In addition, his attendance at “real life” meet-ups meant that he was not embarrassed or secretive about his particular interest in sexualized imagery of children.

Based on what I know about Reddit’s structural attributes, I would have predicted that two things would arise from the community:  1) political activism and 2) unsavory content. My prediction is drawn from my research looking at online communities that occupy social websites and attempting first, to document instances of politically significant behavior in those communities, and second, to explain why some online communities mobilized politically and others did not.  To understand the conditions that allow for political activism, I created a rubric for predicting the types of social websites that would generate political mobilization, the types that would facilitate political mobilization, and the types that would contain political behavior so that it did spill outside the community but would focus mainly on “debate,” loosely defined.

I found that in my cases, two of the major components predicting activism were anonymity and formal regulation.  As part of my findings, I argue that in online spaces where there are high levels of anonymity and low levels of formal regulation, it is more likely that conflicts with offline behavioral norms will emerge and with it, political mobilization. My research has indicated that the more regulated and the more known users are, the less likely they are to mobilize politically.  In addition, other research has shown that anonymity or pseudo-anonymity protects activists and fosters collaborative creativity in ways that are not seen elsewhere.  Thus, the positive aspects of anonymity and the negative aspects appear to go hand-in-hand.

My prediction that Reddit would produce political activism and unsavory content was made in light of that past research.  Based on structural attributes of the site, I would say that Reddit is somewhat anonymous—maybe anonymous enough to facilitate both the conflict with offline norms and political mobilization.  But the site is not entirely anonymous.  If Reddit is anonymous enough, it is anonymous enough to generate many of the beneficial outcomes that can come with anonymity.  In discussions about somewhat anonymous sites, it is the beneficial side that is often put forward as evidence that the Internet can illuminate the beautiful aspects of human nature.   People—including myself–have spoken about the altruism arising from Reddit or the creative capacity of 4chan.org.  Anonymity is also clearly a value to activists using online platforms to organize.  It is even possible to say that anonymous speech allows people to say things out loud that they cannot speak in their offline communities, which allows them to find communities of support (something that can be wonderful in the case of gay teens living in rural isolation). My own research has suggested that it is good for people to talk about controversial things anonymously online because the size and diversity of community members often insures that all users will be challenged and have to think further about their own ideas.

But, this is a double-edged sword.  Reddit also appears to be anonymous enough to create a space for the darker aspects of an anonymous space.  It is anonymous enough that people with normatively-defined bad interests and/or beliefs and exploitative interests can find each other there and feel empowered by their numbers.  This is the case both for communities of interest, such as groups of people interested in sexually exploitative imagery, as well as creating a space for trolls–people who will manipulate mainstream anger at the presence of these places and content online.

Reddit’s 74 percent male user-base up-votes misogynistic content with great frequency—and that user base creates a place where a user such as Violentacrez, who justifies his choices with the 16 year old Britney Spear’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video, can become e-famous.  Similarly, anonymity and pseudo-anonymity seem to make people feel comfortable to express sexist, racist, homophobic, and misogynistic views or use language that marginalizes groups as well as sexually exploitative images.  However, the sexual objectification of minors and the use of images without the consent of the person in the image happen on most online social spaces and are removed from places that are heavily regulated.

These factors suggest that the issue is not so much a Reddit-created problem, but a societal problem.  As Mary Gray has argued about homophobia and cyber-bullying, “Tracing a causal link between Ravi’s homophobic actions and Tyler Clementi’s suicide dangerously oversimplifies homophobia. This formula suggests that homophobia is something ‘individuals have’ rather than what our cultural norms perpetuate.”  In other words, yes, Violentacrez was a real jerk doing and facilitating deplorable things online, and yes, he as an individual was engaged in this behavior, but he is also operating in a broader context.

It is not morally okay to use someone’s image without permission—and it is absolutely not okay to post the photos of young women online without their consent and/or use photos they have posted online in ways that they did not intend. But, it is easier to demand that Reddit change its policies than it is to demand a change in societal norms. Without understanding that greater context—both that of the online culture and rights-conception that Reddit is supporting as well as the offline value structure that those users who are up-voting misogynist content are bringing into the space—there is no way to really understand either Reddit or Violentacrez actions (something Whitney Philips also discusses in relation to trolling).

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Very recently Kornelia Trytko asked the AoIR listserv for recommendations concerning online anonymity and then kindly compiled and sent out the list.  Here is what she sent:

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** Work on Anonymous also often discusses the role of anonymity – as does Christoper Poole when he gives talks about 4chan.