On Thursday, Reddit announced that it wants to "curb harassment" among users. The company says it has "improved our practices" and that users will be able to report problematic private messages, posts, and comments using Reddit's internal messaging system or through email@example.com.
The site has been going through some changes over the last six months. In February it banned revenge porn, and co-founder Alexis Ohanian said in a statement, “We also recognize that violent personalized images are a form of harassment that we do not tolerate and we will remove them when notified.” At the time, Slate's Amanda Hess noted that though the change was positive, it was not clear how Reddit would authenticate requests or how it would address nuanced fringe cases, like photos of public nudity.
Reddit's new initiative is equally vague. It presents a definition of harassment:
Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.
And then it explains how people can bring unacceptable behavior to the attention of Reddit employees so they can, presumably, take action. It doesn't say anything, though, about how Reddit will approach or deal with these submissions. Of course these are hard topics to present succinctly in a blog post, but a little specificity would be useful. When asked about how complaints will be evaluated and how harassers will be reprimanded, a Reddit representative referred me to the announcement.
When Twitter expanded its attempts to combat harassment in April, the company talked about how it had created a temporary lock function for user accounts under investigation. Examples of this additional granularity for Twitter included: "An account may be locked for a pre-defined time period. A user may be asked to verify their phone number. A user may be asked to delete certain Tweets. After completing the requested actions, their account is unlocked." There are problems with Twitter's plan, as some of my Slate colleagues pointed out, but at least we know what the plan is.
In its statement, Reddit says, "One of our basic rules is 'Keep everyone safe'. Being safe from threat enables people to express very personal views and experiences—and to help inform and change other people’s views." The link goes to five "Reddit Rules," which have overlap with but are not the same as the classic five. A Reddit representative said that the company requires users to follow both sets of rules, and that they are complementary to each other.
This subtle adjustment to the rules, plus the broader approach in Thursday's announcement, seems aimed at reducing harassment without enraging a certain population of Reddit users who don't want any company intervention and prefer to rely on appointed moderators. "This change will have no immediately noticeable impact on more than 99.99% of our users," the statement says.
Reddit points to a survey it conducted last month of 15,000 users to explain its decision to make changes.* The poll "showed negative responses to comments have made people uncomfortable contributing. ... The number one reason redditors do not recommend the site—even though they use it themselves—is because they want to avoid exposing friends to hate and offensive content." The survey revealed that 20 percent of women versus 12 percent of men would describe themselves as unhappy with the Reddit community.
Reddit's example carries a lot of weight, so the decision to publicly combat harassment is certainly a positive one. The question now is just whether these changes will actually help.
*Correction, May 15, 2015: This post originally misstated the number of users Reddit surveyed. It was 15,000.