When the Web's Chaos Takes an Ugly Turn

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THE most successful cities achieve a kind of organized chaos -- a rich, dense and varied mix of different kinds of people, ideas and businesses, constantly colliding in new and interesting ways.

Jane Jacobs, an urban activist, made that observation in 1961 in her landmark book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Although she was describing cities built of bricks and mortar, her ideas about cultivating vibrancy feel relevant today, as some of the most important metropolises of the 21st century are being constructed online, where chaos is in no short supply.

The latest controversy surrounds Reddit, a community and social news site that lets members create and run their own forums on any topic, from movie news to local politics to the sharing of beautiful nature photographs. Reddit has come under fire for harboring a forum that encourages people to covertly photograph women on the street and upload the images to the site for others to ogle and comment on. The pictures, nicknamed "creepshots," incited outrage and provoked other members of the site and some journalists to publicly out those distributing the suggestive images. These actions, in turn, prompted an outcry from those who felt that they should be able to retain their own anonymity while posting photographs of women without their consent.

The skirmish has set off a debate about privacy and free speech, ownership and community, digital rights and accountability, touching upon issues of privilege and the undercurrents of power that course through the Web. At its core, the fallout is about how we transport social order, morals and responsibility to the digital realm and whether the online infrastructure can find a weird wisdom in the way it is being erected that will allow all its inhabitants to flourish.

Reddit is just one Web site -- and one that many people have never heard of, at that. But it wields a sizable chunk of influence online, playing an instrumental role in rallying the Web to halt the progression of antipiracy bills proposed by Congress earlier this year, as well as enticing President Obama into its virtual halls to answer questions submitted by its members. It also drives significant amounts of traffic around the Web each month.

Zeynep Tufekci, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, described the site as "the secret backbone of the Internet," which is why it is even more crucial that it be accountable for the environment it is fostering, she said.

"Reddit is not just a cog in the machine," she said. "It may not be the most visible site, but is a powerful platform."

Of course, Reddit isn't the only Web site struggling with these issues. Such creepshots appear on other places around the Web, including Twitter. And sites from YouTube to Instagram, the photo-sharing app, are grappling with how to address provocative content, from images depicting self-harm to violent torture videos, and where to draw the line about what to publish and what to remove.

But the discussion around Reddit feels particularly pertinent because it is a site that deftly straddles the old Web and the new, managing to house the wondrous and the freewheeling, an antidote to the mainstream social networking sites where advertising and data-mining can seem more important than the conversations and community they contain.

As more of our life migrates online, the digital domains where we spend so much time may be as influential and important as the towns where we choose to go to school, find jobs and raise our families. The gap between who we are online and who we are offline is closing, said Katie Baker, a writer for Jezebel, who has been covering the skirmishes around Reddit. "It is increasingly clear-cut that we can no longer think that way," she said.

Reddit, like Ms. Jacobs's great cities, is a hub of interaction and civilization. And if one population feels marginalized within it, as many women and men who oppose those forums do, it detracts from the overall health of the community.

Those turned off by Reddit's policies, which the company has no plans to amend despite the blowup, could always find a new place online to roost. But in Ms. Jacobs' book, the cities that drive people away rather than deal with their unsavory bits begin to deteriorate and decay, and eventually wither.

In other words, averting our eyes and avoiding certain forums won't solve the problem of how to deal with those forums when they tolerate and encourage attitudes of hostility and exploitation of women and underage girls.

Reddit is not an island. It is a site with 19 million users a month, according to Quantcast, one that is inexorably linked to the rest of the Web, and its community's ideas, memes and images migrate from its front page to a larger online world. While it is owned by Advance Publications, which also owns Condé Nast, it is largely independent.

The site has resisted calls to ban the forums of illicit photographs of women taken without their consent, positioning itself as a protector of free speech. But Ms. Tufekci says that those running Reddit are twisting the logic behind that notion because the free speech referenced in this case refers to images of women, often underage girls, taken without their consent, and passed around for pleasure. It is different from, say, someone speaking out about an oppressive government or even hate speech, as unpleasant as it is.

"At a certain point," she said, "they have to choose morals over traffic."

Reddit did not respond with comment in time for publication. While the original forum was banned, others have popped up under different names.

The challenge for communities like Reddit -- as well as for Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr and others that have to decide how to regulate the materials passed around their virtual corridors, is to figure out how to please all their members, without driving some of them away. And one has to look only at the previous glory of social giants like Myspace, Friendster and Digg, and at how rarely they are currently mentioned, to understand how fragile the line is between life and death for a site.

BUT the larger risk that Reddit runs could be even greater. The harder it fights for its right to publish creepshots, the harder it may be to defend the company from the intervention of governments and regulatory organizations, as well as intellectual-property owners who could interfere with the site if it does not figure out how to regulate itself.

"If the Internet doesn't grow up," Ms. Tufekci said, "the government will crack down, and not just on the bad things, but also put all of the beautiful and wonderful things at risk, too."

Ms. Jacobs prized chaos, but not the kind that marginalized or terrorized those living in it. She advocated a kind of beautiful disarray that may look hectic from the outside, but is actually safe for those within. "Cities," she wrote, "have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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