Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian isn't the kind of guy who normally throws himself into the fray. Nonetheless, Ohanian felt compelled to call out his "fellow geeks" for the nasty vitriol spewed at tech evangelist Adria Richards last week, after a series of boneheaded tweets, blog entries, and PR fumbles led to two people losing their jobs. (Read the details of the whole sorry affair here — but essentially, Richards publicly shamed two tech-industry men for telling juvenile "dongle" jokes, and the internet subsequently tore her to shreds.)
Usually an outspoken proponent of free speech and anonymity, Ohanian — who isn't involved in the day-to-day operations of Reddit anymore, but sits on the site's board — publicly admonished a few of anonymous followers on his blog for their ugly behavior, which involved trolling Richards with callous comments concerning her death and rape. His response:
Aren't we better than this? I'm not talking about the trolls. There will always be frenzied agitators who are just mashing away on their keyboard, trying to outrage people. I'm talking about how many (otherwise reasonable-seeming) people I saw who were comfortable and self-righteous in calling a woman a bitch/c-nt/etc from their Twitter, Hacker News, or, yes, reddit account. [Alexis Ohanian]
"We're 'rock stars,'" Ohanian says. (Yes, he really wrote that.) "Holy s--t, the rest of the world is finally realizing how awesome we are. The geek has inherited the earth. And now that we're the powerful ones, we need to remember: With great power comes great responsibility."
The reception to Ohanian's preaching has been somewhat mixed. Some Redditors, for instance, remain stubborn in their refusal to see the Richards saga as a case of the tech industry's sexism problem: "Adria Richards chose the terms of the battle when she declared herself the knight come to save the poor, defenseless damsels in distress who can't possibly survive on their own around the horrible evil men due to the incredible weakness imposed by the possession of ovaries," says one user. "That is infinitely more insulting and sexist than any big dongle joke could ever be."
Gawker's Adrian Chen, one of Reddit's leading critics, was less empathetic towards Ohanian's apparent rallying cry:
Reminder that Reddit gave Violentacrez a trophy alexisohanian.com/dear-fellow-ge…
— Adrian Chen (@AdrianChen) March 25, 2013
(Violentacrez, a notorious troll responsible for "creepshots" and "jailbait" sub-forums, was unmasked by Chen last October.)
Others tried to read in between the lines. Ohanian's blog post is "baldly political," says John Herrman at BuzzFeed. (Ohanian may indeed be eyeing a future career in politics.) "By identifying as a geek and then criticizing geek culture, he joins an ongoing conversation about tolerance in tech." Hermann argues that by "minimizing Reddit's role in driving the backlash against Adria Richards" and "characterizing the site's actions as a reflection of a larger problem rather than a possible cause, Ohanian exonerates himself."
Last year, Ohanian lamented the inherent limitations of Reddit as a platform following the Violentacrez controversy. "I don't know how to deal with someone who leaves an offensive comment on Reddit, unless we find a kind of standard that we can, perhaps, all agree on," he told ABC News. "The technological solutions just aren't there."
Maybe that's why Ohanian is making a case for some actual human decency.