“I have just endured one of the largest trolling attacks in history,” writes Reddit's recently-departed interim CEO Ellen Pao in a Washington Post op-ed today. “And I have just been blessed with the most astonishing human responses to that attack.”
The Internet started as a bastion for free expression. It encouraged broad engagement and a diversity of ideas. Over time, however, that openness has enabled the harassment of people for their views, experiences, appearances or demographic backgrounds. Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet. But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.
[...]This isn’t an easy problem to solve. To understand the challenges facing today’s Internet content platforms, layer onto that original balancing act a desire to grow audience and generate revenue. A large portion of the Internet audience enjoys edgy content and the behavior of the more extreme users; it wants to see the bad with the good, so it becomes harder to get rid of the ugly. But to attract more mainstream audiences and bring in the big-budget advertisers, you must hide or remove the ugly.
Expecting Internet platforms to eliminate hate and harassment is likely to disappoint. As the number of users climbs, community management becomes ever more difficult. If mistakes are made 0.01 percent of the time, that could mean tens of thousands of mistakes. And for a community looking for clear, evenly applied rules, mistakes are frustrating. They lead to a lack of trust. Turning to automation to enforce standards leads to a lack of human contact and understanding. No one has figured out the best place to draw the line between bad and ugly — or whether that line can support a viable business model.