Nonfiction: Where Trolls Reigned Free: A New History of Reddit

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It’s all here anyway: the lack of adult oversight; the suck-up press; the growth-at-any-cost mentality; the loyal employees, by turns abused and abusive (memo from management: “You do realize you were talking about penises for 90 minutes, right?”); the defense of horrendous behavior as “free speech”; the jettisoning of “free speech” when it served corporate purposes; the way no one seeks permission but all expect forgiveness.

“We Are the Nerds” is most compelling when it tells the story of a third young man who played a founding role at Reddit. Aaron Swartz was brilliant, troubled and impossible, but he saw the tech economy more clearly than well-medicated people. “In the old days the new money was made through theft and abuse of office,” he wrote. “Now any random computer programmer — or even the people who hung around them — could find themselves saddled with a pile of cash.” In early 2013, hounded by the government over a stupid stunt involving the downloading of academic journals, Swartz committed suicide.

Reddit became so offensive it was difficult to work there. A community manager who had a brief tenure in 2015 told Lagorio-Chafkin some of the reasons: “Child molesters, child porn, vicious stalking, rape threats, serious harassment, people taking the harassment offline and people filing police reports on each other.” One chief executive, stressed beyond endurance, simply stopped showing up for work. His replacement, Ellen Pao, tried to impose order in the office and on the site. The backlash led to her abrupt departure. Huffman returned and purged most of the staff.

The charismatic Ohanian came back as well, trying a few Reddit spinoffs that fizzled. He is best known now for being Mr. Serena Williams. I wondered if any of his new relatives ever asked him about the popular subreddit called CoonTown — you can guess the contents — but “We Are the Nerds” is silent on this. CoonTown was finally banned by Reddit in 2015.

While writing this review, I poked around Reddit. I saw some naked women, read some unusual opinions (“Just ignoring all the horrific atrocities caused by the Nazis, the Nazi flag actually looks pretty decent”), had a few laughs at youthful sexual confessions. It was pretty benign. Maybe the site is no longer so toxic, or maybe the toxic internet has made me numb.

I also saw a lot of ads. Reddit is worth about $2 billion, which means Advance Publications, the parent of Condé Nast and now Reddit’s biggest investor, made good money. In Silicon Valley, that’s still pretty much all that matters.

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