There are lots of good thoughts going on right now about Adrian Chen’s violentacrez story, most focusing on the gender issues, and you should go read these and find more! But a kind of more minor thought struck me in reading the piece. As soon as Adrian said he was a 49-year-old software programmer, I didn’t really need to know that much more about him to know exactly what kind of person he was. I can think of at least three other web communities I’ve been a part of that have had exactly that sort of middle-aged well-to-do dude - and generally a divorced, childless, and/or single one - as a paternalistic figure, and one of the major power users for the site. This is not to say that those folks were all suppurating assholes like the Reddit dude is, but there’s no denying that they were there, and the repetition of such a phenomena both across the sites I’ve been on and now on the largest current online community suggest there’s a pattern there.
I was struck by this part of Adrian’s story:
This is how Violentacrez, Reddit’s creepiest user, also became its most powerful. Sure, he was responsible for the absolute worst stuff on Reddit, and by extension, some of the worst stuff on the internet. But Violentacrez was also seen to be, as Chris Slowe put it to me, “a trustworthy and a positive member of the community.” He moderated more than 400 subreddits and had many high-profile friends, amassed over many years. His stable at times included hundreds of popular mainstream subreddits, like Funny and WTF, that reach audiences of millions. Violentacrez further solidified his reach by becoming a mentor to other moderators. He created the first FAQ for Reddit’s rather unintuitive moderator interface. He also helmed a number of subreddits dedicated to providing guidance and camaraderie for other moderators, including the essential modhelp.
How do these dudes become such major players on these sites? They have a) the time and b) the expertise to contribute useful labor, and in so doing accrue both social capital and favors. Just as in the free-software movement, those with the luxury of surplus digital labor are able to convert it into power. It’s a meaningless point maybe a decade ago, before the internet was integrated into our everyday lives. But now that having this sort of digital power gives you the ability to shape news coverage, notions of morality, and social interactions for large numbers of people, it absolutely matters. The nerdish myth of meritocracy implies that the best programmers should have this sort of power, because they can best do the job. But now that the internet is more than a collection of code in so many important ways, there are concerns beyond mere usability and stability, ones that power users might not be the best qualified to address. Even when the amount of actual digital knowledge needed is low, the advantages violentacrez had nevertheless produced power others did not seem to have access to. His gender positioned him to circulate photos of women without seeing that as a violation, but his broader social position may have been what gave him the ability to do so in such a visible way. Certainly the thing that worried him about being revealed wasn’t what other people would think - it was the possibility of losing his job, and thus the social position that let him achieve such influence in the first place.