Well, this is disappointing. It seems that Reddit has decided to practically hide the Atheism subreddit from public view. I may be posting late about this, since other have already started covering this controversy, but I might as well throw my two cents for all it’s worth.
Initially I noticed this yesterday night when rumors of this started popping up all over atheism. Initially it looked like a conspiracy theory but very soon the facts of the matter started coming up through investigation by redditors. Soon after, as the facts could not be denied anymore, an official explanation was posted. Needless to say, it failed to convince.
As other noticed as well, the argument is pretty weak. The reddit admins don’t think that Atheism is legitimately on the top and thus instead of fixing their algorithms, they decided to hide it instead. Now except from the fact that this looks very much like a quickly cooked up explanation, it does also raise the question of why this impression was had by the admins. The official take is that the Atheism reddit is not really so popular because of its controversy it rises to the top unfairly”. Which immediately raises the question “Why is this unfair? Why is the old algorithm deemed wrong just because it managed to reward controversial reddits with more popularity?”.
I don’t think an easy answer can be given to this, as it will be simply based on the developer’s perspective, which then as others pointed out as well, makes it a de-facto censorship. If the developers don’t believe that Atheism deserves to be on the top, then any way they modify the algorithm for choosing the top reddits will be deemed bad unless it can push Atheism down. That is, the measure of success depends on /r/Atheism not being on the top!
Nevertheless, although we can speculate on the developer’s motives, a charitable interpretation demands that we consider that it is, in fact, their site and their design, and as such they get to decide what makes a good algorithm. However there are still some unanswered questions.
First a modification is exactly what has happened. The algorithm was modified accordingly and Atheism was pushed down to the 16th position. However the deliberate exclusion of Atheism from the front page and from the top-bar selection of subreddits (visible to unsubscribed users) is still a concern as it points to the possibility that Atheism is still being deliberately excluded even when the algorithm puts it outside the front page. If the concern was simply about the trolling going on when an article from Atheism hit the front page, then why is this necessary?
Personally, even though I am not a big fan of /r/Atheism, mostly because my sentiments on it are similar to this guy, and even though I consider the whole ordeal a tad overblown, I have still removed reddit from my adblock whitelist as a minor sign of protest and I’ve messaged the admins with my disappointment of their handling of this situation.
I believe things would have been far better if the admins had posted in the subreddit with the problem they face, why this is, what they were thinking of doing and asking for feedback. They would then have immediately seen the feelings of the community, how popular or not it would be and most certain of all, they would have avoided all this controversy and negativity which is the explicit result of them changing things under the table without telling anyone.
Such an act starts to raise questions about motives and honesty on the part of the reddit admins, something which can be lethal to a site which is practically run by their community and thus based on the community’s explicit trust that they are not being manipulated for commercial or political purposes. Signs of underhanded tactics like this, done without informing anyone harm this and as such harm reddit itself. Which other reddits are being hidden under the table? Which other opinions are not considered “popular” enough to deserve the spotlight as already implemented? Will the algorithm be modified again if a marginal reddit like Anarchism suddenly rises in popularity and ideas the owners don’t espouse start being promoted to the front? Probably not, but the acts of the admins have put such uncomfortable questions on the table.
This is in fact a great sample to show how authoritarian decisions by those who are considered an enlightened minority (ie those who are assumed to know what is best for everyone) can diverge with a very considerable number of those they are deciding for. The backlash is only so large in reddit (as opposed to dictatorships or republics) because of its democratic nature and community participation but the same rules apply to all such authoritarian decisions. Most, if not all of this would have been avoided if the decision had been taken with the participation of the community they decide for. Not only that, but the solution implemented would have possibly been far better.
As it is now, I can only hope that the reddit admins have learned a lesson, even though their current actions don’t point to that direction. At best, next time they decide to modify their code with such an explicit purpose in mind they will inform and consult with the communities affected. At worst they will keep in mind that doing such acts in secret can backfire and possibly invoke the Streisand Effect.