Home / Technology / Reddit Steps Up Anti-Harassment Measures With New Blocking Tool

Reddit Steps Up Anti-Harassment Measures With New Blocking Tool

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Steve Huffman, a co-founder and chief executive of Reddit. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Bit by bit, Reddit — long the Internet’s playground for pseudonymous, no-rules forum discussion — is trying to grow up.

On Wednesday, Reddit said it would give people a blocking feature to shield themselves against harassment on the site, in a move to prohibit abusive users from sending messages to others.

The new tool is the latest attempt by Reddit to minimize the sometimes toxic atmosphere of the site. Last May, the company instituted a policy that forbade harassment on Reddit. Two months later, the site more strongly enforced a set of new content rules that explicitly banned posting content that “violated a common sense of decency,” and encouraged people to report harassment to Reddit-employed community moderators.

The blocking feature will build on the concept that the less exposed to negative speech users are on Reddit, the more they will want to engage with the community. That is important for the company, which aims to spread far beyond the 243 million unique monthly visitors it currently serves and break into the mainstream consciousness, much like a Facebook or a Twitter.

The mere creation of the blocking tool, which is available to all registered users, may not go over well with Reddit’s user base. Reddit, founded in 2005 by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, college roommates, had largely taken a laissez-faire approach to Internet commentary; the philosophy was to let forum members post almost anything they want and let the rest sort itself out.

That freewheeling exchange of ideas resonated with at least some on the Internet, who embraced the site. Many of those people now do not take kindly to what they consider an affront to the open aspects of community dialogue.

Yet not all of that dialogue is spirited, intelligent discussion. Reddit is home to racist, misogynistic subcultures in areas called subreddits, small, topic-based forums where users can discuss whatever they wish. In the fall of 2014, Reddit users traded stolen nude photos of celebrities like baseball cards, all organized in a subreddit.

The company maintains that those nastier subreddits are a minuscule number among the tens of thousands of other subforums devoted to things like makeup, television shows or food.

Still, Mr. Ohanian acknowledged that shifting the site away from some of its roots is hard. “People, generally, do not like change,” he said in an interview. “We have to do what is best for Reddit over all.”

The idea for the blocking tool is similar to a “muting” function used by Twitter, the 320 million-user social network that also faces criticism for the way it handles online abuse. When you block a user on Reddit, you will no longer see that person’s responses to your posts. That person will not know about the block, a strategy aimed at keeping them from simply creating another user account.

Reddit has long faced criticism for its seeming lack of attention to harassment issues on the site. Some in the company attribute the creation of the new tool to an infusion of resources, including dozens of new employees and more than $ 50 million in venture capital raised in October 2014. Last July, Mr. Huffman also became chief executive of the company in a management shake-up/shake up, after which he moved to clean up some of the site’s most noxious elements.

“For a very long time it was all we could do to just keep the site up,” said Chris Slowe, one of Reddit’s first hires and the engineer who worked on the blocking tool. Mr. Slowe said he would like to see Reddit get closer to building automated systems that detect abuse across the site, though he did not give a timeline for such technology.

“Now we’re finally at a point where we’ve been growing the team and can deal with things like fundamental product problems such as this,” he said.

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