It’s Great That Alexis Ohanian Calls Out Sexism, But His Website Is Part of the Problem
Reddit co-founder (and husband to arguably the greatest athlete of all time, Serena Williams) Alexis Ohanian recently sat down with Quartz to talk about his new venture capital company and what he believes is the best way to battle toxic masculinity.
“We’re” — men are — “unhealthy mentally and physically,” he explained when asked about the biggest threat men in America now face. “We’re insecure, and we’ve created a broken system that we’re going to have to acknowledge we can’t fix alone.”
Ohanian is commendably vocal in calling out sexism on Twitter, and has been a steadfast champion of his tennis star wife. But as a creator of what remains one of the most toxic places on the internet, Ohanian has a duty to put his money where his mouth is and use his existing role as executive chairman on Reddit’s board of directors to fight the hateful misogyny the website helps breed. Though Ohanian is no longer involved in day-to-day operations at the company he co-founded, he continues to oversee its board of directors and work closely with co-founder and current CEO Steve Huffman to shape the way the company works. He is still in a position to make change.
Ohanian’s latest interview isn’t the first time he’s called out sexism without taking the steps in his power to fight it. Back in 2013, the tech leader called upon his “fellow geeks” to do better to use their platforms (like his own site) to fight sexism. Yet it was after that rallying cry that Reddit became a go-to gathering place for so-called “Men’s Rights” groups and a hub for the 2014 GamerGate movement, which is thought to have helped spawn today’s “Alt-Right.”
One of the major ongoing problems with the site is the company’s hands-off approach to moderation, which essentially allows sexists and racists to self-moderate within their respective Reddit groups, called “subreddits.” When asked about the site’s misogyny problem at a 2015 TechCrunch conference, Ohanian responded by framing hate speech as more of an “internet-wide” issue than one fueled by his company. But both are true.
“I really do believe the reasonable voices will win, but, yes, it’s extremely hard, and these are things I can’t even empathize with as a straight white dude,” he said at the time, calling violent Redditors “deplorable.” “I hope though that we can continue to get better at this. It’s going to take a collaborative effort.”
The website’s refusal to ban individual users within these groups is intentional. Earlier this year, the company’s current CEO, Steve Huffman, admitted that the site’s version of free speech means nearly everyone — even individual misogynists — has the freedom to say what they want on the site.
“Our approach to governance is that communities can set appropriate standards around language for themselves. Many communities have rules around speech that are more restrictive than our own, and we fully support those rules,” Huffman wrote in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) about the state of the company’s transparency on Reddit. But the company’s hands-off approach isn’t working, and for Ohanian, that should be at least as big a red flag as any other display of toxic masculinity.
As of now, there are still several anti-woman and incel-adjacent subreddits that exist on the site. And while Huffman says that the site is cracking down on its most violent content, its lenience gives hate groups plenty of leeway to skirt the rules.
Ohanian, meanwhile, has a very special place among the tech giants in Silicon Valley. He created one of the most popular websites in history (Americans use Reddit more than Facebook), and since marrying Williams, he’s become one of the most famous people in the industry. His understanding of toxic masculinity is admirable and important in the context of his bro-y industry, but he must also understand that because his inaction puts women in dangerous positions, he is part of the problem.
Much like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, (who refuses to deplatform racist and sexist, Ohanian is not using the power he has to make change — and reciting what he knows about sexism just isn’t enough.
So while Ohanian continues to push for equality behind the scenes, speaking with other leaders and corporate teams about #MeToo (“The most important lesson I learned from Me Too was the extent of how audacious, offensive, and common workplace harassment is, as well as the tremendous work done to cover it up,” he told Quartz), and creating a dialogue about workplace safety and gender parity, he needs to also push for the policy changes on his site that would bring those values into fruition.
(Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for WIRED25)