June 19, 2015

Voat as a Reddit Alternative

Sketch for 'The Revolt at Cairo' by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson, c. 1809Reddit is a tremendously popular site that features a combination of link aggregation, discussion, active online communities (i.e., subreddits), and more. I have used it for the past 8 years to do some occasional blog promotion (and not just for my own blog), get ideas for blog posts, and interact with others around topics such as atheism, freethought, skepticism, and science. A big part of what makes it so effective is the massive numbers of users. As an example, Reddit's largest atheism subreddit has 2,089,181 subscribers at the time I'm writing this post.

Reddit has been in the news recently after their interim CEO, Ellen Pao made some decisions that are being interpreted by some as censorship (see here for a very different take in which the author reveals surprisingly little understanding of the meaning of "social justice warrior"). Specifically, Reddit banned at least five subreddits which they claim were engaged in "harassment" in violation of the site's rules. This appeared to be a significant change for Reddit in that they had long been regarded as committed to the free expression of ideas, including those some found objectionable. Given that this change coincided with Pao's arrival, many are blaming her for it. It does not seem to matter whether Pao herself is a social justice warrior or whether this was a business decision made with the goal of attracting advertisers; many see it as a move away from what Reddit had been.

Pao and Reddit are now facing a bit of a backlash in the form of lots of angry users calling for Pao's ouster. There is a Twitter hashtag attached to the protests (i.e., #RedditRevolt) and a petition calling for Pao to resign. A number of Reddit users have reported closing their account and migrating to a much smaller alternative called Voat that has a reputation for having similar functionality but a much stronger commitment to free expression. Not only is Voat much smaller, but they were hit with a combination of way too many users for their servers to handle and some DDoS attacks, making those coming over from Reddit wonder whether the site was broken. It is anybody's guess whether the migration from Reddit to Voat will continue to grow or whether it will last.

I mention all of this because I've been using Voat since this happened. Despite the hiccups, I've been fairly impressed so far. I have not closed my Reddit account and have no plans to do so just yet. I decided to check out Voat because I was curious, never having heard of the site before. Now I find myself spending more time on Voat than Reddit and feeling better about contributing to it. While I had no interest in any of the banned subreddits, I do wonder how long it will be until others I do enjoy experience a similar fate at Reddit. If they are going to start banning things because people claim offense or "harassment," it does not seem too farfetched to think that practically any subreddit could be as risk. And some of Pao's public statements have raised legitimate questions about her commitment to free expression at Reddit. All things being equal, I'd prefer to spend my time on a site that is committed to the free expression of ideas.

From what I have seen so far, Voat has a rather strong undercurrent of dislike for the behavior of social justice warriors, a pro-GamerGate bent, and a somewhat more conservative/libertarian political orientation. This all makes sense given that those most likely to feel this way were probably the first to dump Reddit and move to Voat. I'm not sure how long this particular flavor will last, but it has been an interesting contrast so far. It has been nice to see more criticism of political correctness than support for it so far.

The biggest downside, not surprisingly, is that Voat feels empty compared to Reddit. Remember how I said that the largest atheism subreddit has 2,089,181 subscribers at the time I'm writing this post? Voat's largest community (they are called subverses at Voat) has 2,670. That's quite a difference. Even if Voat can get their servers on track (there were still frequent errors as of yesterday), it remains to be seen whether those coming over from Reddit will stick around to build Voat into a viable alternative for those who value a commitment to free expression over user numbers. I hope they do.