If that headline makes no sense, here’s the luddite version:
Reddit is a website that gets *tons* of hits.
Reddit is made up of thousands of “subreddits” that focus on different things.
If any random person visits Reddit, they see popular posts from the most popular subreddits.
Reddit Atheism (r/atheism) was one of those subreddits for the past few years.
That meant popular atheism-related stories were seen by who-knows-how-many people who would never have clicked on or cared about those stories otherwise. It also meant that anyone who signed up for a free Reddit account would be automatically subscribed to r/atheism. They would have to click “unsubscribe” to not see those stories.
That default option led r/atheism to become one of the most popular subreddits on the site with more than 2,000,000 members, most of whom (I suspect) aren’t even atheists.
Today, Reddit announced that r/atheism would no longer be a default subreddit for new members and casual visitors (and neither will r/politics):
We know many of you will wonder what happened to /r/politics and /r/atheism and why they were removed from the default set. We could give you a canned corporate answer or a diplomatic answer that is carefully crafted for the situation. But since this is reddit, we’re going to try things a bit differently and give you the real answer: they just weren’t up to snuff. Now, don’t get us wrong, there still ARE good parts about them. Overall, they just haven’t continued to grow and evolve like the other subreddits we’ve decided to add.
Part of the problem is undoubtedly the internal chaos r/atheism went through last month when one of the moderators was booted and users rebelled against the new changes. The impact of that overhaul is still being felt, with actual stories often getting downvoted by some users just out of spite.
I would argue the subreddit used to be full of more quality links when it was added to the default list… but those are admittedly harder to find now. This is not censorship, by the way — anyone can still subscribe to any of the atheism subreddits. Honestly, it’s probably a smart move by the Reddit admins even though it hampers getting atheist stories to larger audiences (and means less traffic for me personally).
BuzzFeed’s John Herrman welcomes the changes and holds a view that I’m sure many people share:
Reddit’s atheism forum has become the internet’ de facto gathering place for young militant atheists, which, I mean, have you ever met a young militant atheist? The kind of kid who, fresh off a heady afternoon watching Richard Dawkins videos, is just super pumped to humiliate his Christian aunt next time she posts about church on Facebook? /r/atheism is that, times a million. (Or, times 2,174,577, to be exact.) When people talk about disliking “Redditors,” they’re often just talking about this.
Both of these sections were large enough, and historically important enough to the site’s users, that they remained in the front-page mix for almost everyone. But they’re both animated by the idea that being technically right about your primary point, or being able to point to evidence of hypocrisy in your opponent, entitles you to say whatever you want, however you want, and to be respected for it.
In demoting them, Reddit has done its casual users a service, and slapped some of its most annoying — and often, dedicated — users on the wrist…
Not surprisingly, I take a slightly different view of the channel, which is that it was a place that was full of annoying jerks and (literally) new atheists who were only now discovering all the problems with religion… but also people who found value in the channel and positively contributed to the discussions. It’s a place where some people saw an opportunity to (anonymously) talk about coming out to their families, learn what they could do to fight church/state separation battles, and support fellow atheists. The support for Damon Fowler came through r/atheism’s broad reach as did much of Jessica Ahlquist‘s.
It’s arguable that r/atheism has caused more people to question or lose their faith than any books written by the New Atheists, any statements made by non-religious celebrities, any blog posts or podcasts, and even any tragedy. By being taken off the default list, we’re less able to reach people who may not even know that questioning their faith is an option.
What’s fortunate is that r/atheism is still one of the largest subreddits on the site — it just won’t be adding new members as quickly as it used it. Hell, it’ll probably be relatively stagnant from now on. Maybe that’s a good thing. It’s a chance for the channel’s moderators to take a look at their practices and figure out what they need to do to make the site more useful to more people, outside of the glare of the rest of Reddit.
Hopefully, it means better quality on r/atheism. It’s the biggest and best forum for discussing atheism we have right now and it’d be awful to see it fall even further than it already has.
***Edit***: I wanted to add that I think Reddit would have made this decision even before the internal chaos happened. The channel was already heading down a self-righteous path before the new moderators came in to try and fix the problem.