In its early years, the Soviet Union was not like what we think of the Soviet Union today: closed, totalitarian, single-minded. The fresh, new feel of the revolution made Russia feel like a whole new world for artists and writers alike. The government, just a baby itself and energized by this brave new world it had created, pushed for many progressive ideas. In addition to banning private property, it also gave women equal rights to men under marriage, legalized abortion, and gave legitimacy to children born out of wedlock.
Art, seen as a way to communicate and gain favor with the population, which was still largely illiterate at that point, was encouraged, in any shape or form. Proletkult, short for Proletarian Culture, arose out of the chaos of the Revolution and Civil War, and encouraged thousands of artists to spread socialism in any way they chose to express themselves, be it through traditional painting, expressionism, modernism, or abstractionism.
Art in the czars’ time looked like this: traditional themes of portraits or the Russian landscape, nationalist in nature, harmless. Shishkin was particularly good at this.
Now, artists were free to roam the entire breadth of their imaginations, and came up with things like this:
For a brief moment from 1917-1922, everyone was free to experiment with what socialism meant to them. Then, Proletkult started becoming too independent for the liking of the Soviet government, and it was disbanded. Art was cracked down on.Only state-sanctioned Soviet realist paintings that, according to the Party’s own objectives, lifted communism, were allowed. All Soviet artwork started looking like this:
The socialist realism movement squashed any real creativity until after Stalin’s death, and even beyond, to the point where Russian artists are still hemmed in by the constraints of realism on the nation’s psyche.
In the beginning, all new movements are free and unfettered, allowing for the mind to wade in the shallows of possibilities and play. Adam and Eve started out naked. Malevich and the other Proletkult members painted what they wanted. And when the internet as we know it began in the early 1990s, there were no rules, only possibilities. That’s why the early internet was so much fun.
You could upload anything to YouTube. There was no Vevo, no copyright restrictions. You could talk to anyone on AOL chatrooms and maybe even meet them in person without being worried about who they were. Napster. Limewire. The crazy ugliness that was Geocities (where I first learned to write HTML.) Early Twitter, where there were no discovery tools, where you had to fend for yourself, where I met dozens of people I have now met in real life. Blogger, before blogging was monetized and pictures of glossy, skinny women in jeans sponsored by advertisers. Digg.
And then reddit came onto the scene. I was a relative late-comer to reddit, starting to read seriously only in 2011 or so. I found out about it through Mr. B,who probably found out about it through Slashdot, another early pioneer in tech news, now also floundering. But once I really got into it, I was hooked.
Its mostly text-only format, no-nonsense posts, puns and humor abounding in the comments, and often generosity to complete strangers was a welcome relief from the shimmering sheen of the post-Facebook and Twitter socialized, “CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE”, Buzzfeed-ized version of the monetized internet that I have come to hate.
Because no real names are required, people are free to share all kinds of information. I’ve learned about everything from other women’s experiences with pregnancy, to the worst IT environments to work in, to the best books, to what a normal day in Russia is like, to what people looked like in 1914, to how to manage my finances, to what’s going on in my city, to why certain languages work the way they do, to reading actual professors write about history.
There are no “You won’t believe what this guy did next” ads, no slideshows, no SEO keywords, no “SHARE THIS ON FACEBOOK”, no b.s.
Reddit is amazing and one of my favorite places to be on the internet.
Or, rather, reddit was amazing.
Because, like any public forum with free speech, reddit started to attract its share of really huge jerks. And since Reddit is accountable to advertisers and some investors, probably, and, as a result, reddit has been painfully congealing from the early days, to something much cleaner, more user-friendly, safer, more PG. The Party is mad that it is not in control anymore, and it’s trying to gain some of that back.
Only, every time the Reddit leadership tries to clean reddit up, it messes up, ends up making the situation worse, and makes reddit less reddit-y, more confined, more rigid, less full of play.
This is not the Soviet Union, and reddit is not Proletkult.
But over the past 15 years, we have been progressively moving to a model of consolidation and of squashing of creativity on the internet driven by an intense need to monetize and sanitize everything, to control what is essentially, in some cases, uncontrollable, or requires an extra level of finesse.
And I am extremely concerned, especially with this latest at Reddit, that we are moving to an internet version of socialist realism: the Buzzfeed model. Easy to implement, easy to get pageclicks, easy to get people to engage, friendly, sanitary, clean, safe.
So what’s the answer? Allow all hate groups? No. People must be allowed to voice themselves on the internet without fear. But the answer is not reactionarily banning groups from time to time.
The answer is not easy to create or to implement and has to be thought through very carefully and maybe implemented on a case-by-case basis and tested in focus groups and maybe they have to read some case studies for how this type of thing has been handled in previous years, even without technology and maybe it takes more than just a blog post to keep a community running and whole and beautiful.
There are several communities that do a great job at self-policing based on firmly-established rules by the founders and produce clear, insightful comments despite the fact that they have grown: HackerNews, The New York Times, and Metafilter come to mind. Each has a different model that is appropriate for only that audience and that was put into place after a lot of thought. Each has been going for a long time. And, as anyone dealing with a lot of people with a lot of opinions will tell you, this stuff is HARD.
But reddit is not doing reflection and analysis and thought. It is just trying to flex its editorial muscle with a blanket statement. And by doing this, reddit loses, and the internet loses, and, in the long-run we will all lose, because instead of seeing all the myriad possibilities of weirdness, like Malevich and co did, all we will see is walled gardens of Facebook and Time.com and whatever other sites make money off the boring and the mundane and the cleaned-up.
The old internet,whatever it was, is gone. The revolution is over.