Jane Jacobs Didn’t Write “The Death And Life Of Great American Websites”

New York Times tech reporter Jenna Wortham stretches to compare the cities Jane Jacobs wrote about in 1961 with the online community Reddit, which is now under fire for refusing to remove creep shot forums. Writing in today’s Sunday Review section, Wortham concludes “Ms. Jacobs prized chaos, but not the kind that marginalized or terrorized those living in it. She advocated a kind of beautiful disarray that may look hectic from the outside, but is actually safe for those within. ‘Cities,’ she wrote, ‘have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’”

It is such a flawed argument but here’s the biggest point Wortham refuses to consider: when you don’t like the rules of the city you are living in, you can’t simply up-and-create your own city, as you can on the Internet. You maybe able to find a city that is more tolerant of your point of view (which, in this case, involves uploading covertly-taken photographs of women in public places for, as Wortham writes, “to ogle and comment on”). If you ban speech on the Internet, it’s very easy for the people to take their speech elsewhere.

Just ask the law enforcement officials who pressured Craiglist to remove escort service ads, only to see the ads move to Backpage and prostitution continue to thrive. If anything, some of the behaviors law enforcement feared most only increased: Craigslist tried to remove ads that could be linked to human trafficking and underage prostitution; Backpage, which I recently wrote about, does not have the same commitment or resources to dedicate to removing such ads.

Reddit is the ultimate lesson in why you need to allow all speech, even the speech you find offensive or disgusting. And the reason is when all speech is allowed, good speech always trumps the bad speech. Send those creepshots to a new city and the site moderator can limit, block and ban all crticism of the practice, But on Reddit, people who are offended by the speech are voicing those opinions.

When I search Creepshots on Reddit now, I am hard-pressed to find the offensive material, thanks to Reddit’s built in capability of giving more play to the posts getting the most favorable responses. I’m more apt to find a posts decrying the people posting the pictures (i.e. “Seriously! What the fuck? Don’t these people have anything better to do?”) and pressure on Reddit to take down the pictures of underage women.

“Those turned off by Reddit’s policies, which the company has no plans to amend despite the blowup, could always find a new place online to roost,” Wortham argues. “But in Ms. Jacobs’ book, the cities that drive people away rather than deal with their unsavory bits begin to deteriorate and decay, and eventually wither.”

It’s somewhat scary to me that a prominent New York Times reporter covering technology can’t understand the difference between an online community and web development when compared to a physical city and urban planning policy. Her argument is flawed from the get-go but, because it ran in the New York Times, I suspect increased calls for Reddit to start censoring itself instead of letting free speech play out in the way true First Amendment backers would want it to.


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