It was the most nervous I’ve been on the Internet in a long time. I barely use Reddit. And when I do, it’s not exactly to share virtual high fives at recently defunct cesspools of racism like #coontown. But typing my username into FreeRedditCheck, knowing that it was about to scan years of my Reddit history and assign me a percentage score for “Terrible.” Bloggers have weird browsing histories, okay?
[Update: FreeRedditCheck has been pulled by its creators. More on that below.]
Luckily, the computer deemed me 0% terrible. (By comparison, here is someone who scored 100%.) My most used subreddits were cocktails, food, foodporn, gadgets, and–seriously not joking, I don’t know how this got on there, trees (a subreddit about marijuana)–giving me the sanctimonious (though not literal!) high ground to write this story.
FreeRedditCheck is the winning entry of the latest Comedy Hack Day–a humorous hackathon run by Cultivated Wit. The site was created in a weekend by Alisha Westerman, Senior Copywriter at Huge, who worked alongside a small team of people who wouldn’t share their full names or places of employment with me, fearing they feel the wrath of Reddit’s dark side.
And that’s a shame! Because FreeRedditCheck was meant to be funny.
“We were playing with the whole free credit check thing,” Westerman says. “Credit history follows people around, and banks can determine how much your life sucks. And this can determine how much you suck!”
The site, which didn’t have time to deploy all of the cheesy parody ads Westerman had hoped, is designed with no frills and bare minimum functionality. You type your name into a box, and using Reddit’s own API, it scans the number of comments you’ve made in “hateful” subreddits and the number of “bad phrases” you’ve used in doing so. What constitutes all of this terrible stuff? The site’s coder tells me it’s the team’s own curated list, but generally calls out the bad speech around women, LGBT people, and minorities. Notably, it doesn’t see your up/down votes, and it doesn’t actually see your most visited reddits–it just sees the ones you’ve commented on.
I racked my brain about participating in the trees subreddit–when had I commented on marijuana usage?–until I remembered, years ago when I was still running a site called Philanthroper that raised money for nonprofits, we featured a group that aimed to legalize marijuana. I probably chimed in to explain the site and offer a bit of transparency on how it worked.
Of course, anyone who scanned my name on their own wouldn’t have that context. They’d probably just assume I was really into pot (which, who cares, save for maybe a potential employer). And FreeRedditCheck is, by the team’s own admission, pretty bad at context. If you were fighting with the founding trolls of an anti-Asian hate group, you’d be labeled terrible, too.
“I’ve read some of the Reddit comments . . . I like seeing people go, this is good for a chuckle. This is funny. This is interesting. A few people are baffled: ‘Wait, I said Jew? Did I?'” Westerman says. “I don’t use Reddit a whole lot, [but] I think I say a lot of things that seem inflammatory on social media when, at the heart of it, I’m just passionate about equality and fairness. If I were on Reddit, I might imagine I’d get a bad score for the wrong reasons.”LARP
But the only concern isn’t just a bad score displayed by a potentially fallible machine. FreeRedditCheck is invasive by design. It not only digs through your past, reminding you that the Internet doesn’t forget; it digs through a history of Internet activity that you may have assumed no one else would ever see.
I can find all of my colleagues on Twitter. Many of us are friends on Facebook, too. I see their snarky comments about news trends, their joyful sharing of memes, and their intimate family photos–but when I put out an open call on Slack for their Reddit accounts for me to scan, no one volunteered (save for one brave soul, who had an account but never used it).
One colleague fessed up to juggling multiple accounts and a private message board with friends, another that they’d delete their accounts and start over periodically, as they shared work they considered personal.
“I think everyone should just have secret accounts,” they said. “Reddit is embarrassing.”
Indeed, when I shared my own anxiety about running FreeRedditCheck on myself, Westerman didn’t get it. “Some people say some really awful things on there,” she says. “I wonder, is it so bad, if it’s out there, that we’re aggregating it in one place? Is that such a controversial thing?”
Of course, unearthing a bigot comes with a certain satisfaction (and if you’re a racist, sexist homophobe who’s flooding the Internet with hate, my pity for your privacy trail runs low). But we all have secrets, and we live in a world where we’re all one wrong or just misinterpreted thing said away from a social media pile-on that could end our careers and burn our personal relationships. For some, those secrets involve hopping on Reddit to make angry comments about women. For others, those secrets might involve desperate moments where you asked the hive mind for relationship advice, or dropped a word you didn’t realize was offensive, or just shared an unabashed love for LARPing without fear of judgement because everyone else in the room was a LARPer.
The team wants to build on FreeRedditCheck over the next year, developing it beyond the core function of scanning for latent evil, and riffing on its greater capabilities of searching keywords. Comedy Hack Day organizer Craig Cannon pitches some of its funnier uses: imagine if you could look up the Redditor who’s talked about pickles the most. Who is the Pickle King of Reddit? “What’s funny to me is, you could find the apex treasure trolls,” he says. “Which subreddit has the most mentions of gummy bears? I don’t know! It’s almost endless, and really fun.”
Yet even these amusements seem to forget that Reddit is, for better and worse, the largest, last bastion on the Internet where you can still operate socially with anonymity. And FreeRedditCheck–using publicly available data–reminds us that modern privacy is, more often than not, a tenuous illusion.
FreeRedditCheck’s name is hilarious, but the tool is no joke.
UPDATE: One of the creators of FreeRedditCheck has taken the site down after the team has received “a lot of personal threats” from members of Reddit.