When the history books (or interactive tablet apps) recap the early 21st century, they will boggle future students’ minds with tales of paper and ink newspapers. Likewise, when the front page of the Internet is discussed, it might surprise people that the latest rage wasn’t always the one on top. For instance, before Reddit became the world’s hive mind, there was Digg, a site where people posted their favorite web content until a redesign and new features made its fickle users scatter to other corners of the web. And now, riding in the wake of Reddit’s seemingly endless controversy, a site called Voat could turn into the next big thing.
The conflict boiling within Reddit’s offices and forums is a big reason some users are flocking to Voat, pronounced “vote.” Reddit’s most recent troubles began earlier this month, when volunteer moderators locked down some of the site’s most popular groups in protest against the sudden dismissal of Victoria Taylor, a celebrity-wrangling employee who was popular among users. After Taylor’s ouster, hundreds of thousands of users called for the dismissal of interim CEO Ellen Pao, who left her post shortly thereafter.
Still, some Reddit users are unhappy with Pao’s replacement, Reddit cofounder Steve Huffman. Soon after returning to Reddit as chief executive, Huffman tried setting a new tone for the historically post-anything site, saying it was never meant to be a “bastion of free speech” — even though that’s exactly how his fellow cofounder Alexis Ohanian described it in 2012. The debate has now turned into an argument over the proper amount of policing Reddit’s managers and moderators should do regarding the site’s content, which ranges from political debates and fashion advice to content that can’t be discussed in a family setting.
And that’s where Voat comes in. Founded two years ago by a pair of computer science students at the University of Zurich, it’s attractive to Reddit defectors because it looks and functions similarly to the site they already know — but still maintains a strong stance in favor of free speech. “While we don’t necessarily approve or agree with all content that users submit to Voat, our policy is to not meddle and not censor content unless said content is illegal in Switzerland,” says the Swiss-based site’s FAQ. And that has approach has some Reddit users jumping ship.
“A lot of the active [Reddit] community members went over there,” says Reddit user xthorgoldx, a Reddit user who’s been on the site for around six years, occasionally serving as a volunteer moderator. “I see a lot of the familiar faces.”
Voat could pose a threat to Reddit because those “familiar faces” are people who tend to post more content than typical Reddit users, which means Voat’s content is likely growing. If that keeps pace, the traffic to Reddit’s forums could plateau. Meanwhile, the recent influx of Voat users has investors taking notice in the Bitcoin-funded site.
Still, critics of Voat’s uncensored approach argue that it gives trolls a place to call home on the web. But xthorgoldx doesn’t agree, saying Reddit still has plenty of forums where unsavory content proliferates, too. “You have that sort of thing on both sides,” he says. “It’s just that Voat doesn’t try and say, ‘We’re this clean website that’s free for users.’ They allow free speech — there’s pros and cons that go with that.”
Another active Redditor also doesn’t see Voat as a troll’s nest. “My perspective is that Voat has similar technology as Reddit,” says AwesomeKid, who joined Voat this month after being on Reddit for more than four years. “Voat is small and lightweight. The atmosphere is still friendly,” he says.
Only time will tell if those good vibes will stick around as more people join Voat and more topics are explored. But to these early users, Voat’s pledge to support free speech is just as important as the topics they’re coming to discuss. “Whether it’s Reddit, Voat, or people go back to Digg for some reason,” says xthorgoldx, “as long as there’s a site out there that will provide this Internet front page — so long as it’s consistent to its ethical principles and honest to the consumer — I don’t really care what the name is.”