Celebrity-nude-selfie-gate was a thing that passed quickly for most people. They came to the internet, they clicked around and saw the pictures. That role completed, they went back to watching Redtube and reruns of How I Met Your Mother.
The small minority who were not titillated stayed behind and sent angry tweets to each other about the invasion of privacy. A smaller minority wrote hastily-composed thinkpieces. A much much much smaller minority paid any attention to what was actually going on.
Early on, we pointed out that there did not appear to be a single "hacker" at work. The person some Redditors tried to identify as the "main hacker" even said this himself. Instead it took the efforts of a great many men to achieve this collection. Those stories you read about a single security patch being responsible, or asking "What is 4chan?" were not simply wrong. They misdirected the attention.
These message boards did not contain just a few hacked celebrity nude selfies. On them were posted the images of hundreds of women from everywhere. These hundreds of women probably still don't know that their images are there, alongside the celebrity nudes, because the broader commentary was so focused the gross violation of Jennifer Lawrence's privacy that it acted like a fog.
Celebrity did not obscure everything. There were plenty of good things written about privacy and the entitlement of the men distributing the pictures. But the argument tended to proceed on a largely speculative basis. Everyone was interested in the misogyny inherent in how we would all react to the pictures; few seem troubled by the question of where, exactly, they came from.
Evidence gathered by security specialists who immersed themselves in the hacker message boards where these nudes were being traded discovered that it wasn't just celebrities being hacked, but everyday folks as well. Often, people were targeted by someone close to them, someone nontechnical who simply wanted to invade their privacy, who would then team up with a willing hacker.
This "security specialist" language is deceiving. You do not have to possess technical knowledge to figure out what is happening here. Google suffices as an investigative tool. It's all I had to look into this story when it broke last week and I quickly figured things out.
To be fair, I understand why looking at these things closely is not an appealing course of action. Rage and depression are the logical, sane responses. "Entitlement" became too small and cloistered a term for the activities I was trying to track, myself. The thing began to haunt me, more of a Slimer sort of ghost than a spectre, bloated and diffuse, and with a very healthy appetite. There was not just one message board but many. A Reddit set up to track all of this activity buzzed merrily along. There was not just a small, organized gang of men but many. They cared very little that people were tracking them. While the coverage was ongoing most of them were still merrily ripping away at iClouds. They're probably still doing it now. They seem pretty mellow about it.
As if to explain why, over the weekend Reddit CEO Yishan Wong decided to weigh in with a self-justifying blog post. Cloaking himself in rhetoric more appropriate to John Stuart Mill, he entitled it, "Every Man Is Responsible for His Own Soul." He muses:
The philosophy behind this stems from the idea that each individual is responsible for his or her moral actions.
We uphold the ideal of free speech on reddit as much as possible not because we are legally bound to, but because we believe that you—the user—has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that it is your responsibility to do so. When you know something is right, you should choose to do it. But as much as possible, we will not force you to do it.
Read with the title, it's obvious who he imagines his users are. (The CEO would later find himself explaining his gendered title as a "line from a movie," then inexplicably adding, "I'm a man, and the blog post was written, inevitably, for the men who read it.") Because of "responsibility." And the "ideal of free speech." Which, as abstract values, I don't mean to belittle by putting in quotation marks. The person belittling those terms is actually the CEO himself, whose mind appears stuck in the first-year-of-college political philosophy seminar he likely took and failed.
Soon after that blog post went up, Reddit was forced to take its board devoted to the celebrity nude selfies down. A systems administrator explained that in fact the boards were taken down for other violations. (There were allegedly pictures of minors; as the situation intensified users began creating multiple subreddits.) He displayed an unusual level of self-reflection about what was really going on:
This nightmare of the weekend made myself and many of my coworkers feel pretty awful. I had an obvious responsibility to keep the site up and running, but seeing that all of my efforts were due to a huge number of people scrambling to look at stolen private photos didn't sit well with me personally, to say the least. We hit new traffic milestones, ones which I'd be ashamed to share publicly. Our general stance on this stuff is that reddit is a platform, and there are times when platforms get used for very deplorable things. We take down things we're legally required to take down, and do our best to keep the site getting from spammed or manipulated, and beyond that we try to keep our hands off. Still, in the moment, seeing what we were seeing happen, it was hard to see much merit to that viewpoint.
It is indeed hard to see much merit to the Reddit viewpoint. It may be true that none of this is easily solvable on a practical level. Whack down one of these websites and a new one will pop up; ban one user acting as a hub for images and there are forty more ready to replace him; and laws drafted to address this sort of activity can end up catching too much in their butterfly nets. These things keep bubbling up through the cracks anyway.
Maybe there will be no one-size-fits-all solution. It would still be nice if, in looking for one, we could stop getting distracted by all the crappy philosophizing.