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Pao Out as Reddit CEO; Co-Founder Huffman Takes Over

The move comes after a lot of growing controversy at the vocal online community.

Asa Mathat for Re/code

Ellen Pao is stepping down as Reddit’s CEO, a move that comes amid mounting pressure after a series of management mishaps that has angered its very vocal online community. Steve Huffman, Reddit co-founder and its original CEO, is taking over immediately.

In an interview this afternoon, Pao said the departure was a “mutual decision” with the board, due in part to different views on growth potential. “They had a more aggressive view than I did,” she said.

When I asked her directly if she was fired, Pao laughed and said, “Thanks for getting right to the point,” but again underscored that she resigned. Reddit board member and Y Combinator head Sam Altman answered more definitively about whether she was ousted: “No.”

Perhaps it is a matter of semantics, as it seemed that Pao — who has been interim CEO at the company — was inevitably headed for the exit after the ire over the firing of a support staffer for the site’s many moderators morphed and mutated into loud and sometimes vile calls for her ouster.

That came after the community erupted over the firing of a single employee. To bring you up to speed, as reported by Noah Kulwin last week:

“The social news service has thousands of loyal, unpaid moderators who produce and curate the lion’s share of content on the site. But a staff firing and the controversy that erupted thereafter yesterday has moderators of some of the most influential and important parts of the site closing off their sections in protest, posing a serious problem for Reddit’s future … Unpaid moderators (‘subreddit’ leaders who perform the drudgery of running some of the Internet’s most prolific forums) who worked closely with Taylor say this will make their jobs harder, because they’re stretched thin already.”

Pao would not say that the growing controversy was the reason for her departure, and Altman noted, “Ellen did an incredible job to come into the situation she did and was dropped into a crucible.”

He was referring to the previous departure of Yishan Wong, who stepped down as CEO last November in the wake of an earlier controversy about stolen celebrity photos published on the site. Pao replaced him as interim CEO and had kept that title until today.

Huffman said he was excited to come back to Reddit. “I am a huge part of Reddit and Reddit is a huge part of me.” He added that he thinks it could be a community “ten times as large and I have a clear vision of how to get there.” He did not give specifics.

As to actually making a business out of Reddit, Huffman said that it was “not a huge priority, enabling Reddit to grow is.”

Huffman added that he thought some of the discussion around Pao on Reddit had gotten ugly. “I don’t think Ellen has been in a position to defend herself,” he said. “It’s okay for redditors to be angry, but I thought some users crossed the line when it became personal.”

Board head Altman underscored the nasty — and I will say it, sometimes misogynistic — criticisms of Pao in his memo to the site.

“As a closing note, it was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen. The reduction in compassion that happens when we’re all behind computer screens is not good for the world. People are still people even if there is Internet between you,” he wrote. “Disagreements are fine. Death threats are not, are not covered under free speech, and will continue to get offending users banned.”

Indeed, that should be pretty clear to any decent person. And it is also pretty clear that this move is yet another tough blow to Pao, who lost her high-profile gender discrimination case against former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers earlier this year.

So what is she going to do now? “I am going to get some sleep,” she said, clearly weary, but still more upbeat than you would imagine at this moment. “I have to figure it out, but I am going to take some time off.”

By the way, which always gets lost in the clamorous sauce: Condé Nast is the largest shareholder in Reddit, with an ownership stake of around 50 percent, sources said.

Here is the full statement from Altman:

Ellen Pao resigned from reddit today by mutual agreement. I’m delighted to announce that Steve Huffman, founder and the original reddit CEO, is returning as CEO.

We are thankful for Ellen’s many contributions to reddit and the technology industry generally. She brought focus to chaos, recruited a world-class team of executives, and drove growth. She brought a face to reddit that changed perceptions, and is a pioneer for women in the tech industry. She will remain as an advisor to the board through the end of 2015. I look forward to seeing the great things she does beyond that.

We’re very happy to have Steve back. Product and community are the two legs of reddit, and the board was very focused on finding a candidate who excels at both (truthfully, community is harder), which Steve does. He has the added bonus of being a founder with ten years of reddit history in his head. Steve is rejoining Alexis, who will work alongside Steve with the new title of “cofounder.”

A few other points. Mods, you are what makes reddit great. The reddit team, now with Steve, wants to do more for you. You deserve better moderation tools and better communication from the admins.

Second, redditors, you deserve clarity about what the content policy of reddit is going to be. The team will create guidelines to both preserve the integrity of reddit and to maintain reddit as the place where the most open and honest conversations with the entire world can happen.

Third, as a redditor, I’m particularly happy that Steve is so passionate about mobile. I’m very excited to use reddit more on my phone.

As a closing note, it was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen. The reduction in compassion that happens when we’re all behind computer screens is not good for the world. People are still people even if there is Internet between you.

If the reddit community cannot learn to balance authenticity and compassion, it may be a great website but it will never be a truly great community. Steve’s great challenge as CEO will be continuing the work Ellen started to drive this forward.

Disagreements are fine. Death threats are not, are not covered under free speech, and will continue to get offending users banned.

Ellen asked me to point out that the sweeping majority of redditors didn’t do this, and many were incredibly supportive. Although the incredible power of the Internet is the amplification of voices, unfortunately sometimes those voices are hateful.

We were planning to run a CEO search here and talked about how Steve (who we assumed was unavailable) was the benchmark candidate—he has exactly the combination of talent and vision we were looking for. To our delight, it turned out our hypothetical benchmark candidate is the one actually taking the job.

Here’s the interview I did with Pao on both the Kleiner Perkins trial and running Reddit from our Code Conference in May:

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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