Reddit, one of the most popular sites on the internet and a social media platform that is almost entirely user-driven, has been in open revolt since June. Last week, that revolt culminated with the dismissal of CEO Ellen Pao.
Reddit's users thought they'd won victory for their values of free speech absolutism and resistance against the political correctness culture of oppression.
And then they learned they were wrong.
Late on Tuesday, a prior CEO of Reddit, Yishan Wong, posted on the site that the users were mistaken. In fact, he said, they had ousted their best ally in Reddit's culture of free speech absolutism — and that Reddit's culture had become so toxic and hateful that the hammer was about to come down.
Wong wrote that "[w]hat all the white-power racist-sexist neckbeards don't understand" is that Pao "probably would have tolerated your existence so long as you didn't cause any problems," and her presence atop the site would actually have protected Reddit from further censorship.
Wong seemed to suggest the experiment in a wild, consequence-free, purely user-driven Reddit had failed: "We tried to let you govern yourselves and you failed, so now The Man is going to set some Rules."
Wong's full comment is below — it's quite something to read, and feels like vindication for those of us who enjoy Reddit's non-hateful communities but have found the site increasingly intolerable for its ever-growing emphasis on overt misogyny and harassment.
Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong's full comment
How's everyone doing? This is AWESOME!
There's something I neglected to tell you all this time ("executive privilege"), but I'm declassifying a lot of things these days. Back around the time of the /r/creepshots debacle, I wrote to /u/spez for advice. I had met him shortly after I had taken the job, and found him to be a great guy. Back in the day when reddit was small, the areas he oversaw were engineering, product, and the business aspects - those are the same things I tend to focus on in a company (each CEO has certain areas of natural focus, and hires others to oversee the rest). As a result, we were able to connect really well and have a lot of great conversations - talking to him was really valuable.
Well, when things were heating around the /r/creepshots thing and people were calling for its banning, I wrote to him to ask for advice. The very interesting thing he wrote back was "back when I was running things, if there was anything racist, sexist, or homophobic I'd ban it right away. I don't think there's a place for such things on reddit. Of course, now that reddit is much bigger, I understand if maybe things are different."
I've always remembered that email when I read the occasional posting here where people say "the founders of reddit intended this to be a place for free speech." Human minds love originalism, e.g. "we're in trouble, so surely if we go back to the original intentions, we can make things good again." Sorry to tell you guys but NO, that wasn't their intention at all ever. Sucks to be you, /r/coontown - I hope you enjoy voat!
The free speech policy was something I formalized because it seemed like the wiser course at the time. It's worth stating that in that era, we were talking about whether it was ok for people to post creepy pictures of women taken legally in public. That's shitty, but it's a far cry from the extremes of hate that some parts of the site host today. It seemed that allowing creepers to post (anonymized) pictures of women taken in public, in a relatively small subreddit that never showed up on the front page, was a small price to pay for making it clear that we were a place welcoming of all opinions and discourse.
Having made that decision - much of reddit's current condition is on me. I didn't anticipate what (some) redditors would decide to do with freedom. reddit has become a lot bigger - yes, a lot better - AND a lot worse. I have to take responsibility.
But... the most delicious part of this is that on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed /u/ekjp to outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge. She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a shitshow. Ellen isn't some "evil, manipulative, out-of-touch incompetent she-devil" as was often depicted. She was approved by the board and recommended by me because when I left, she was the only technology executive anywhere who had the chops and experience to manage a startup of this size, AND who understood what reddit was all about. As we can see from her post-resignation activity, she knows perfectly well how to fit in with the reddit community and is a normal, funny person - just like in real life - she simply didn't sit on reddit all day because she was busy with her day job.
Ellen was more or less inclined to continue upholding my free-speech policies. /r/fatpeoplehate was banned for inciting off-site harassment, not discussing fat-shaming. What all the white-power racist-sexist neckbeards don't understand is that with her at the head of the company, the company would be immune to accusations of promoting sexism and racism: she is literally Silicon Valley's #1 Feminist Hero, so any "SJWs" would have a hard time attacking the company for intentionally creating a bastion (heh) of sexist/racist content. She probably would have tolerated your existence so long as you didn't cause any problems - I know that her long-term strategies were to find ways to surface and publicize reddit's good parts - allowing the bad parts to exist but keeping them out of the spotlight. It would have been very principled - the CEO of reddit, who once sued her previous employer for sexual discrimination, upholds free speech and tolerates the ugly side of humanity because it is so important to maintaining a platform for open discourse. It would have been unassailable.
Well, now she's gone (you did it reddit!), and /u/spez has the moral authority as a co-founder to move ahead with the purge. We tried to let you govern yourselves and you failed, so now The Man is going to set some Rules. Admittedly, I can't say I'm terribly upset.
Reddit has become a toxic waste dump for internet hatred and harassment
This started when Pao banned a subsection of the site, r/fatpeoplehate, that was dedicated to mocking and promoting real-world harassment of obese people. I really cannot overstate how breathtakingly awful this community was, and the degree to which it has real-life consequences for its victims. Nor was it some tiny subreddit: The community had 150,000 active subscribers. In response to the ban, many thousands of the site's users turned against Pao.
Reddit's chaotic, user-driven platform has long been home to a lot of great stuff, but also to a lot of hateful and harassing material. Two particularly popular genres of Reddit discourse are posting photos of nude or semi-nude women without their permission and promoting hatred of certain groups, most frequently feminist women. A third popular genre of Reddit discourse is angrily insisting on an absolutist free speech right to do as they please, no matter the consequences for their targets.
Among the most frequent targets of ire across Reddit are feminists and "social justice warriors," which refers to anyone who seeks gender, racial, and/or other forms of equality. After the banning of Fat People Hate, Ellen Pao, who was known for suing a previous employer for gender-based discrimination, became Reddit public enemy number one.
For some of Reddit's users, Pao was a social justice warrior who clearly sought gender equity — which is to say, the embodiment of everything they hate — and a threat to their fiercely guarded right to use Reddit as a platform for hate and harassment. And so they responded to this perceived threat to their right of harassment by targeting Pao, the villain, with vicious and frequent hate on the site, which often explicitly targeted her for her gender and implicitly for her race.
In early July, a popular Reddit employee named Victoria Taylor got fired under unclear circumstances. The user revolt grew, culminating in many popular subsections of the site temporarily shutting down (the subsections are run by user volunteers rather than formal employees). Users made it clear they would not accept Pao, with many thousands signing petitions calling for her dismissal, and a little over a week later she was gone.
Reddit's users thought they had won a crushing victory against Ellen Pao, the "SJW piece of shit," as one extremely popular Reddit comment described her. Well, Yishan Wong says they got this one all wrong, and that as a result their campaign was going to leave them more exposed than ever to the dreaded scourge of censorship.