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The Reddit revolt that led to CEO Ellen Pao's resignation, explained

Reddit.
Reddit.
Gil C via Shutterstock

Reddit is one of the 10 most visited websites in America. It's more popular than Netflix's cache of prestige television shows and more well-trafficked than millennial procrastination networks Instagram and Tumblr. There's a reason: Reddit is more frustrating, depressing, offensive, blissful, enlightening, and dramatic than any of those other sites combined. And now it's dealing with the fallout of another revolt, one that has claimed the head of CEO Ellen Pao.

Reddit's jagged history includes shaming and harassing fat people; helping to carve out the disgusting phenomenon known as "creep shots"; posting the cutest pictures of cats that you can find on the internet; creating explainers so good they make me want to throw my computer against the wall; and hosting various celebrities from all spheres of life (actors, scientists, politicians, viral sensations, etc.) for a series of posts known as AMAs (Ask Me Anything).

Those AMAs in particular have afforded Reddit a massive amount of cultural clout and, in recent weeks, have also been at the center of a sitewide meltdown. It started with the firing of a longtime employee, escalated into a mutinous display of solidarity, and ultimately ended with Pao's resignation. Reddit's users — the site's heart and guts — effectively brought one the biggest properties on the internet to standstill.

The controversy began with the firing of a key employee

Reading and posting to Reddit is generally a pretty anonymous experience. Countless people visit every day just to lurk in the site's many forums, and those who do post go by (typically silly) user names. Some of these people are Reddit's moderators, unpaid volunteers who make sure those forums (known as subreddits) stay on topic, run smoothly, and don't descend into mayhem.

Getting moderators on the same page as staffers who "run" Reddit is where a woman named Victoria Taylor came in. Taylor, a publicist, was hired by the site in 2013 as the director of communications. She was crucial to its operations because she was seen as a bridge between the Reddit community and its management team. As the Daily Beast reported:

She went by the handle /u/Chooter and liaised between the leaders of the Reddit's largest communities and their volunteer army of unpaid moderators. Most prominently, she legitimized Reddit’s popular "Ask Me Anything" feature and helped it go mainstream, making big name celebrities comfortable with the oft-confrontational Reddit hordes while lending veracity to the process for a readership that tends to skew skeptical.

Taylor's popularity and standing within the Reddit community became apparent during the Fourth of July weekend. Taylor was fired on July 2 for reasons that haven't been clarified. And in the days that followed, moderators began locking users out of various forums, and temporarily closing many of those subreddits to signal their dissatisfaction with Taylor's dismissal.

The affected subreddits were some of the most visited on the site. Reddit's popular Ask Me Anything forum (r/iama) was set to private — freezing out its more than 8 million subscribers. Other forums like Art (r/art), with 3 million subscribers, and Ask Reddit (r/askreddit), with 8.9 million subscribers, also went dark.

Taylor later posted her own response to her firing directly to Reddit. While she didn't reveal any details of why she was let go, she did thank users for their outpouring of support:

How was your weekend? Mine was...interesting, to say the least.

I’ve had some time to think about how to respond to the extraordinary kindness and support you’ve shown me. And here it is:

I’ll never forget my time at reddit. You allowed me to be a part of some of the greatest conversations of our time, and it was an honor to be your ambassador.

I just want to take a moment to say thank you to all of you who have reached out.

Thank you for everything you’ve given me. From your messages to your artwork, I am deeply moved and grateful beyond words, and your encouragement has meant more than you’ll ever know.

I’ve been incredibly humbled and honored to serve this community, and I truly believe all voices matter.

Your voices matter.

You proved that this weekend.

And really, this weekend wasn’t about me. It was about you. And if I know one thing about this community, it’s that you’ll continue making your voices heard. And that's an inspiration.

How Reddit's moderation structure allowed the site's users to take control

Reddit is a unique beast, and the way it's set up is the reason Taylor's firing has turned the site upside down. In many ways, Reddit is a dream media company; every day, hundreds of thousands of users generate fantastic pieces of content — including photos, videos, and memes — that get millions of clicks. That, in turn, attracts millions of dollars in ad revenue.

The best part of Reddit's business model, if you're a member of the site's management team, is that those users aren't paid. Reddit's users (known as redditors) are essentially creating and maintaining your product for you for free. But the drawback, as Pao and her fellow Reddit administrators learned in the aftermath of Taylor's firing, is that it requires the people in charge to be more transparent and forthright with redditors. Reddit's administrators weren't.

Taylor's firing came abruptly, and threw moderators who depended on her into a state of flux. Reddit user nallen, the moderator who manages Reddit's r/science forum, explained:

To back this up, I am the mod in /r/science that organizes all of the science AMAs, and I am going to have meaningful problems in the /r/Science AMAs, Victoria was the only line of communication with the admins. If someone wants to get analytics for an AMA the answer will be "Sorry, I can't help."

One major downside of how Reddit is structured is that the site's unpaid moderators and volunteers — the people generating and managing all the free content the site profits from — hold the keys to the shop. Meaning they can, and, in response to Taylor's firing, effectively did, close down many popular areas of the site.

Restoring access to darkened subreddits requires cooperation between management and moderators. After Taylor was fired, subreddits were being shut down so rapidly that Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian tried to reason with moderators in a posting:

Your message was received loud and clear. The communication between Reddit and the moderators needs to improve dramatically. We will work closely with you all going forward to ensure events like today don’t happen again. At this point, however, the blackout has served its purpose, and now it’s time to get Reddit functioning again. I know many of you are still upset. We will continue to work through these issues with you all, but redditors don’t deserve to be punished any further over an issue that is ultimately between Reddit and the moderators.

Meanwhile, users were being deprived of a lot of content they take for granted. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the Reddit shutdown, here's a Google Trends chart that maps searches for "Reddit alternative" the day after Taylor's firing:

(Google)

The revolt raised questions about CEO Ellen Pao's ability to lead the site — and justifiably so

After myriad forums went dark and Ohanian posted his plea, they slowly began appearing back online. Then, Pao wrote an apology to Reddit's users that specifically addressed the site's lack of transparency:

We screwed up. Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes. We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them. When you’ve had feedback or requests, we haven’t always been responsive. The mods and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of reddit.

Pao's apology — which also outlined three "concrete" steps the site plans to take to improve the relationship between its admins and its community — got at a key component of said relationship: communication, or the lack thereof. While Pao didn't outright explain the "surprises" she was referring to, her apology implied that there had been changes to the site that didn't go over well, and that she was aware of how those changes had affected users' trust in the site.

The relationship between Reddit administrators and redditors is one that has to be built on trust. Because moderators aren't paid for their work, they deserve to at least be informed of what's happening behind the scenes of the site they're devoting their time to. It's the moderators, not the administrators, who are building and maintaining the Reddit "product." And if there are plans to, say, monetize an AMA or tweak the way Reddit works, Pao and her team owed it to their volunteer moderators to make that clear and give moderators a chance to provide feedback.

But redditors tend to make a lot of demands, and some go about it in the ugliest way possible

The site has regularly been criticized for some users' sexism and misogyny, and as such, there's a tendency for valid criticism of Pao to crumble into a litany of personal attacks against her. As the Daily Dot points out, there was no shortage of redditors who started calling Pao a bitch.

Pao's relationship with redditors was a tenuous one. She was named interim CEO of the site in November 2014, and prior to the firing of Taylor, the biggest move of her tenure happened in May, when Reddit announced the banning of five subreddits — including a rather nasty one called Fat People Hate. Pao said the reason for the bans was that the subreddits in question had become vessels for harassment, but redditors questioned the decision, insinuating a trampling of their free speech rights.

Censorship is certainly a valid subject for debate. But rather than spur civilized discourse on the issue, the question of censorship surrounding the May subreddit bans led to users wanting to "punch Ellen Pao in the face." It also inspired the creation of subreddits with names like "EllenPaoIsaBigCunt," and even a plan to Google bomb Pao so that a search for her name would turn up Nazi symbols.

That sort of hate-filled response detracts from the discussion of very reasonable concerns — but it's also the sort of response that tends to garner the most attention. And that's kind of become Reddit's calling card. Even though the site hosts many amazing subreddits and its community contains many redditors who simply want to know their feedback will be heard and considered, their voices are often drowned out by the site's most hostile cohorts.

What's next for Reddit and Pao?

On Friday, July 10, Pao resigned from her position as Reddit's interim CEO.

"[Reddit's board] had a more aggressive view than I did," she told Re/Code, explaining that her stepping down was a mutual decision and that she was not fired. Steve Huffman, a Reddit co-founder and its original CEO, will take her place.

Before she left her post, Pao had announced important changes to Reddit's admin team and laid out a plan for fixing some of the site's problems by way of building new tools for moderators and communicating with them more openly:

Tools: We will improve tools, not just promise improvements, building on work already underway. u/deimorz and u/weffey will be working as a team with the moderators on what tools to build and then delivering them.

Communication: u/krispykrackers is trying out the new role of Moderator Advocate. She will be the contact for moderators with reddit and will help figure out the best way to talk more often. We’re also going to figure out the best way for more administrators, including myself, to talk more often with the whole community.

Search: We are providing an option for moderators to default to the old version of search to support your existing moderation workflows. Instructions for setting this default are here.

But a lot of what Pao wrote felt and sounded like oblique office jargon. She didn't promise anything truly specific. And it's unclear if she would've written this memo in the first place if moderators hadn't started shutting down subreddits.

Even Pao seemed aware of this. She wrote: "I know these are just words, and it may be hard for you to believe us. I don't have all the answers, and it will take time for us to deliver concrete results."

In a Reddit post about Pao's resignation, Reddit board member Sam Altman provided further details on the situation, praised Pao's work, echoed Pao's calls for more transparency and better tools, and perhaps most importantly, expressed his dismay at some Redditors' behavior in the wake of Taylor's firing:

It was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen. [1] 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 [2] will be continuing the work Ellen started to drive this forward.

[1] 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.

Pao also wrote a post about her resignation, in which she too addressed the hate she received on Reddit:

I just want to remind everyone that I am just another human; I have a family, and I have feelings. Everyone attacked on reddit is just another person like you and me. When people make something up to attack me or someone else, it spreads, and we eventually will see it. And we will feel bad, not just about what was said. Also because it undercuts the authenticity of reddit and shakes our faith in humanity.

How will this incident affect the site's viability going forward?

On Thursday, July 16, Reddit's new CEO Steve Huffman made an announcement that the subreddit known as "raping women" (yes, unfortunately this is a real thing) would be banned because it promoted rape. Huffman also outlined a series of guidelines that he promised would be incorporated into the site's content policy. Huffman said the site would ban the following:

- Spam
- Anything illegal (i.e. things that are actually illegal, such as copyrighted material. Discussing illegal activities, such as drug use, is not illegal)
- Publication of someone’s private and confidential information
- Anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people (it’s ok to say "I don’t like this group of people." It’s not ok to say, "I’m going to kill this group of people.")
- Anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people (these behaviors intimidate others into silence)
- Sexually suggestive content featuring minors

These changes are a work in progress, and are not yet a formal update to the site's policy.

The strange part is that even if many redditors are outraged by all of the shenanigans happening at the site, they're somewhat stuck. Voat, a Reddit competitor, saw an influx of users that crippled the site's servers and sent it into a tailspin. Sites like 9Gag and 4Chan don't really have the mainstream appeal or accessibility that Reddit does.

Until a competitor emerges that can handle Reddit's traffic and provide a similar level of accessibility, those who currently frequent Reddit don't have anywhere else to go. Consequently Reddit, even without Pao as its leader, doesn't face any real pressure — aside from moderator-instituted blackouts — to deliver on its and its management's promises, whatever those may be.