What Really Caused the Reddit Revolt?

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A Reddit mascot is shown at the company's headquarters in San Francisco
A Reddit mascot is shown at the company's headquarters in San Francisco, California on April 15, 2014. Photo: ROBERT GALBRAITH/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Controversy has long been a regular feature of Reddit, from users’ Boston bombing vigilantism to last year’s trove of nude celebrity photos, but this month the site has exploded like never before. Over Fourth of July weekend, users learned that Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s beloved director of talent, had been dismissed, prompting hundreds of Reddit forums (known as subreddits) to temporarily shut down in protest. Many directed their anger at interim CEO Ellen Pao, who was already a controversial figure in Silicon Valley, with more than 213,000 people signing a petition calling for her to step down. Pao initially offered an apology on behalf of Reddit’s administrators, but on July 10 she resigned and was replaced by Steve Huffman, Reddit’s co-founder and original CEO.

But the story didn’t end there. Over the past few days the major players have exposed, often on Reddit itself, the long-simmering issues that culminated in a revolt by Reddit’s top users. With thousands of subreddits and its own shorthand, Reddit can be a confusing place even without the addition of tangentially related internet disputes. But if you’ve never been downvoted to hell and have no feelings on duck-size horses, fear not: Here’s a guide to the various theories on what went wrong at Reddit and who’s to blame.

What is Reddit?
Allow us to explain like you’re 5: Reddit is a site founded in 2005 that bills itself as the “front page of the internet.” It’s the tenth most popular site in the U.S. and the 33rd most visited worldwide, according to Alexa.com. The basic concept is that users can post anything — observations, images, TV show analysis, questions about weird medical ailments, etc. — and others can reply. Every comment can get “upvoted” or “downvoted,” making it more or less prominent on the page.

Users can customize which subreddits they subscribe to, so when a particular user logs on to the site she may only see respectful discourse on Game of Thrones, makeup tips, photos of abandoned buildings, and facetious praise for Nicolas Cage. But as the Daily Beast notes, 74 percent of Reddit users are male and nearly 60 percent are under age 34. If someone is complaining about a Redditor online, they’re probably talking about the stereotypical young male user who sees the site as a bastion of free speech and will vigorously defend the existence of gross subreddits such as /r/creepshots and /r/fatpeoplehate. In recent years Reddit administrators have sporadically removed some particularly offensive subreddits (though some just reemerged under different names).

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Reddit's Victoria Taylor, far left, moderates a live, in-person "Ask Me Anything" session on GMOs at the GMO Answers exhibit at SXSW on Monday, March 16, 2015 in Austin, TX. Photo: Erich Schlegel/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

What started the current uproar?
Reddit has about 60 paid employees, and they’ve traditionally been fairly hands off. One exception was Victoria Taylor, who played a key role in developing and coordinating Reddit’s popular “Ask Me Anything” posts. (Even those unfamiliar with Reddit have likely seen “AMAs” by celebrities like Madonna, Bill Murray, and even President Obama around the internet.) Taylor seemed to get Reddit in a way the other administrators didn’t, and the site’s powerful moderators — the unpaid top users who actually run the various communities — came to rely on her. In a post revealing that Taylor had been suddenly let go, AMA moderator karmanaut said the administrators gave them no warning, though she was in the midst of helping them set up several projects. “We all had the rug ripped out from under us and feel betrayed,” the moderator explained, going on to praise Taylor:

The admins didn’t realize how much we rely on Victoria. Part of it is proof, of course: we know it’s legitimate when she’s sitting right there next to the person and can make them provide proof. We’ve had situations where agents or others have tried to do an AMA as their client, and Victoria shut that shit down immediately. We can’t do that anymore.

Part of it is also that Victoria is an essential lifeline of communication. When something goes wrong in an AMA, we can call and get it fixed immediately. Otherwise, we have to resort to desperately try messaging the person via Reddit (and they may not know to check their messages or even to look for these notifications) 

Part of it is also organization. The vast majority of scheduling requests go through her and she ensures that we have all of the standard information that we need ahead of time (date, time, proof, description, etc.) and makes it easier for the teams that set up AMAs on both ends. She ensures that things will go well and that the person understands what /r/IAMA is and what is expected of them. Without her filling this role, we will be utterly overwhelmed. We might need to scrap the calendar altogether, or somehow limit AMAs from those that would need help with the process.

/r/IAmA and several other subreddits said they had to go private because they needed to figure out how to function without Taylor. Soon hundreds of subreddits joined in, temporarily shutting down to protest her dismissal, and what they said was increasingly poor communication and disrespect from the administrators.

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Ellen Pao leaves the Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse during a lunch break from her trial on March 11, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Photo: Justin Sullivan/2015 Getty Images

How did Ellen Pao respond?
Facing calls for her resignation, on Monday, July 6, the interim CEO posted an apology on Reddit, which read in part:

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.

Today, we acknowledge this long history of mistakes. We are grateful for all you do for reddit, and the buck stops with me.

Four days later, Pao revealed she was stepping down, telling Re/code it was a “mutual decision” with Reddit’s board. She said in her good-bye post on Reddit, “Ultimately, the board asked me to demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believe I can deliver while maintaining reddit’s core principles.” Pao added:

In my eight months as reddit’s CEO, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly on reddit. The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity.

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.

Victoria Taylor resurfaced to thank the Reddit community for their support, but it’s still not entirely clear why she was let go. It appears her dismissal was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, and now the question is who’s to blame for the larger revolt, and Pao’s exit. Here are the leading theories:

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Morgan Jones, 18, poses for a photo at his desk with text from his log of news and reports on Reddit.com, when news of the Aurora shooting first broke on July 25, 2012.Photo: Tim Rasmussen/copyright - 2012 The Denver Post, MediaNews Group.

1) Pao was a bad CEO.
With its sparse design, relative lack of advertising, and unrestricted content, Reddit often feels like a throwback to the early days of the internet. During Pao’s tenure as CEO, the company raised $50 million in funding and set out to become more profitable. In July 2014, the New York Times described Reddit’s risky plan:

The company is trying to jump-start its advertising business, as well as bolster some smaller moneymaking efforts. Its challenge is to figure out how to become a real business without changing the essential nature of the service and alienating its powerhouse constituency of 114 million intensely loyal monthly users.

If it fails, those users could revolt and ultimately depart en masse, turning Reddit into an also-ran like Myspace — another social web giant that faded into obscurity.

That would be a tall order for any CEO, but some say Pao was particularly inept. In May Reddit expanded its harassment policy, and in early June it banned five “questionable subreddits,” including sites devoted to brutally mocking overweight, black, and transgender people. Users on other “questionable” subreddits worried that they were next and complained that the new policy was anathema to the community’s free speech ideals. But even Redditors who did not spend their time posting vile content on the internet felt the changes were poorly implemented. Bloomberg View’s Megan McArdle summed up the problem:

And yet the way that the company did this under Pao’s leadership seems … well, did I say “arbitrary” and “ham-fisted” yet? They chose five subreddits while leaving lots of other, also-very-offensive-and-possibly-even-more-so threads. They explained that this was because of harassment, not because the threads themselves were offensive, but did a very poor job of explaining what counts as harassment in a social media world where harassing strangers is practically the killer app for every platform. In the comments to the thread that announced the ban, at least one user pointed to a harassing subreddit that seems to still be up as of this afternoon

If you want to take a serious stand against harassment, or offensiveness, the way to do it is not to pick the five that got the most complaints and knock them off; it’s to develop site-wide standards that are, insofar as possible, objectively outlined and don’t map onto obvious political categories. Then you announce that there’s a new sheriff in town, and put someone in charge of rooting out the offending behavior everywhere, publicizing the new regime as loud and long as possible.  Then, after users have had a little while to adjust, and go through some pointed iterations of “knock it off, I’m serious, the ban-hammer cometh” …. well, then you can start banning stuff. Note that this is very far from the way it was actually done. Anyone who has spent any time working on the Internet should be able to figure this out. I’m pretty sure that I could have figured this out – because I did, way back in 2002 when I became the CEO of policing my own comment threads.

Entrepreneur’s Ray Hennessey argued that even Pao’s response to the subreddit blackouts showed she needed to go. He said her comment that “what we learned from this event is that we need to communicate better with [the moderators] and that we don’t take them for granted” was telling:

To Pao, the company learned from the protest that it needs to communicate decisions with moderators better and not take them for granted. Learning from mistakes is great – but there was nothing new here to learn. This was something that should have been in your DNA from the moment you joined. The volunteer moderators are your company, at least as far as they rest of the world is concerned. It should never take a protest like the shutdown to make you recognize their importance in the ecosystem. You need to walk in the door every day with your moderators and their underlying communities on the top of your mind. To be so ignorant of that as to need to learn from an event like the site shutdown is simply malpractice as a manager and leader.

2) Pao’s ouster is all part of a “long con.”
If you enjoyed all the Sterling Cooper corporate drama, this one’s for you. Over the weekend Yishan Wong, Reddit’s former CEO and a friend of Pao’s, suggested that Reddit’s ongoing leadership drama is part of a plan to wrest control of the company from Condé Nast. (Background: Reddit was created by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian in 2005. The media company acquired Reddit in 2006, then spun it off as an independent company in 2011. Advanced Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast, is still a majority shareholder.) In a thread that asked “What’s the best ‘long con’ you’ve ever pulled?” Wong wrote:

Here’s one.

In 2006, reddit was sold to Conde Nast. It was soon obvious to many that the sale had been premature, the site was unmanaged and under-resourced under the old-media giant who simply didn’t understand it and could never realize its full potential, so the founders and their allies in Y-Combinator (where reddit had been born) hatched an audacious plan to re-extract reddit from the clutches of the 100-year-old media conglomerate.

Together with [Reddit board member] Sam Altman, they recruited a young up-and-coming technology manager with social media credentials. Alexis, who was on the interview panel for the new reddit CEO, would reject all other candidates except this one. The manager was to insist as a condition of taking the job that Conde Nast would have to give up significant ownership of the company, first to employees by justifying the need for equity to be able to hire top talent, bringing in Silicon Valley insiders to help run the company. After continuing to grow the company, he would then further dilute Conde Nast’s ownership by raising money from a syndicate of Silicon Valley investors led by Sam Altman, now the President of Y-Combinator itself, who in the process would take a seat on the board.

Once this was done, he and his team would manufacture a series of otherwise-improbable leadership crises, forcing the new board to scramble to find a new CEO, allowing Altman to use his position on the board to advocate for the re-introduction of the old founders, installing them on the board and as CEO, thus returning the company to their control and relegating Conde Nast to a position as minority shareholder.

JUST KIDDING. There’s no way that could happen.

So Wong is suggesting his tenure as CEO was part of a plot to dilute Condé Nast’s shares, and the Pao drama is the final step of that scheme. Altman, Huffman, and Pao all posted teasing replies to the comment, and it’s probably just a joke — but as Gawker notes, “it’s an odd joke and a suspiciously believable conspiracy to spin, given that it’s basically come true: Wong and Pao were indeed deposed, while Reddit’s originators, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, are firmly back in power, just as they were in 2005 while they created Reddit in a UVA dormitory.”

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Alexis Ohanian speaks onstage at "Be Awesome Without Their Permission" during the 2014 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival on March 9, 2014 in Austin, Texas. Photo: Travis P Ball/2014 Travis P Ball

3) Pao is a scapegoat.
Wong’s last comment might have been in jest, but his pot-stirring had just begun. In a Reddit post on Monday, he accused co-founder Alexis Ohanian of making the decision to fire Victoria Taylor, then letting Pao take the fall:

I’m glad redditors have started to piece together all of this. Here’s the only thing you’re missing:

It travels upstream, except when it comes from the CEO’s boss.

Alexis wasn’t some employee reporting to Pao, he was the Executive Chairman of the Board, i.e. Pao’s boss. He had different ideas for AMAs, he didn’t like Victoria’s role, and decided to fire her. Pao wasn’t able to do anything about it. In this case it shouldn’t have traveled upstream to her, it came from above her.

Then when the hate-train started up against Pao, Alexis should have been out front and center saying very clearly “Ellen Pao did not make this decision, I did.” Instead, he just sat back and let her take the heat. That’s a stunning lack of leadership and an incredibly shitty thing to do.

I actually asked that he be on the board when I joined; I used to respect Alexis Ohanian. After this, not quite so much.

Ohanian had hinted previously that this was the case, writing, “It was my decision to change how we work with AMAs and the transition was my failure.” In a reply to Wong’s post, Ohanian said, “It saddens me to hear you say this, Yishan. I did report to her, we didn’t handle it well, and again, I apologize.”

Later Ohanian denied this accusation during an “Ask Me Anything,” saying, “No, Ellen was not used as a scapegoat. She stepped up during a time of crisis for reddit, for which we were thankful. Things didn’t go smoothly, for sure, but I will do my best to guide us forward.”

4) Pao was done in by racism and sexism.
If Pao’s name looks familiar, it’s because she lost a high-profile gender-discrimination suit this spring. Several years ago, Pao filed a lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, alleging that her former employer didn’t promote her because she is a woman, then fired her when she complained. A month after losing the case in March, Pao said she was still fighting against gender discrimination, telling The Wall Street Journal that Reddit doesn’t engage in salary negotiations with job candidates because “men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate.”

Pao’s advocacy for gender equality led to even more abuse as Reddit’s administrators attempted to clean up the site. On subreddits such as /r/ChairmanPao and /r/PaoMustResign, users made personal attacks against Pao (and compared her to Hitler). The petition to oust Pao cites her gender-discrimination case as one of the main reasons she’s bad for the site:

She was appointed interim CEO of Reddit Inc in November 2014 and Reddit entered into a new age of censorship. Pao lost her gender discrimination case against venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins, on March 27, 2015. A vast majority of the Reddit community believes that Pao, “a manipulative individual who will sue her way to the top”, has overstepped her boundaries and fears that she will run Reddit into the ground.

In my view, her job was made more difficult because as a woman, she was particularly subject to the abuse stemming from the pockets of toxic misogyny in the Reddit ecosystem,” Mitch Kapor, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the New York Times.

On Tuesday, as Reddit’s biggest trolls were still celebrating Pao’s downfall, new CEO Steve Huffman dropped a bomb, announcing that certain subreddits “should not be here at all,” and informing them that “neither Alexis nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech.” He wrote:

There has been a lot of discussion lately —on reddit, in the news, and here internally— about reddit’s policy on the more offensive and obscene content on our platform. Our top priority at reddit is to develop a comprehensive Content Policy and the tools to enforce it.

The overwhelming majority of content on reddit comes from wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities. That is what makes reddit great. There is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don’t have any obligation to support them. And we also believe that some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all.

Neither Alexis nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen: These are very complicated issues, and we are putting a lot of thought into it. It’s something we’ve been thinking about for quite some time. We haven’t had the tools to enforce policy, but now we’re building those tools and reevaluating our policy.

We as a community need to decide together what our values are. To that end, I’ll be hosting an AMA on Thursday 1pm pst to present our current thinking to you, the community, and solicit your feedback.

As Redditors were quick to point out, Ohanian has literally referred to the site as “a bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web,” but why start being consistent now? The upshot is that after years of confusing policies on censorship, it appears Reddit may finally purge its various cesspools of hate.

Of course, Wong couldn’t resist gloating. In a lengthy post on Tuesday night, he recalled that when he asked Huffman for advice during a previous Reddit meltdown, the founder told him, “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.” Wong predicted that Reddit’s most notorious communities are about to be sent packing (probably to Reddit rival Voat):

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!

Wong said that as CEO he decided it was better to leave the creepy but small subreddits alone to emphasize that Reddit is “a place welcoming of all opinions and discourse.” He took responsibility for the current state of Reddit, but informed the site’s racists and misogynists that their efforts backfired spectacularly:

But… the most delicious part of this is that on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed /u/ekjp [Ellen Pao] 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 [Huffman] 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.

The remarks of Reddit’s former CEO should probably be taken with a grain of salt, but DAE want to believe that Reddit’s most revolting trolls are about to become the victims of their own racism and misogyny?