Ellen Pao served Reddit as CEO for a short eight months before stepping down last week.
And guess what? She didn’t need to resign.
To backtrack: Reddit, “the front page of the Internet,” boasts over 36 million user accounts and 160 million monthly users. It’s the home of “Ask Me Anything” (AMA), a place where President Obama, Madonna, Chris Hadfield, Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray and a menagerie of A-listers connect directly with fans. It’s a source of amazing philanthropy and the world’s largest Secret Santa gift exchange.
Last year, Pao was named interim CEO after incumbent Yishan Wong’s abrupt exit. Reddit also raised an investment round of $50 million from Sam Altman, Marc Andreesson, Peter Thiel and Jared Leto, among other notable venture capitalists. Not too shabby from its humble 2005 founding by then 22-year-old Steve Guffman and Alexis Ohanion.
But there’s a dark side to every moon. Reddit’s also home to a veritable hive mind of hatred and harassment. The site is divided into sections called “subreddits”, which are topic-specific discussions. Most subreddits are lovely, positive places, like r/AMA and r/science. But then there’s r/GasTheKikes, r/Coontown, the recently removed r/FatPeopleHate, and many, many more like them. And these hateful subreddits aren’t niche. r/Coontown, for example, boasts a mind-blowing 10,000-plus subscribers. Yes, you read that correctly, and that’s one tiny piece of the hatred pie.
Some users’ lives have been ruined or worse by Reddit. In 2011, an IT manager offered over 300 licenses (worth $7,000) for a popular video game on r/gameswap. Understanding the licenses’ value, r/gameswap subscribers decided to use blackmail to gain control of them. They discovered the IT manager’s personal information and in 24 hours left 138 threatening messages on his work voicemail. By day’s end, the IT manager was fired.
You think that’s bad? Redditors’ destructive abilities reached their tragic nadir with Sunil Tripathi’s suicide, whom the community mistakenly identified as a suspect in the 2013 Boston marathon bombings. Tripathi quickly became the focus of a hate campaign. His body was found in a local river after the real suspects were correctly identified. These are just two instances of systemic hatred and vigilantism Redditors are capable of.
There are two pillars in the making of a successful tech company. One is revenue, and the other is user growth. Together they’re the snake eating its own tail; a conjoined twin upon which multi-million dollar investments are wagered. Reddit’s revenue stream, like pretty much every news site on the Internet (hi xoJane!), is based in advertising. And the kind of world-class advertisers Reddit needs to generate serious revenue avoid all association with racism and hatred.
It was clear that action was needed to secure Reddit’s future profits. An anti-harassment policy, the first in Reddit’s lifetime, was introduced under Pao in May of this year. It defined harassment as:
Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.
This policy didn’t mean r/Coontown (and again, many, many others) got shut down. It did mean a month after instating the policy, Reddit banned five subreddits, including r/FatPeopleHate, r/HamPlanetHatred, r/Neofag, r/ShitNiggersSay and r/Transfags. It was progress, but it was a tiny bite out of the hatred pie. Why would five hate-based subreddits be banned over others like them, if all promoted “systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean”?
The justification, according to the site’s rules, is “reddit [sic] is a pretty open platform and free speech place.” When asked about the policy’s ability to control and/or remove hateful subreddits, Reddit responded “...there are a lot of ways to view the content of an entire subreddit and harassment. Views we disagree with or find offensive will not be affected. Posts that meet the criteria of harassment stated before will be addressed.”
Here it’s easy to point the finger at Pao for not doing enough to curb hateful content. Offensive posts, such as those in r/Coontown, didn’t count under the policy, and neither would incidents like what happened with Sunil Tripathi and the IT manager. Because free speech.
But consider that Pao inherited the Reddit community, which was percolating nastily for years by the time she became CEO. Consider that every subreddit is run by a Redditor, people voluntarily acting as moderators. Consider that the Reddit community is 59% male, 18-29 years old. And consider that Wong, as CEO, defended their decision allowing r/TheFappening to remain up, despite its dedication to promoting and sharing unlawfully obtained nude photos of female celebrities. (r/TheFappening was later removed, with copyright protection -- not harassment -- cited as the reason.) Considering all of the above, you should also consider the community’s reaction to the anti-harassment policy.
The community accused Ellen Pao of being a Nazi. They uploaded photos of swastikas. They called her a cunt. They created new subreddits specifically to continue harassing her. Redditors acted like generally despicable human beings in a response to what the company called “changing our practices to prohibit attacks and harassment of individuals through reddit [sic] with the goal of preventing them.” The community revolted with exactly the kind of behavior the policy was designed to protect them from.
Reddit hit rock bottom last week with the company’s sudden firing of Victoria Taylor, a beloved employee who coordinated AMAs and was responsible for protecting the more high-profile participants from the worst of Reddit's community. In protest to her firing, moderators shut down large swaths of the site. A Change.org petition calling for Pao’s resignation reached over 200,000 signatures. More hatred and racist vitriol against Pao populated the remaining active subreddits. The jig was up. Pao resigned, and co-founder Huffman was installed as CEO.
Reddit’s history makes it crystal clear that a significant number of Redditors DGAF about their fellow users, much less the executive keeping the servers up and running. Redditors care even less about the site’s profitability, so long as they have a place to continue being miserable excuses for human beings.
Ellen Pao didn’t need to resign because faceless users hiding behind their computers posted hateful comments about her. She actively worked to contain harassment and make Reddit a better place for their community, as well as to ensure the site’s longevity. But the psychological and emotional cost of that hatred is real. Ultimately, leading Reddit is a Sisyphean task and I don’t blame Pao for resigning. She said it best:
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...it undercuts the authenticity of reddit and shakes our faith in humanity…Thank you to all the users who shared your excitement about reddit and what we’ve done and for encouraging everyone to remember the human.
I’ll remember the human. Will you?