Tandem Victoria – The Future of Reddit

With multiple degrees in software engineering, business and law, Ellen Pao had the perfect resume. Her background along with an interest in technology (she claims to be a driving force behind her former company’s investment in Twitter, among other things), should have made her a titan in tech, and a new hero for women still finding their way in the industry. But since taking the position of interim CEO of Reddit in 2014, the embattled Pao has faced heavy criticism over her handling of the popular website which has been called the “front page of the internet.”

Ellen Pao’s resume includes stints at Microsoft, BEA Systems, Tellme Network, and Kleiner Perkins, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capital firms. With a gold-plated resume that included a background in both business and tech, Pao seemed like a perfect fit for the top position at Reddit, but there was trouble afoot. Both Pao and her husband were actively involved in separate lawsuits alleging discrimination. Pao’s lawsuit was a very high-profile gender-discrimination suit that kept her name in media for months as the case went to trial. Without smoking gun evidence to back up her claims, combined with the revelation of multiple lackluster performance reviews, Pao lost her suit and was found liable for hefty court fees. With this loss, many began to question whether the interim CEO was perhaps not as qualified as she thought. People began to wonder if she was simply grasping at straws to regain a foothold in the industry.

After taking the helm at Reddit, a new anti-harassment policy was introduced by Pao that took aim at several subreddits, including r/fatpeoplehate and r/hamplanethatred, two forums that ridiculed overweight people. While many lauded the changes, which claimed to protect users from bullying, many users saw the change as an infringement of their free speech. Reddit was originally intended as a venue where the ideals of free speech could reign supreme and forums would be policed by the users, not the administration. Ellen Pao has been quoted as saying “It’s not our site’s goal to be a completely free speech platform,” which flies in the face of the original mission statement of Reddit, as well as the philosophies of founder Aaron Swartz. Many critics of the change were quick to note that the subreddits that were banned were extremely popular and sometimes made their way to the front page of the website. Many speculated that the change in policy was an effort to save face and censor users. This claim is backed up by the fact that less popular subreddits that apparently violate those same anti-harassment policies have not been disabled. Subreddits like r/cutefemalecorpses and r/imgoingtohellforthis are dedicated to exactly what their names imply and are still active on the site.

Another scandal that hit Reddit hard was the thoroughly botched firing of director of talent, Victoria Taylor. Taylor was well loved by the volunteer moderators who keep Reddit going and was seen as a community liaison. In response to her sudden termination, moderators protested by making several of the site’s most popular subreddits private, effectively shutting down much of Reddit’s content. Content that remained available mostly contained the word Victoria in the title (i.e. interview with Victoria Beckham).  The protest was loud and effective, and despite the fact that Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian claimed responsibility for firing Taylor, Ellen Pao took most of the heat. As of last week, a petition demanding her resignation had garnered over 200,000 signatures. In response to the backlash, Pao issued a formal apology on Reddit where she apologized not only for Taylor’s abrupt firing but also “years of mismanagement and poor communication” between the company and the moderators. Reddit users let their opinion be heard once more by downvoting Pao’s apology so much that she had to issue it a second time. It became clear that Reddit users did not want to hear anything from Ellen Pao except, “goodbye.”

On Friday, they got their wish; Pao resigned her position and Reddit Co-Founder and original CEO Steve Huffman was announced as her permanent replacement. Both the board and the active community on Reddit seem pleased by the change. Reddit board member Sam Altman has called Reddit’s new/old CEO “focused and thoughtful,” and has said that he believes he will be able to take Reddit in the right direction.

But that wasn’t the only opinion he gave on the staffing change, in response to Pao’s anti-harassment policy, he is quoted as saying, “You can’t legislate the hate away. That doesn’t work. But you can try to build software in a way to emphasize the good parts.” Quotes like this give hope to the Reddit community, who are finally feeling that their voices are being heard. They’re not alone in hoping for the future of Reddit.

“The cool thing about Reddit is that people are so passionate about it. People really love it, and I would like to see it move towards more people loving it More of the good, less of the hate.”

-Sam Altman,  Reddit Board Member

While many have expressed doubt that Reddit can turn around from this disaster and become the profitable business it should be, quotes like this give me and Reddit’s users hope. Reddit is a community-driven site, and by alienating that community, which has been so passionately dedicated to the site, they effectively shut themselves down. By firing their community liason with no notice to unpaid moderators, they told their volunteers, “we don’t care about communicating with you.” This change in leadership shows that they are making a positive change in direction. By finally listening to the Reddit community and making these changes, they may be able to make Reddit what it once was: a community-driven platform for sharing ideas that are not censored, but instead policed by the community itself.

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