Reddit is in turmoil. The social news and community site has spent weeks wracked by protests, high-profile staff departures, and staff bickering. It’s a battle for the heart of the “front-page of the internet” — and it’s hard to see how Reddit staff can win this one.
To recap: The chaos kicked off in earnest with the abrupt, unexplained dismissal of popular staff member Victoria Taylor earlier this month, which sparked massive protests that saw volunteer moderators shut down hundreds of the site’s most popular communities.
But Taylor’s departure was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Moderators have complained for years that they are neglected by the for-profit company and not given adequate tools to police their communities. After CEO Yishan Wong left last year, the divisive former VC Ellen Pao was brought in as an interim replacement — compounding user concerns about the direction of the site.
Reddit now faces an existential question about the sort of the site it wants to be, and what sort of communities it wants to foster. Whatever it decides, its users won’t be happy.
Reddit is increasingly at odds with its history
Reddit, historically, has been extremely pro-free speech. You only have to look at Reddit’s early defence of r/Jailbait, the now-shuttered community dedicated to sharing photos of provocative girls who appear to be (or are) under the age of consent, to see that.
In late 2014, when hundreds of intimate photos of celebrities were leaked online in an episode dubbed “Celebgate,” a community dedicated to disseminating the photos — r/TheFappening — gained a quarter of a billion page views before it was deleted, and Reddit admins actively helped the community’s moderators deal with the influx of traffic. Even after it was banned then-CEO Yishan Wong wrote in a blog post that every Reddit user “has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that it is
your responsibility to do so. When you know something is right, you should choose to do it. But as much as possible, we will not force you to do it.”
But Wong subsequently left the company, and was replaced by Ellen Pao — a move that immediately spooked some in the community. Pao is perhaps best-known to the public for a failed lawsuit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, in which she alleged she had faced gender discrimination at the venture capital firm. Given that Reddit plays host to numerous virulently anti-feminist and even outright misogynist communities under its free speech umbrella, the fear was that she would take a dimmer view of Reddit’s dark underbelly than her predecessor.
These fears were apparently confirmed in June 2015, when r/FatPeopleHate and a number of other communities were shuttered. The company said they “break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals” — but to many Redditors, this was tantamount to a betrayal of the site’s free-speech roots.
The response from the community was explosive, with almost every top post on the site at one point protesting the decision. Pao became a particular focal point of the often profane criticism. One comment on the announcement that read “f**k you Ellen Pao Ellen Pao you SJW [Social Justice Warrior] piece of shit” was upvoted by users more than 3,000 times. And at one point, 31 of the top 33 posts on the subreddit r/PunchableFaces were photos of Ellen Pao’s face.
Here’s how Reddit looked in the aftermath of the r/FatPeopleHate ban (click to expand):
Protests erupt as years of problems come to a head
As already mentioned, another — less prominent — source of tension between Reddit volunteer moderators and the company’s management was the lack of support the former felt they were receiving. This came to a head in July, when the dismissal of Taylor — still officially unexplained — saw hundreds of popular communities go dark in protest.
“As much as Victoria is loved, this reaction is not all a result of her departure,” wrote one moderator at the time of the protests. “There is a feeling among many of the moderators of reddit that the admins do not respect the work that is put in by the thousands of unpaid volunteers who maintain the communities of the 9,656 active subreddits, which they feel is expressed by, among other things, the lack of communication between them and the admins, and their disregard of the thousands of mods who keep reddit’s communities going. “
In the aftermath, over 200,000 Reddit users signed a petition calling for Ellen Pao’s head, holding her personally responsible for the protests — the largest in the site’s history. Despite apologising, she subsequently resigned.
One of the most credible explanations for Taylor’s dismissal comes from Quora staffer Marc Bodnick, who claims that she was being pushed to commercialise AMA’s — a popular public Q&A format with celebrities she helped coordinate — in a way she wasn’t comfortable with. The threat of commercialisation is a constant worry for some Redditors, who fear the site’s content will be diluted to make it more palatable for advertisers — especially after the site closed a $US50 million funding round in September 2014.
Former CEO Yishan Wong has popped up on Reddit to say that this is along the right lines, but it wasn’t Pao that fired Taylor, but Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian. “[Ohanian] had different ideas for AMAs, he didn’t like Victoria’s role, and decided to fire her.”
Wong went on to say that “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 sh–ty thing to do.”
Ohanian responded to Wong, to say that “it saddens me to hear you say this, Yishan. I did report to her, we didn’t handle it well, and again, I apologise.”
It’s astonishing to see current and former executives fight over internal company politics in a public forum like this — and is a testament to just how differently Reddit conducts itself to other tech companies. It is unthinkable that former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo might ever attack cofounder Jack Dorsey on the social network, for example.
And now, a third high-profile female Reddit employee has left the company. Bethanye Blount, formerly the chief engineer, has quit after two months on the job, saying she has lost faith in the company’s new direction and that Pao was put on a “glass cliff.”
There are two competing visions of Reddit’s future — and they can’t co-exist
In short: The leadership is in disarray, and the userbase is up in arms. Reddit now faces fundamental questions about its future.
On one hand, Reddit may choose to stay true to its free speech roots. r/FatPeopleHate’s ban had the community up in arms, but it is by no means a death knell to what Reddit stands for. Cofounder Steve Huffman is now CEO, and Ohanian rejoined the company after Wong’s departure in November 2014. That’s reassuring for the users who pine for the “good old days.”
It sounds like Yishan Wong, before his departure, also favoured this option. For starters, there’s his unapologetically pro-free speech rhetoric he issued in the aftermath of the ban of r/TheFappening. But there’s also his recently revealed plans to build a decentralised Reddit based on bitcoin technology that could have been far more difficult to censor. (These plans never came to fruition, and the engineer hired to work on the project left the company.)
But to go down this road would come with a serious cost. There is ever-more attention on Reddit’s darker side, and the communities that thrive on it. In a widely shared blog post published on July 11, Reginald Braythwayt accused Reddit of overtaking notorious website Stormfront “as the world’s largest White Supremacy community.” As such, Braythwayt says he can no longer support or visit Reddit:
I don’t need to debate whether someone is legally allowed to have a certain type of hateful speech, or whether its effects go beyond merely being “appalling” or “offensive.” What I know is this: Choosing to build a for-profit business around hosting such speech is a choice, and choosing whether to support that business is also a choice.
In another blog post, veteran community manager Chuq Von Rospach uses the analogy of a “biker bar” to explain the toxic effects of letting negative communities go unchallenged:
Reddit, however, has a basement, and in all honesty, the owners of this building would prefer nobody look down there, because again, it’s a big space full of community rooms as well, but down there are the groups Reddit feel are part of the community but would prefer most of us would stay avoid. In some ways Reddit should be lauded for being inclusive of all community groups, even the uncomfortable ones, but down in that basement is a big part of the ultimate death of Reddit.
Here’s the thing. there are groups that don’t feel the need to behave, that see that rebellion against authority as the base of their enjoyment. And there are people who simply get off by destroying what others build or screwing up what others enjoy. If you invite those people into your house, eventually some of them are going to start pissing into your fireplace or throwing chairs at each other in the main hall. Even if you keep them in their own out of the way mostly hidden community room, the things they do will attract attention adn the authorities, and when the police come through your front door and raid your basement, your other patrons will notice. When that happens often enough, you’ll see more and more of those become ex-patrons. Most of us don’t want to party in a biker bar. Hell, most of us don’t want to party next door to a biker bar, or within blocks of a biker bar. Once your place gets that reputation, it’s going to make everyone around it nervous.
By letting racist and misogynistic communities grow on Reddit, it will put off ordinary people, Von Rospach argues — and Braythwayt’s post seems to confirm that is starting to happen.
The alternative has very serious problems too, however. Reddit draws its cultural relevancy — its claim to be the “front page of the internet” — from the fact it is a melting point a thousand disparate communities forced together. Given free rein, these communities have done incredible (and truly terrible) things.
Von Rospach wants to see Reddit hire a hundred of its top moderators and jetison large numbers of its more controversial communities. But even assuming the moderators agree to be hired, this would undermine everything that made Reddit what it is today. Large numbers of users, while abhorring the toxic communities on Reddit, support their right to exist, and would riot if they were shuttered.
Top-down reorganisations risk consigning internet communities to overnight irrelevancy, as former Reddit rival Digg once found, and it’s difficult to envision any large scale reconstruction of Reddit that doesn’t trigger a massive exodus of users. There may be some kind of functional community at the end of it, but it would undermine everything Reddit has spent the last 10 years building.
Whatever Reddit’s management does, it pits itself against its own community, either through action or inaction. As such, Reddit staff aren’t only at war with each other — they’re at war with their users too. And it doesn’t look like a fight they can win.