Ellen Pao: A Rumpus Roundup


On Friday, Ellen Pao resigned as CEO of Reddit, one of the largest sites in the world by traffic. She left amid a controversy created by efforts to civilize an online community often seen as hostile towards women and other groups.

Reddit is more than just a singular message board system. It is comprised of many hundreds of message boards linked together, each known as a subreddit. Algorithms determine what content appears on users’ front page and users can customize which message boards they draw content from while voting their approval or disapproval. Each of these message boards are administered by volunteer moderators, not employees of the site.

On July 2nd, Reddit sacked Victoria Taylor, a Reddit administrator responsible for organizing events known as Ask Me Anythings, or AMAs. The AMA subreddit has proved a popular component of the site and even President Obama has participated.

Taylor coordinated with the volunteer moderators of other subreddits while also confirming celebrities were following the “rules” of AMAs—that they were participating and not relying on a proxy. She was well-liked by moderators of the site because they believed she “got it.”

There was plenty of speculation as to why she was fired: an AMA with Jesse Jackson gone awry; requests from management to change the format of AMAs to include video and make it more celebrity-centric; her refusal to relocate from New York City to San Francisco.

Her firing prompted moderators to turn their subreddits private, locking out most users.

Tech journalists were quick to wonder if Taylor’s firing was Reddit’s “Digg moment.” Never heard of Digg.com? Exactly. Often seen as a precursor to Reddit, Digg saw major changes to the site quickly destroy its user base and its daily page views plummet.

Perhaps it was the Independence Day spirit, but as the controversy unfolded over the course of the holiday weekend, tech journalists employed the same hyperbolic rhetoric calling the users’ reaction a revolt: WIRED, the Guardian, amNew York, and International Business Times, among others. Some users even went as far as to swear off Reddit and focus on copycat site Voat.

A petition sprung up calling for Pao’s resignation and garnered 200,000 signatures.

Victoria Taylor eventually made a statement where she told users their voices mattered.

Ellen Pao apologized to the Reddit community for the way Taylor’s firing was handled.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Taylor’s firing isn’t the only thing Reddit users were griping about. Pao eliminated salary negotiations, believing women often earn less as a result. She also wanted to increase diversity at the site. And moderators have complained that Reddit was relying on their free volunteer labor while failing to deliver basic tools promised to make moderation easier.

However, complaints against Pao first took off a month earlier when she made the decision to enforce a new anti-harassment policy. The policy banned five subreddits like r/FatPeopleHate that maligned photos of heavyset people taken and used on the site without their permission.

The move sparked complaints of censorship on the site with notoriously libertarian free speech policies.

Reddit claims a strong anti-censorship position when it comes to controlling the content on its site. For instance, a subreddit known as r/JailBait featured pictures of underage girls. Reddit defended the forum’s right to exist under free speech guidelines before ultimately closing it.

However, the free speech stance hasn’t stopped Reddit from censoring its critics. Links to Gawker.com have been banned site wide across Reddit. Gawker is responsible for articles critical of Reddit like the exposure of famed Reddit troll Violentacrez.

Pao’s resignation is probably not very good for the website and change is probably inevitable if the site will survive, with or without Pao.

Pao might be out of a job, but that doesn’t mean she has lost. In her previous job at hedge fund Kleiner Perkins, Pao alleged she’d had been a victim of discrimination. Pao ultimately lost that case. However, fearing that she will win on appeal, Kleiner Perkins offered to waive $1m in court costs they are entitled to recover if she lets the suit drop, suggesting they aren’t necessarily innocent. That case raised her profile as a feminist icon, as did the changes she implemented at Reddit.

As for Reddit, the new interim CEO, a company co-founder, doesn’t plan on reversing any of Pao’s changes.

Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American (Rowman & Littlefield, April 2022). His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Southern Review of Books, The Offing, 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at IanMacAllen.com. More from this author →