From one viewpoint, Reddit, the popular social networking and link-sharing site, is a wild success. It is the 10th most popular website in the U.S with over seven billion page views. From another, it's an almost unmanageable business, which has just lost its second CEO since November. Interim CEO Ellen Pao, best known outside Reddit circles for her unsuccessful gender-discrimination lawsuit against venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has resigned.
The Reddit announcement of her departure read, "Ellen Pao resigned from reddit today by mutual agreement. I'm delighted to announce that Steve Huffman, founder and the original reddit CEO, is returning as CEO."
It went on to say that "We're very happy to have Steve back. Product and community are the two legs of reddit, and the board was very focused on finding a candidate who excels at both (truthfully, community is harder), which Steve does. He has the added bonus of being a founder with ten years of reddit history in his head. Steve is rejoining Alexis, who will work alongside Steve with the new title of 'cofounder.'"
Behind the formal thanks for Pao's contributions and the usual looking forward to better days announcements lies an ugly story. Indeed, Reddit management didn't ignore it. The posting continued, "As a closing note, it was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen. The reduction in compassion that happens when we're all behind computer screens is not good for the world."
What did they mean by "sickening things?" Well, to pick from thousands of examples, there were online death threats and Reddit threads entitled, "Ellen Pao killed my dog and raped my wife."
In short, many Reddit members loathed Pao. The proximate cause for her leaving was a revolt of the unpaid Reddit moderators. These volunteers are Reddit's worker bees. Last week, they closed down many of Reddit's most popular Reddit groups (known as subreddits) for about 24-hours.
They took this drastic move because Reddit allegedly fired Victoria Taylor, known on Reddit as chooter. Taylor had been Reddit's director of communications and the primary co-coordinator of one of Reddit's most popular communities, IamA (Ask Me Anything). She was widely regarded as one of the few Reddit managers who respected and co-operated with the moderators.
Pao was blamed by Redditors for the decision to fire Taylor. Alexis Ohanian, Reddit's co-founder and executive chair apologized for how Taylor's departure had been handled and promised things would get better. Pao also said she was sorry and would work to help the site's moderators "with better support after many years of promising to do so."
The Reddit moderators didn't believe her.
Even before this, though, it's not too extreme to say that many Reddit moderators and members hated Pao.
For example, after Reddit management banned five subreddits, which broke Reddit's new rules, "based on their harassment of individuals" in June, she was immediately attacked.
Pao was accused of censorship and of being like Hitler. There were numerous calls for her resignation.
For example, one subreddit formed at this time, PaoMustResign, had as its mission statement that it was "dedicated to bringing ~Chairman Mao~ *cough cough* Ellen, to her knees. We believe that she is not only the worst CEO that Reddit has ever had, but is also a horrible person in real life. Her promotion of "safe discussion" has infringed on the free speech that Reddit was once a shining example of. We will not rest until Ellen officially resigns as the CEO of Reddit."
Now the many Reddit users who wanted her out have had their way.
Despite all this, Pao departed with amazing grace. In a Reddit post she wrote:
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.
What has far outshone the hate has been the positive on reddit. Thank you, kind strangers, for expressing your support.
Formally, Pao added, she had resigned because, "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."
The question now is can Reddit management bring their moderators back into line and somehow turn this extremely popular website with its extremely unruly moderators and audience into a profitable business. Considering how this episode turned out, I'm inclined to doubt it.