Reddit Inc. is in revolt, and Chief Executive Officer Ellen Pao is struggling to quell the insurgency.
Users of the online-forum community are up in arms over how Pao handled the firing of a widely respected employee, and many also disagree with steps Reddit took to make it easier to generate revenue, such as removing offensive content. Even as Pao sought to apologize for the way the company handled the staff change, her comments were “down-voted” by users, meaning they became harder to see unless someone was digging to find them.
The maelstrom shows that no matter who’s in charge, the company’s greatest asset -- a volunteer community that’s been given wide latitude to control content -- could also contribute to its downfall. The vision for Reddit the community is at odds with Reddit the company.
The website, which dubs itself “the front page of the Internet,” is seeking a balance between the two forces. While the site is tightly controlled by a network of unpaid moderators, the company is backed by venture capitalists. Pao has set out to give those financial supporters a return on their investment by boosting the site’s appeal to potential advertisers -- a shift that has alienated users and led to calls for her ouster.
Reddit was “started with this ideal, ‘Let’s do this great thing and allow people to exercise their freedom of speech and organize themselves into these forums,’” said Roger Kay, a founder of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. “Now because Reddit has this power to direct traffic, it is powerful -- advertisers would be very interested in that. The problem becomes if the content creators object too much.”
Under Pao, the company this year shut off parts of its website that contained hate speech or abusive behavior, a move some users considered to be censorship for the sake of advertisers. Redditors say the decisions weren’t fully explained.
“In doing so, they are basically saying, ‘We are the final arbitrators about what you can and can’t talk about online,’” said Jordan Leigh, a longtime Reddit user based in San Francisco. “If Reddit really is the place anyone can go on the Internet to talk about things, and now they’re arbitrarily choosing to censor things, that’s really at odds at what a lot of people think the spirit of the site is.”
Ask Me Anything
The conflict escalated in recent days after the firing of Victoria Taylor, a director of talent who ran the site’s popular ask-me-anything forums. Volunteer moderators on several key topic-specific forums shut down their parts of the site in protest. The company doesn’t have control to re-open them, setting up a clash between Reddit’s goals as a business and the site’s structure as a free, democratic community, Leigh said.
“There has been a huge disconnect between the way that the administration is viewing how the site should be run and the way the users feel the site should be run,” Leigh said. “The leadership team of Reddit the company has taken the user base for granted.”
A petition seeking Pao’s resignation, which has now gathered almost 200,000 signatures, has surged in popularity on the site, as have several attempts at mockery and Photoshopping of Pao’s image -- like Pao on the throne from HBO TV show “Game of Thrones,” and Pao as Chairman Mao Zedong of the Chinese communist party.
Pao, who gained national attention last year in a gender-bias lawsuit against venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has been running Reddit since November. She took to the site to apologize again Monday, saying “we screwed up,” and promising to improve tools for moderators and communication between administrators and the community. Her apology didn’t slow the momentum of the petition, which says the majority of the Reddit community believes Pao has “overstepped her boundaries.”
Pao didn’t return requests for comment on Monday.
Today, Reddit has 164 million unique monthly visitors, making it about half the size of Twitter Inc. Taylor’s firing -- still not explained -- was “the spark that lit the powder keg,” Leigh said. “But the powder keg was there already.”
In online communities with powerful volunteer moderators, it’s difficult to change anything unless there’s full transparency with the user base, said Bob Buch, CEO of SocialWire and a former executive at Digg, a site that helped users find the best Web content through a voting mechanism. He saw Digg’s users revolt in the same way whenever the site would make a change without providing an explanation or warning.
After Digg redesigned the site to personalize it, many of Digg’s users jumped ship in favor of Reddit, where the community could be fully in charge. Now, Pao faces the same conundrum.
“It’s deja vu,” Buch said on Bloomberg Television. “You’ve really got to start with this partnership with the users. That’s where she initially failed and I don’t know if she can climb back, climb out of that hole.”
He said Digg used to have a “prison warden-versus-the inmates” mentality whenever users would take over the site. That approach failed. Instead, any leader of Reddit has to be a steward of what the community wants to do, he said.
Nate Allen, a moderator of /r/science, a sub-site on Reddit, said he was working with Taylor to arrange for Stephen Hawking to answer questions on the forum before she was unexpectedly terminated. He shut down that part of the site as part of an effort to reach Taylor.
“This was a change that was made that affected our ability to do our job with no notice and no transition plan,” Allen said. “It was kind of disrespectful to us.”
Redditors aren’t going to embrace any change they aren’t warned about, just as advertisers aren’t going to be interested in having their promotions alongside some of Reddit’s more seedy sub-sites, some of which include hate speech, said Endpoint’s Kay.
“Reddit is still an important property on the Internet, but the thing about the Internet is that nothing is static,” he said. “They could lose that position quickly or slowly.”