Done in by rookie mistakes.

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Reddit's Ellen Pao Can Only Blame Herself

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Those who weren't following the news from Greece this weekend may have noticed that Ellen Pao resigned from Reddit Inc., after recent management decisions sparked a user revolt. This has been brewing, but the proximate cause was the firing of a popular employee who worked with Reddit moderators. The moderators responded by shutting down a number of popular subreddits, including the well known ask-me-anything forums. A very popular petition was launched, demanding her ouster. And on Friday, Reddit capitulated.

The reactions that I've seen from most quarters have focused on political and cultural aspects. The seeds of revolution seem to have been planted when Reddit, under Pao, banned five unsavory subreddits focused on such delightful topics as shaming fat people and making racist comments. Naturally, this quickly escalated from a management decision about harassment to titanic culture war battle that achieved even greater scale because Ellen Pao recently lost a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, in which she said she was treated as a second-class citizen, and they said she wasn't very good at her job.

Since those aspects have been well covered, I'd like to focus on something that hasn't been as well explored: the poor job Ellen Pao did running Reddit.

I don't say that lightly. I'm usually the first one to throw shade when writers who have never managed any project larger than getting themselves to back-to-back press conferences in different parts of town start  proclaiming that they know exactly what a CEO should have done. My general feeling is that these people should go spend three months as the manager of a marginally profitable Chik-fil-A franchise, and report back on how easy it is to run a business.

Also -- perhaps because of my extensive experience as a woman writing about business and politics -- I am convinced that women have a handicap when they're doing a traditionally "male" job. They are resented by both men and women for stating firm opinions and refusing to back down. Their competence is more quickly questioned. They seem to attract wildly disproportionate anger compared with men who say and do the same things . And indeed, during her time at Reddit, Ellen Pao seems to have endured the same sort of abuse that us ladies on the Internet are used to getting when we make people mad. So I am inclined toward sympathy.

Yet, it is also true that under her brief leadership, Reddit seems to have careened from disaster to disaster, and not just because Ellen Pao's a woman and people watch female CEOs more closely. 

Now, I understand that Reddit has a difficult problem to solve. On the one hand, if you let people say anything, they will use that freedom to say a lot of awful stuff with which no company really wants to be associated. On the other hand, Reddit has only one asset: its user base. People are a fragile asset, because what with the 13th amendment, you are always in danger that your asset will decide to pick up and go somewhere else. Having built its user base on the promise that Reddit was the place where no one would interfere with you being you, even if you happen to be a gigantic jerk whose greatest pleasure in life is saying ugly, offensive things about other people, Reddit was in a poor place to declare that all that free expression would no longer be tolerated quite so freely.  Any CEO who tried to clamp down on the racism and fat shaming and harassment and so forth would have faced a real risk that the user base would suddenly decamp, leaving them with a lot of archives and no ongoing business proposition.

That doesn't mean that Reddit was wrong to try to clean things up. I love free speech, and yet that does not mean I feel obligated to invest my labors in providing a forum for making fun of the overweight, much less gleefully celebrating racism or other "isms." Reddit certainly had a perfect right to shut down these forums, possibly had a moral obligation to do so, and might even have a strong case that this was the best thing for the future of the business.

And yet the way that the company did this under Pao's leadership seems ... well, did I say "arbitrary" and "ham-fisted" yet? They chose five subreddits while leaving lots of other, also-very-offensive-and-possibly-even-more-so threads. They explained that this was because of harassment, not because the threads themselves were offensive, but did a very poor job of explaining what counts as harassment in a social media world where harassing strangers is practically the killer app for every platform. In the comments to the thread that announced the ban, at least one user pointed to a harassing subreddit that seems to still be up as of this afternoon

If you want to take a serious stand against harassment, or offensiveness, the way to do it is not to pick the five that got the most complaints and knock them off; it's to develop site-wide standards that are, insofar as possible, objectively outlined and don't map onto obvious political categories. Then you announce that there's a new sheriff in town, and put someone in charge of rooting out the offending behavior everywhere, publicizing the new regime as loud and long as possible.  Then, after users have had a little while to adjust, and go through some pointed iterations of "knock it off, I'm serious, the ban-hammer cometh" .... well, then you can start banning stuff. Note that this is very far from the way it was actually done. Anyone who has spent any time working on the Internet should be able to figure this out. I'm pretty sure that I could have figured this out -- because I did, way back in 2002 when I became the CEO of policing my own comment threads.

I can only speculate why Reddit opted for a rather quiet sortie rather than a high-publicity blitzkrieg, and my best guess is that it somehow hoped that folks wouldn't notice, or get upset, if Reddit went about things without making a big fuss. Internet newbie mistake number two: Nothing is ever quiet, or unnoticed, on the Web. Especially on social media.

The firing of Victoria Taylor was similarly inept; she was sacked suddenly, apparently without any thought of informing the moderators or having a transition plan ready for the woman who led one of Reddit's most popular features; more than a week after it happened, the Internet is still floundering around trying to figure out why she was abruptly fired. It may not have been Pao's decision, but here's the thing: At a well-run company, it should not be possible to abruptly fire a key employee without first discussing that decision, or making plans to keep things running when she departs.

It may be that these problems were not created by Ellen Pao, that she was under board pressure to simultaneously grow users and clean up the site, and that she was stuck with a management structure that made the exercise of control difficult. But here's the thing: That shouldn't have been news to a competent analyst. If the board hired her with a mandate to tame some of Reddit's more unruly wilds, then she should have been clear with the board upfront that doing so might kill the company, because the site's freewheeling appeal and vulnerability to a massive user exodus are the two most obvious facts about it, visible to anyone who had ever spent more than five minutes on it. She should then have gone in with a clear mandate and a careful plan, and executed on them with the understanding that she might be signing the firm's death warrant. Instead her team started clipping away with a pair of extra small pruning shears, which neither solved the problem, nor saved her job. 

  1. Is this special pleading? Am I just noticing it more because it's directed at me, and forgetting that guys get abused too? All I can submit for the defense is that like-minded guys who get a fair amount of abuse from the internets invariably shake their heads and say "Well, it's bad, but it's nothing like what you get". And that seems to be mirrored across the political spectrum, from Michelle Malkin to Amanda Marcotte; women writers aren't the only ones getting the abuse, but they get a lot more of it, a lot of it specifically gendered, than men who say substantially the same things.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net