A pre-storm calm.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan

Would Reddit Be Reddit Without Chaos?

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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OK, let’s see. Reddit:

 1. Provides a platform for nasty people to say nasty things.

2. Is dependent on its contributors and volunteers for its very existence.

3. Has some really weird governance/management stuff going on.

4. Is not a great environment for women.

5. Can’t figure out how to make money.

6. Is the front page of the Internet.

Did I miss anything?

That last one is the company slogan, and Reddit indeed plays a big role in determining who sees what on the Internet.  The rest are culled from coverage of and commentary on the company’s eventful week, during which the firing of a popular female employee intensified an already brewing backlash against the interim chief executive officer, also a woman, who then resigned. She was replaced by one of the company’s two (male) co-founders, who will remain the chief technology officer of another company. After all that, we learned that the firing of that popular employee was maybe mainly the work of the company’s other co-founder, who is also its chairman. Oh, and the interim CEO, Ellen Pao, said she was leaving because “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.”

Pao -- who has had the quite the year; she also lost a high-profile sexual discrimination lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins -- had only been Reddit’s CEO since November. Her predecessor, Yishan Wong, had left after a clash with the board on where to locate the company’s headquarters (he wanted to move from San Francisco to a less-expensive suburb, Daly City). At the time, Wong also wrote that:

The job as CEO of reddit is incredibly stressful and draining.  After two and a half years, I'm basically completely worn out, and it was having significantly detrimental effects on my personal life. 

What is it with this place? Wong offered a tongue-in-cheek (right?) explanation during the weekend in answer to a Reddit question on “what’s the best ‘long con’ you ever pulled?” In 2006 Reddit was acquired by the Conde Nast magazine division of media giant Advance Publications. Since then, Wong proposed, founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian and their allies at Y-Combinator, the Silicon Valley seed-fund/accelerator where Reddit was hatched, have been plotting a restoration. Among other things, they have “manufacture[d] a series of otherwise-improbable leadership crises” that have had the end result of installing former University of Virginia roommates Huffman and Ohanian as chairman and CEO, respectively. “We all had our roles to play,” chimed in Huffman, also tongue-in-cheek (right?).

So that’s one theory. There are surely many others. But the one I keep coming back to is that the generally pretty admirable thing that Reddit is trying to do -- enable the bottom-up sharing and aggregation of information, ideas and photos of sculptures of mutant Marios -- turns out to be extremely hard to manage successfully.

People with horrible things to say or share inevitably intrude on the discussion, but banning them is problematic. The kind of forceful leadership that young companies often need to succeed is incompatible with an ethos that puts users in charge. There are constant conflicts between the need to grow and make money and the desires of existing heavy users. And while a not-for-profit information-sharing endeavor such as Wikipedia doesn’t have that last problem exactly, it has its own set of difficulties

Facebook, with its personalized, algorithmically curated experience and lack of C-suite drama, has had the smoothest run of all the Internet entities in the sharing/aggregating space. It would be terrible if everything were like Facebook, though, wouldn’t it? So yeah, Reddit seems like a mess. But maybe it just wouldn't be Reddit without intermittent chaos. 

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:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net