Reddit’s Terrorists Have Won: Ellen Pao and the Failure to Rebrand Web 2.0
Internet communities like Reddit have always been toxic environments that survive on the backs of unpaid labor, and attempts to corporatize them because of it.
Some of the worst trolls on the Internet are celebrating victory, as embattled interim CEO of Reddit Ellen Pao stepped down yesterday after what can charitably be described as a month or so of pure hell.
Let’s review the story briefly, since there’s a gushing torrent of BS that’s accompanying the joyful celebrating of Pao’s departure among Reddit’s userbase. Yes, there was a petition calling for Pao’s removal among Reddit’s users that crested 200,000 signatures before she stepped down.
The stated reason for this petition was the firing of Victoria Taylor, the Reddit administrator responsible for coordinating Reddit’s celebrated “AMA” or Ask Me Anything sessions where celebrities fielded unscripted questions from the users.
The narrative goes that after the loss of a beloved figure responsible for much of Reddit’s success—when you hear about Reddit in the media in a positive light, it’s usually because of a celebrity AMA—many subreddits were blacked out by the moderators in protest.
Now, the evil corporate interloper Ellen Pao, who was responsible for kicking out one of the few Reddit employees who really understood the subculture, has finally resigned due to the righteous blowback from her actions. One of Reddit’s founders, Steve Huffman, is coming back to lead Reddit again alongside his co-founder Alex Ohanian (who goes by u/kn0thing on Reddit), and all is well with the world again.
Sound good? Well, not so fast.
First of all, Ellen Pao didn’t fire Victoria Taylor. It turns out that was a decision Ohanian made in his capacity as “executive chairman,” as he appears to admit in a Reddit comment in the wake of Pao’s departure. For people whose primary motivation to hate on Reddit really was that they fired Victoria, it seems like an apology to Pao and a redirection of hate toward Ohanian is in order—one which has not been forthcoming.
Okay, some might argue, but the job of a CEO is to take the heat on behalf of her subordinates; no matter how unfair it might seem, the buck stops at the chief executive’s desk, not the executive chairman’s.
But it’s not just that Pao is resigning over a bad decision Ohanian made and Ohanian himself is staying. It’s that Pao was targeted by constant, vitriolic abuse during her tenure as CEO, abuse that even Reddit’s board—which normally tends to shamelessly flatter Reddit’s userbase when they talk about them at all—had to call out as “sickening.”
A lot of the personal attacks on Pao were racial—google “Chairman Pao” if you want to see how nasty redditors can be, and how they think repetitive name-calling on the level of a sixth grade bully is the pinnacle of online wit. Even more common than the racial remarks, though, were the ones digging at Pao because of her gender. In the interest of common decency I won’t tell you how to find those on Google, though you can probably figure it out.
Lots of these people are using Victoria Taylor as a fig leaf, claiming that because their anger is in response to a woman’s firing, the hate mob they’ve joined can’t possibly be misogynistic in its origins or its approach. But of course the hashtag #RedditRevolt didn’t start a week ago with the firing of Victoria Taylor, it started a month ago with the closure of the popular subreddit r/fatpeoplehate—a community based on, well, sending hateful messages to fat people (mostly women) who had the temerity to leave their photos on Facebook where redditors could find them instead of shunning all human contact and killing themselves.
We don’t know whether Pao was responsible for that decision, either, but that’s when the “Chairman Pao” meme and others started. Giving those people the cover of legitimacy by giving them a casus belli that doesn’t involve having to say the phrase “Fat People Hate” to major media outlets was Reddit’s biggest own goal here.
And, surprise surprise, it was an own goal scored by Ohanian, who wasn’t the one being blasted with death threats, rape threats, and images of himself being photoshopped into porn; who was, in fact, so clueless about the seething hate mob on Reddit that he—not Pao—made a callous joke about “popcorn” when the backlash against Victoria’s firing started. (And lo and behold, he was not fired.)
The real irony is that the legitimate anger behind the Reddit blackout, the reason the moderators of “respectable” subreddits like r/Books and r/Science found themselves throwing in with refugees from r/FatPeopleHate and r/ShitNiggersSay, was about bad behavior that mostly originated from subreddits like r/FatPeopleHate and r/ShitNiggersSay.
The open letter sent to Reddit about the blackout calls Victoria’s firing “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” stating that moderators were frustrated over Reddit failing to provide either administrative tools to let them do their job or put them in touch with Reddit employees who could. The specific problems called out are “brigading” and “alternative accounts”—that is, the fact that Reddit is known for people on nasty troll subreddits organizing to troll other subreddits or other websites en masse, and that banning individual accounts that do this is nearly pointless considering how easy it is to instantly come back under an alternate username.
Victoria was a beloved Reddit staff member precisely because she did a lot of work to shield VIPs from this side of Reddit when AMA time rolled around—and even then she wasn’t able to keep the racists of Reddit from damaging Reddit’s brand by flinging shit at Jesse Jackson’s AMA.
The problem is that Reddit has been trying to sell a false bill of goods to investors all this time—something that Ohanian and Huffman and other true believers still cling to against all evidence.
This is the idea that you can build a functional community without having to spend any money or effort to manage it—that it just happens spontaneously through the “wisdom of crowds.” The Web 2.0 dream has always been to outsource all of the hard jobs to your users—that unpaid enthusiasts will do all the work of creating your content, curating your content, and promoting your content out of love, and all you have to do is pay some techies to keep the lights on.
Reddit is built on this premise. Anyone can create a subreddit and be its absolute, iron-fisted (but unpaid) dictator on the theory that if they do a bad job of it someone will just create another subreddit and everyone will vote with their feet.
Reddit’s core feature, the upvoting/downvoting system, is rooted in the hope that democracy can replace curation—that if everyone who sees a comment is allowed to throw a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on it, the cream will rise to the top and the shit will sink out of sight without anyone having to do anything.
As a result, Reddit, with a userbase of millions and ambitions to be the “front page of the Internet,” is managed almost entirely by thousands of unpaid, sometimes anonymous volunteers and has an actual staff of less than a hundred people, all of whom are required to live in San Francisco in the name of efficiency (which may be the real reason Victoria was fired).
We can see how well that’s worked out. In practice, the ability of anyone to spawn their own subreddit plus the upvoting/downvoting mechanism leads to each subreddit being an angry little fiefdom fiercely dedicated to its own idea of consensus where dissenting opinions get downvoted into oblivion. A community that’s seen to have a particularly obnoxious bias, say, r/Android supposedly being in the tank for Google Nexus devices, will develop a community focused on attacking the first community for being a “circlejerk” (r/Androidcirclejerk) that has the exact opposite bias and exists to post memes mocking Google Nexus devices for how they’re overrated trash. Eventually one community will lose its patience and “brigade” another community, flooding it with hostile posts in order to show the other side how wrong they are, and mods are forced to stay up all night banning people until everything settles down again (and several users, usually female, have quit Reddit for good after being blasted with death threats).
This is exactly as petty and stupid as it sounds. It’s also as alienating to ordinary, non-basement-dwelling troll users as it sounds. It’s the reason Reddit has gotten a reputation for being attractive to creepy, obsessive people for whom the inherently toxic environment is a reasonable price to pay to be around people like them. These are often people who have very strong opinions that polite society, for obvious reasons, disapproves of—pedophiles, white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and unrepentant sex criminals.
This is not good for Reddit’s brand. This probably has to do with why Reddit has apparently, for all the hype about the size of its userbase, never been profitable. This is why I personally stay the hell away from Reddit and advise my friends, especially my female friends, to do so as well.
Yes, Reddit does have content that is, as Pao put it in her resignation letter, “off-the-wall inspiring” alongside the stuff that makes one “doubt humanity.”
But that comes at a cost. The frustrated mods of the Reddit blackout lost their temper because they’ve been asked to do thousands of hours of unpaid, grueling, emotionally draining labor fighting against the trolls in order to keep the “respectable” side of Reddit usable. Out of the 70 or 80 paid employees at Reddit, Victoria Taylor was one of the only ones who ever participated in that side of the work it takes to keep Reddit alive, and Reddit apparently valued that so little that they let her go.
Specifically, Alexis Ohanian let her go. The same guy who founded Reddit on the principle that unregulated “free speech” will police itself, apparently failing to understand that it was people’s ability to trust Victoria to manage trolls and haters and keep the worst side of Reddit suppressed that allowed AMAs to happen at all.
This is a consistent problem not just for Reddit but for the whole Web 2.0 ethos. This denial that managing a community is hard work, this culture that makes millionaires of the “makers” who write the code for social media platforms but pays the “maintainers” who spend every day keeping them usable minimum wage or nothing at all.
It’s baked into the libertarian free speech absolutism of Silicon Valley culture. People like the founders of Reddit treat being “content-neutral” as almost a religious edict. Reddit won’t take even the smallest proactive steps to “restrict speech” unless forced—hence the long, controversial process it took to get rid of subreddits as openly awful as r/jailbait and r/beatingwomen. Thus we get the ridiculous spectacle of Reddit moderators staying up all night “playing whack-a-mole” to laboriously take down links to illegal content as they popped up while then-CEO Yishan Wong piously intoned “Every man is responsible for his own soul” as the reasoning for not taking down the subreddit specifically created to host those links.
That’s why, even as the racists of Reddit melt down over the closure of r/ShitNiggersSay, its sister subreddit r/CoonTown remains proudly open for business, because unlike r/ShitNiggersSay, r/CoonTown hasn’t been proven to “brigade” other sites—and Ohanian (again, not the supposed iron-fisted left-wing enforcer Ellen Pao) said, “We’re banning behavior, not ideas.”
And yet even this extremely weak response to bad behavior has launched a “revolt,” spreading hundreds of clones of r/FatPeopleHate all over the site in protest. Moderators of big subreddits complaining that Reddit leaves them alone and unequipped against hordes of trolls filling up their content with sludge get co-opted into a “movement” of those selfsame trolls defending their right to throw sludge. When Ellen Pao finally resigns after enduring weeks of this garbage, the top-voted commenter celebrating her departure is a troll with an account named for the Charleston shooter.
What can we learn from this, aside from what we already knew: that boards of directors tend to put female CEOs in charge in times of crisis because they predictably serve as useful lightning rods for backlash and hate?
That Reddit has to be dragged kicking and screaming to even be slightly more of a safe, decent place for ordinary people to hang out and to be slightly less of a massive lawsuit-waiting-to-happen stuffed with terrifying harassing trolls. That what good reputation Reddit enjoys, it enjoys due to the uncompensated labor of people whom Reddit has been abandoning to fight the trolls alone for years. And that top brass at Reddit like Alexis Ohanian are so deeply in denial about this that they’ll fire one of the women keeping Reddit from fully sinking into the mire and let another one of them be hounded out of her job without ever suggesting the site has a fundamental problem that needs to be fixed.
This is the face of Web 2.0, folks. This is the boondoggle they’ve been selling to all the Web 2.0 investors—that the “social web” is an untapped oil well when in reality it’s a seething underground pool of excrement and bile.
Pao tells us that upon her resignation she bluntly told the board that it was impossible for her to meet their six-month growth goals—either in terms of attracting new users to Reddit from among the normal, decent portion of the human race, or in terms of attracting revenue from advertisers who want to reach said new users without wading through a sea of racist memes and semen-stained photographs.
Some say that the “failure to meet growth goals” is a lie to cover that she’s actually leaving because of incessant harassment. I would argue that those are the same thing—that the reaction to Pao neatly demonstrates why Reddit’s attempt to monetize its social web have failed, why all attempts to monetize the social web have been extremely rough going—because the social web itself is poisoned.
Either way, Reddit is fucked.