Reddit execs found themselves at war with their own massive userbase Thursday when over a thousand communities went dark to protest the termination of Victoria Taylor, the website's primary employee tasked with keeping its community less susceptible to abuse.
The company's last two announcements called for "removing harassing subreddits" and "taking a step forward [toward] transparency." Taylor was often seen as the only path for the website's volunteers to alert the company's executives of harassment or a lack of transparency.
With her gone, users have effectively shut down the most popular parts of the site.
“Today, we learned that Victoria was unexpectedly let go from her position with Reddt [sic],” wrote Redditor karmanaut, a moderator on the Ask Me Anything (AMA) sub, sending the Reddit community off to pick up their virtual pitchforks. “We all had the rug ripped out from under us and feel betrayed.”
A former publicist based in Los Angeles, Taylor had been hired out to Reddit HQ in New York two years ago to serve as the online community’s Director of Communications, becoming a rare human—and female—public face for the company.
She went by the handle /u/Chooter and liaised between the leaders of the Reddit's largest communities and their volunteer army of unpaid moderators. Most prominently, she legitimized Reddit’s popular “Ask Me Anything” feature and helped it go mainstream, making big name celebrities comfortable with the oft-confrontational Reddit hordes while lending veracity to the process for a readership that tends to skew skeptical. President Barack Obama even participated in one in 2012.
When Taylor was suddenly terminated ahead of the July 4 weekend by Reddit brass for still undisclosed reasons, Reddit flew into a tizzy. Then it began to revolt.
Redditors inundated the site with posts, pictures, and memes of Taylor, declaring July 2, 2015 by its new name, AMAgeddon. Within 24 hours over 1,400 subreddits had been set to private by mods in solidarity, effectively silencing Reddit’s most trafficked channels, including major community hubs with several million subscribers like /r/AskReddit, /r/Funny, and /r/pics.
One former Reddit moderator of a popular subreddit said the decision to let go of Taylor is "very shortsighted of them."
The moderator, who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity, quit her volunteer post months ago because the hate was becoming too much to handle. She believed Taylor was one of the few people in the company helping to limit the "spew of hate directed at everyone."
"At first being a mod was fantastic—especially because it's usually about a subject you care about," she said. "When I first started, I was so thrilled. It was a great community of people talking and sharing information and ideas. By the end, it was a total circus—with folks who seem bent on posting more and more incendiary, homophobic, racist things, just for the sake of it."
When communities on Reddit grow, high-profile moderators help the community stem hate speech and encourage new members to "engage with [each other] respectively," she says.
Now, from a corporate standpoint, the largest community on the Internet has gotten rid of the primary governor and liaison who worked to weed out unbridled hate—one of Reddit's biggest impediments to making money, and a problem that has only increased in recent months.
That is, after all, why this moderator ceded her post at the peak of her community's popularity.
"I stopped moderating because it was a pain in the ass to be a human being on Reddit," she said.
She also understands the company's need to make money, and that a "corporation [can] let anyone go at anytime, for any reason except for protected classes."
But could they have handled this better?
"Hell yeah, she said. "Especially knowing how volatile their userbase is."
Some Reddit users used Photoshop to re-envision Taylor as the anarchist hero of V for Vendetta—V for Victoria. Some said she’s more like Reddit’s Hunger Games Mockingjay, a symbol of the resistance against the company’s corporate overlords who some users suspect are trying to monetize the viral potential of the AMAs.
As it is, AMAs are a high risk-reward venture for celebrities. The direct line of communication to millions of Redditors in a frank question-and answer-session can go viral if you’re, say, Channing Tatum. But Redditors can easily turn on a celeb who sets off their bullshit alarms if it seems they’re milking an AMA for the publicity, rely on publicists to write their answers, or skirt hard questions while solely serving up canned answers (just ask Jesse Jackson).
"If the rumors are true (about her firing stemming from an unwillingness to cede to new ways for the site to make money), it makes sense they would get rid of her. It's a loss for the community, but a short term boon for the company," said the anonymous former moderator. "That said, making online communities corporate rarely works out well for the company in the long run."
The specter of commercialization is one of several internal PR battles Reddit’s executives have come under fire for in recent years. But AMAgeddon also symbolizes a greater issue cleaving Reddit’s community of moderators from the admins and suits who run the $500 million Conde Nast-owned company. And after new anti-harrassment rules prompted a mass exodus to rival site Voat.co last month in the name of battling censorship, Reddit is in danger of losing its hardcore user base—much like Digg did, when major changes hit that site, flooding a stream of users to Reddit.
“In the recent months, mods have been getting increasingly upset over the admins not keeping us or the users in the loop as much as we believe they should have,” the moderators of /r/AskReddit explained in when the thread went live again in a post titled “A Statement On Yesterday’s Chooting.”
“We have noticed cases in which they will announce a new policy but ignore requests to further explain those rules, for example,” the message read, calling out Reddit’s admins for moving too slowly in cases of emergency, taking “hours” to respond to cases of doxxing, for example.
Over in the /r/modclub subreddit—devoted to moderator chatter—/r/Showerthoughts mod stopscopiesme voiced a common complaint about an executive leadership frequently out of touch with its community:
“Many of us our [sic] losing faith in the ability of the management of reddit to understand us, communicate with us, and effectively run the company. We have been desperately appealing to admins for answers and often are ignored. Ellen Pao and Alexis Ohanian (who as far as I can tell are in charge) have seemed especially poor at dealing with the community.”
Many of the subs that went dark Thursday in response to Taylor’s firing went back up with similar messages vocalizing similar frustrations with uncommunicative Reddit brass. In firing Taylor, they say, Reddit fired the only Reddit staffer who regularly helped them keep the engines running.
Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, whom some enthusiastic haters have dubbed “Chairman Pao,” finally commented on the #RedditRevolt Friday afternoon:
“The bigger problem is that we haven't helped our moderators with better support after many years of promising to do so,” she wrote, trying to appease the mods. “We do value moderators; they allow reddit to function and they allow each subreddit to be unique and to appeal to different communities.”
Citing Reddit’s “monolithic” infrastructure, Pao deflected by insisting Reddit is slowly but surely making improvements to the website, including the addition of new staff to run the community. “We are also making changes to reddit.com, adding new features like better search and building mobile web, but our testing plan needs improvement. As a result, we are breaking some of the ways moderators moderate. We are going to figure this out and fix it.” Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian also addressed the controversy with a desperate plea to end the blackouts, adding that Reddit is looking for a “full-time replacement” ostensibly to fill Taylor’s position.
“I'm sorry for how we handled communicating change to the AMA team this morning,” he wrote. “I take responsibility for that.”
By the time Pao and Ohanian got around to addressing ChooterGate, Reddit’s front page was already dominated by the fiasco and its ripple effect, with threads pointing to Reddit competitor sites, jokes about Ellen Pao’s career, and a post about Taylor upvoted to the top.
The site’s number one post, by a landslide: An AMA request for Taylor that’s collected over 1,400 comments alone.
Meanwhile, the Reddit civil war rages on—and its most visible theater could be Taylor’s old stomping grounds: the AMA.
Moderators of the “Ask Me Anything” subreddit went back online today to shed what little light they had on the future of the AMA thread without Taylor, who had been so instrumental in organizing, lining up, and executing the celeb chats that she’d routinely get shout-outs from its celebrity subjects.
In Taylor’s absence, the AMA calendar came to a standstill. In spite of Pao’s appeasement, mods say Reddit admins “have refused to provide essential information about arranging and scheduling AMAs with their new ‘team.’”
“This does not bode well for future communication between us, and we cannot be sure that everything is being arranged honestly and in accordance with our rules. The information we have requested is essential to ensure that money is not changing hands at any point in the procedure which is necessary for /r/IAmA to remain equal and egalitarian,” one moderator wrote.
On July 3, 2015, the /r/IAmA mods declared their independence from Reddit’s corporate overlords: “As a result, we will no longer be working with the admins to put together AMAs.”
In theory, AMAs provide one of the Internet’s more open exchanges for participants, anonymous or otherwise. While Redditors await the Victoria Taylor AMA that’s unlikely to come—neither she nor Reddit’s execs could be reached for comment—they have a new AMA conspiracy to ponder.
Friday afternoon, a former Reddit employee began an AMA to dish on being fired by Pao after battling leukemia.
“[In] February of 2015, I received a call from Ellen stating that I was to be terminated in less than a week,” wrote user Dacvak. “When I asked what the specific reason was, she had roughly stated that ‘because of our discussion, you are too sick to properly fulfill your duties as Community Manager.’”
Describing Reddit under the Pao regime as “more fortune 500 business-y,” Dacvak questioned the path in which Pao had taken the company since being named interim CEO in the wake of Yishan Wong’s 2014 exit.
Dacvak’s AMA put Reddit once again on the warpath, until it was abruptly interrupted and deleted by Dacvak himself.
Was he spooked at the possibility of Pao threatening legal action?
“I've removed this post,” he wrote in a cryptic update. “All future discussions regarding this subject will be between me and reddit.”