Reddit: Is this the end of the front page of the internet?
Reddit is in a tailspin. In the past week, it’s lost Victoria Taylor, a prominent administrator for its most popular subreddit series; its interim CEO Ellen Pao; and chief engineer Bethanye Blount – and former CEO Steve Huffman has returned to knock things back into shape. But it turns out Huffman isn’t here to do that – we’ll come to that later – and former CEO (there have been a lot of CEOs at Reddit) Yishan Wong has revealed that Redditors’ campaign to get rid of Pao may have ruined Reddit forever.
Still with me after that Game of Thrones-esque series of events? Good, because since Huffman has returned to the seat of power at
Westeros Reddit, he’s revealed that making the community a bastion for free speech was never his intention when he helped co-found it, stating: “Neither Alexis nor I created Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen.”
While this all seems well and good, former Reddit CEO Wong has chimed in on the current state of Reddit, and he doesn’t have good news for long-term community members. According to Wong, Pao was the last barrier between Reddit shareholders’ wishes and the interests of the community.
“The most delicious part of this is that on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed /u/ekjp [Ellen Pao] to outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge,” Wong wrote. “She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a shitshow.”
“She probably would have tolerated your existence so long as you didn’t cause any problems,” he continued. “I know that her long-term strategies were to find ways to surface and publicise Reddit’s good parts – allowing the bad parts to exist but keeping them out of the spotlight.”
With Pao gone, possibly by Redditors’ own hands, Wong claims that Condé Nast and others can make some sweeping changes to the site: “now she’s gone (you did it Reddit!), and /u/spez has the moral authority as a co-founder to move ahead with the purge. We tried to let you govern yourselves and you failed, so now The Man is going to set some Rules. Admittedly, I can’t say I’m terribly upset.”
If what Wong says is true, Reddit is in store for a big change soon enough. Some users have already begun flocking to alternative services; security blogger Graham Cluley tweeted that his site is seeing more traffic from Voat than Reddit.
Reddit grew to the biggest it’s ever been under Wong, but it also became famous for its hate speech, NSFW content and sexism. By cutting out uncouth individuals and their hateful subreddits, Reddit probably won’t suffer too much. It will still deliver interesting cultural commentary and news – the community just won’t feel the same for those who plumb its depths regularly.
It didn’t take long for a sharp Redditor to question Huffman’s initial statement, clarifying that the co-founder Alexis Ohanian did see Reddit as a bastion of free speech. Thankfully, Huffman isn’t being completely totalitarian about Reddit’s future; he’s hosting an AMA on Thursday 16 July to see what Redditors want from a new content policy.
Why are we only now concerned about Reddit?
Reddit’s future has been in question internally for a while now. The issue was first brought to the public eye (read: non-Redditors) when Ask Me Anything admin Victoria Taylor was let go on 2 July. Things really became a concern when Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao resigned on 10 July, with Reddit’s chief engineer Bethanye Blount leaving just three days later on 13 July. With two of Reddit’s top-level employees out the door, both of whom claim their departure was a result of concern over the future of Reddit, it’s time to start worrying about change.
Having left on Friday 10 July, amid a heated campaign from angry Redditors to oust her from power, Pao explained in a post on /r/self that it was the board asking her to “demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months” while “maintaining Reddit’s core principles” that forced her hand to resign.
It’s easy to paint Pao’s statement as the board providing an excuse for her removal during a time of community unrest, but with the exit of Blount following so soon after, it’s clear something was stirring over at Reddit. Promises were made to improve moderator tools, add feedback utilities and repair the damage done since Reddit started cracking down on unsavoury subreddits. However, Reddit’s shareholders – of which Condé Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications, is a majority holder (Condé Nast acquired Reddit in 2006) – want Reddit to be a lucrative place for advertisers and to do so a lot of Reddit’s core principles will need to change.
Concerns over a tsunami of changes can be seen with both Blount and Pao sharing concerns about Reddit’s future, with Blount saying in an interview with ReCode that “along the way, there are some very aggressive implied promises being made to the community — in comments to mods, quotes from board members — and they’re going have some pretty big challenges in meeting those implied promises”.
Blount only joined Reddit two months ago, so to see her leaving and citing concerns over delivering on technical promises shows that what may sound like a simple task is just too gargantuan to manage.
It’s hard to ignore that, with Blount’s departure, three rather prominent female figures all left Reddit within the space of a week. To some this seems like Reddit has an inability to retain high-level female employees. Just glancing at some of the vitriol aimed at Pao during AMAgeddon and her subsequent resignation shows that Reddit isn’t necessarily a nice community for women.
Pao summed up Reddit in the best way possible in her leaving post, saying: “The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity.”
The warning signs about Reddit’s changeover
To replace the gap left by Pao, who was only intended to be an interim CEO, Reddit’s original CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman has returned. Replacing Blount is George Pang, who was the team leader before Blount joined.
Following Huffman’s return to power, and a rather close-to-the-bone post from Reddit’s former chief Yishan Wong, theories around this being a “long-con” to wrestle power back from Condé Nast have sprung up. It’s hard to really prove this long chain of events as being true, but if I was a more cynical man I’d be inclined to believe that a group of Reddit “old-boys” would set up a long-winded coup against the big bad news establishment trying to change its ways.
It’s interesting that, despite Pao and Blount’s concerns, Huffman has no worries at all. “I returned because of my confidence in the company to accomplish said goals,” he said to ReCode, “I’ve committed publicly to two things: creating a new content policy, which we are hard at work on, and improving tools for moderation, which are also in progress. I don’t foresee any difficulty in accomplishing either of these things in the near future.”
AMAgeddon, or the beginning of the end for Reddit
Following the dismissal of AMA admin Victoria Taylor on 2 July, Reddit tore itself apart, this became known as AMAgeddon. For Reddit lurkers, myself included, this meant the site became little more than a collection of “this subreddit is private” splash pages.
Huge swathes of the site’s most popular communities – or “subreddits”, as they’re known colloquially – locked themselves down, denying content to anyone who wasn’t already a member. Essentially, this was the digital equivalent of Reddit’s many volunteer moderators going on strike.
Many moderators argued that, without Taylor, they’d been left in the lurch. While previously scheduled AMAs were still scheduled to go ahead, moderators became increasingly concerned that new ones would be difficult to organise, and feedback almost impossible to attain. Because of those concerns, each subreddit instigated a lockdown until those logistical challenges were resolved.
The Reddit community saw Taylor as a gateway to Reddit’s admin level. She was responsible for organising, briefing and running many AMA sessions, allowing users to ask prominent people interesting and probing questions about their lives. Without Taylor, Bill Nye, Madonna, Barack Obama and even the creator of QWOP wouldn’t have appeared on Reddit to answer questions. As far as Redditors are concerned, she nearly single-handedly made the incredibly popular AMA subreddits from scratch.
“Victoria is an essential lifeline of communication,” wrote Reddit moderator Karmanaut. “When something goes wrong in an AMA, we can call and get it fixed immediately. Otherwise, we have to resort to desperately try messaging the person via Reddit.
“Without her filling this role, we will be utterly overwhelmed. We might need to scrap the calendar altogether, or somehow limit AMAs from those that would need help with the process.”
While it’s fair to be angered by Reddit’s decision, bringing down the website through mass protest wasn’t ever going to bring Taylor back.
The moderators, who voiced reasonable concerns, have every right to be angry. However, a vocal minority of Redditors blew the issue up into something bigger. This is not a new phenomenon on Reddit: users have kicked up a fuss about entitlement in the past, notably when the site banned revenge porn and again when it prohibited insulting threads. It seems there are groups of people on Reddit who think the site owes them something simply because they choose to use the service.
Details around why Taylor was shown the door at Reddit are still unclear. Speculation on her termination revolved around a tough AMA session with civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson where he was bombarded with hostile questions and issued confusing half-answers in reply. Another possible reason – and one that seems more plausible – is that she was let go because she didn’t want to move from New York, where she is based currently, to San Francisco, where Reddit’s main office is located. Last October, the company issued an ultimatum to its remote workers, reported by VentureBeat, stating they move within a year or face contract termination. Taylor is based in New York, as stated in her welcome blog post in 2013.
Our most promising insight into what happened actually comes from a now-deleted post on Quora by its business community leader Marc Bodnick (via Gawker). Bodnick states that he “spoke to someone close to Reddit” and that Taylor was let go for a number of reasons, but that it hadn’t been because of the bad Jesse Jackson AMA session.
One reason Bodnick gave was that “Reddit management was pushing Victoria to do a bunch of highly commercial things around AMAs, but Victoria wasn’t comfortable with these ideas because she didn’t feel they were good for the Reddit community.” One example he gave was Reddit’s desire to take AMAs into a video format, which Taylor believed was “a mistake”.
Bodnick sums up Taylor’s termination by simply stating “given Victoria’s resistance to management ideas, they decided to abruptly eliminated her position and let her go”. Unfortunately, when you work in a private company, there are no public shareholders to answer to – so if you and management don’t get along, you’ll be booted out of the door. It seems like Taylor simply succumbed to the machine of internal politics.
For someone sitting on the outer edges of Reddit, the furore over Victoria Taylor simply looks like another example of internet users believing they’re owed something they’re not.