Reddit Gets Ugly, Then Gets What It Wants

The company’s embattled CEO, Ellen Pao, who lost a landmark gender-discrimination suit earlier this year, resigned following a week of scandal.

Ellen Pao leaves San Francisco Superior Court Civic Center Courthouse during a lunch break in San Francisco, California March 25, 2015.  (Stephen Lam / Reddit)

Four months after Ellen Pao’s loss in a gender-discrimination suit filed against a prominent venture capital firm turned her into a national symbol of the victims of workplace sexism, Pao resigned on Friday as interim CEO of Reddit, the online forum, after just eight months at the helm. According to Sam Altman, a board member, Pao’s departure resulted from “mutual agreement” and followed weeks of negotiation.

But the announcement came soon after Pao came under intense criticism for her role in the abrupt firing of Victoria Taylor, a popular Reddit employee, on July 2. Reddit announced that Steve Huffman, a co-founder of the company, would take over.

A decade after it launched, Reddit is one of the web’s most popular sites, boasting 160 million regular users. It crossed into the mainstream with its “Ask Me Anything” series in which celebrities engage in a question-and-answer session with ordinary Reddit users. The task of moderating the feature, which had attracted participants ranging from porn stars to President Obama, had belonged to Taylor, and had earned her widespread adulation within the Reddit community. But on July 1, an AMA with the Reverend Jesse Jackson descended into chaos, a mess of incendiary and offensive questions, incoherent answers, and a highly contentious argument over race relations. Reddit has denied that the episode led to Taylor’s dismissal, and Taylor, in her first public remarks , refused to elaborate on the reasons behind her termination.

In protest to Taylor’s departure, many moderators of subreddits—forums revolving around niche topics—began to withhold access to their sections of the site, a stunt that denied significant traffic to Reddit and attracted international publicity. Meanwhile, Pao herself became the subject of vitriol on Reddit’s front page—the negative comments were tinged with racist and sexist commentary. A petition calling for Pao’s firing claimed that she was a “manipulative individual determined to sue her way to the top.” It attracted over 200,000 signatures. Pao twice apologized to the Reddit community, and on Sunday she said that moderators “should have been notified earlier about the plan” for transitioning after Taylor’s departure. But the apology failed to mollify her critics.

Reddit’s greatest strength—that an army of anonymous Internet users form communities run only by unpaid moderators—is also its greatest liability. In 2013, a Reddit thread encouraging users to locate the people responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing falsely accused Sunil Tripathi, a missing Brown University student, of being a suspect. (Tripathi was found dead less than a week later). Reddit has also faced scrutiny for allowing misogynistic and hateful speech. In her stint as interim CEO, Pao stated that Reddit wasn’t “a completely free-speech platform,” and last month shut down five subreddits for violating the company’s anti-harassment policy.

As Pao’s exit became public on Friday, she insisted that the vitriol had little to do with her departure, which she said resulted from friction with the board.

Nevertheless, Pao admitted that dealing with angry Reddit users was “one part of the job I won’t be sorry to give up.”