Junk Explained: The CEO of Reddit Ellen Pao Just Resigned. Here’s Why.

After months of comparing her to Hitler, the internet finally got its way..

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If you’re a regular Reddit user, then you’ll know that this last week was pretty much the internet version of the storming of the Bastille. If the Bastille was a message board. And it was built by people who maybe weren’t doing anything particularly wrong. Okay, so maybe it’s not like that.

For those new to Reddit, here is a concise summary of what was a very ugly online shit storm: last week prominent Reddit employee Victoria Taylor was fired abruptly, without any explanation to the Reddit community. This doesn’t seem that unusual, except in the internet age where information is free and users feel entitled to everything, it felt like a betrayal to the volunteer moderators who relied on Taylor as a communicative link between them and employed Reddit admins (who are often accused of not responding to moderators questions). Taylor was also in charge of Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) section, one of Reddit’s calling cards.

There was a lot of speculation about why Victoria Taylor was fired: was she an internet hero who refused to bow to commercial pressure from her bosses, and make AMAs less egalitarian? Was it a reaction to the disastrous AMA with Jesse Jackson? It’s still unclear. But a lot of the Reddit moderators, who are responsible for over 10,000 message boards, were not having it.

What followed was probably the most dramatic tantrum the internet has ever seen. One by one, moderators began shutting down their sub-reddits, leaving gaping black holes on a community-driven website that is the self-proclaimend ‘front page of the internet’. Millions of people who sought out up-to-the-minute entertainment news, heavy cyberbullying and pictures of cats were left out in the cold.

In a New York Times opinion piece, AMA moderators Brian Lynch and Courtnie Swearingen explained that they too had shut down their subreddit in protest of the lack of communication between Reddit admins and their moderators.

“Our primary concern, and reason for taking the site down temporarily, is that Reddit’s management made critical changes to a very popular website without any apparent care for how those changes might affect their biggest resource: the community and the moderators that help tend the subreddits that constitute the site,” they wrote. “Moderators commit their time to the site to foster engaging communities. Ms. Taylor’s sudden termination is just the most recent example of management’s making changes without thinking through what those changes might mean for the people who use the site on a daily basis.”

Basically: don’t mess with us.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian apologised for not “communicating change” about the AMA section and asked that blacked out subreddits be put back online. “Your message was received loud and clear,” he wrote. But try as they might to explain to users why changes in the site were happening and promising to adhere to the public’s demands (despite the fact that they didn’t really owe Reddit moderators anything), Reddit’s admins seemed to only fan the flames. (It didn’t help that some moderators were claiming that they had been locked out of their subreddits by admins.) The firing of Victoria Taylor became an excuse for moderators to criticise everything they hated about how ‘their’ community was being run.

And in the grand tradition of internet, anger at new moves that restricted the freedom of the site’s users and Reddit’s lack of communication transformed into a wave of misogyny, which fell down upon one woman.

Meet Reddit’s CEO, Ellen Pao!

Well, former CEO.

Despite the fact that she was not solely responsible for Taylor’s firing, Pao — who was appointed the site’s interim CEO in November last year — quickly became the emblem of everything that was wrong with Reddit. The site was quickly filled with misogynistic and racist taunts against her, and a petition calling for her resignation garnered over 200,000 signatures. This isn’t the first time Pao has been targeted – just last month people began comparing her to Hitler, after she shut down five subreddits for abusive behaviour.

Makes you feel good about the internet, huh?

Overnight, Pao published a parting post to Reddit: “In my eight months as Reddit’s CEO, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly on Reddit. The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity”, she wrote. “I just want to remind everyone that I am just another human; I have a family, and I have feelings. Everyone attacked on reddit is just another person like you and me. When people make something up to attack me or someone else, it spreads, and we eventually will see it. And we will feel bad, not just about what was said. Also because it undercuts the authenticity of reddit and shakes our faith in humanity.”

Pao and Reddit’s board were said to come to a “mutual decision” about Pao’s resignation, but her treatment by Reddit users wasn’t mentioned as a contributing factor. In fact it’s a little unclear why Pao is resigning (she said she didn’t feel capable of meeting the user growth targets that were expected of her), other then the fact that she has been blamed for pretty much every unpopular change to Reddit, whether she was responsible for it or not.

Basically, Pao’s resignation is not only a huge blow for women in the tech industry, but a very hollow victory for Reddit users. While some may feel like it’s a triumph for freedom of speech and the ability for internet users to mobilise and create more democratised frameworks, it also solidifies the notion that saying abusive things about prominent women in the tech industry makes them go away.

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It’s hard to know if Reddit’s moderators will ever get the transparency they seek, but it’s a disturbing turn of events none the less.

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