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A Moment of Fantasy

Authoritarian oligarch and Imperious Leader of Reddit, Ellen Pao, was given the heave-ho this week in a “mutual decision” to be replaced by someone who knows things about Reddit’s basic functionality, Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman.

Writers for the Ministry of Truth aren’t the only people in the world who can write a click-bait trash headline or opening paragraph for a discussion of an incompetent CEO’s resignation.

Now We Can Be Real

Ellen Pao is out as CEO of Reddit for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are the result of her catastrophic lack of leadership ability. Some of those reasons are the result of being dealt a bad hand from her predecessors. Here’s an example of the latter.

In October 2014, then Reddit CEO Yishan Wong committed one of the classic blunders, which are, in order:

  1. Never fight a land war in Asia.
  2. Never go in against a Sicillian when death is on the line.
  3. Never move your tech company to San Francisco when cheaper and employee friendly alternatives like Dallas-Fort Worth exist.

Closing down the New York City office probably saved Reddit a small amount of money in the short term. However, consolidating Reddit’s business in the 4th most expensive city in America is an expensive proposition. Reddit committed to providing relocation packages for those who could move and severance for those who couldn’t, which is a not insignificant cost; however, more valuable was any experience with the platform and rapport with the community long standing Reddit employees had that was lost because employees couldn’t, or wouldn’t, move.

The timing of the move is curious, coming as it did on the heels of a $50 million dollar investment from venture capitalists. It does seem clear, based on information we know now about demands by the board for user growth on Reddit, the move was done to make it easier for Reddit executives to beg for money from venture capitalists and corporate sponsors with the goal of turning Reddit into YACMW (Yet Another Corporate Media Website).

There’s another part of the San Francisco move story that highlights a long-standing problem between Reddit executives and employees. Wong stated the following in a Quora post:

And despite the emails, messaging, IRC, phone calls, Skype, online project management tools, and even liberal in-person travel policies – we just couldn’t do as well as we all knew we should be doing.  There were too many times when we just needed to be able to walk over and tap someone on the shoulder and discuss a complex issue in-depth, right away.

So, Reddit’s culture before Ellen Pao became CEO was one of completely ineffective communication. So, when Pao admitted to not communicating well in a post on July 7, 2015, her failure was not one of lack of communication. Pao’s failure was one of leadership in having no effect changing Reddit’s communication culture in the eight months from November 2014 to July 2015.

An Ineffective Leader

A direct example of Pao’s ineffectiveness as a leader comes in the form of the events surrounding the firing of Victoria Taylor and subsequent revolt of subreddit moderators and Reddit users across the site.

Taylor was one of the best employees at Reddit. She worked as Director of Talent, as well as a liaison for the Ask Me Anything subreddit. On top of that, she was an accessible and vocal resource for moderators of the site. If there’s anyone whose hard work and apparently consistent outstanding performance should have made them immune to policies like forced moves to SF, it should have been Victoria Taylor.

Pao, and the rest of Reddit executives, conscientiously decided to keep Taylor’s firing a secret to Reddit moderators. Taylor’s firing caused the r/IAmA subreddit to be set to private by its remaining moderators in protest, and as word of Taylor’s abrupt dismissal spread throughout Reddit, well over 100 subreddits had also “gone dark” in protest. It was clear to any observer Pao and Reddit executives had lost control of their website.

In an attempt to regain some amount of control, Pao made a post apologizing for “screwing up” not just on the day of Taylor’s dismissal, but over the last several years, only the last eight months of which Pao is directly responsible for. The post is massively short on specifics of where Pao thought Reddit executives had screwed up, but she did identify Tools, Communication, and Search functionality as focus areas going forward.

While Reddit mods were in open revolt against Pao’s mismanagement of Taylor’s dismissal, a petition on change.org asking for Pao’s removal as CEO of Reddit swelled to over 200,000 signatures. Not only had Reddit moderators given their version of a vote of “No confidence” against Ellen Pao, it was becoming more and more clear the rank-and-file members of Reddit were giving a similar “No confidence” vote.

Perhaps the most damning insight into how ineffective Pao was, and would continue to be, as CEO of Reddit is the statement she made upon announcing her resignation:

Ultimately, the board asked me to demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believe I can deliver while maintaining Reddit’s core principles.

So, to borrow a cliché, the only “tools in the shed” were to retain Reddit’s long held community standard of open communication and attain modest growth, or turn Reddit into Tumblr Jr. by censoring and/or shutting down every subreddit not ideologically compliant with the beliefs of the SF SocJus authoritarian elite? Are there really no coders working for Reddit that could be kicked in the ass to do some, I don’t know, actual coding to provide moderators the tools they need to moderate their subreddits to each subreddit’s standard of conduct? If the quoted statement is an indictment of anything, it is an indictment of how hapless Pao was as a leader.

Populism Is Sexism When We Need it to Be

So populism won, right? The popular backlash against secretive and heavy-handed, pro-censorship administration of a website caused its users to revolt en masse and the weight of popular dissent induced positive change, right?

Nope, Reddit moderators and users are just sexists. It would seem, once one dons the radiant halo of “taking on sexism in Sillicon Valley,” as nearly every report on this story put it, one becomes above reproach.

The bottom line of all this is not every problem Reddit has is Ellen Pao’s fault. She certainly did virtually nothing in her eight-month tenure as interim CEO toward solving a culture of communication problems at Reddit, and the mishandling of Victoria Taylor’s dismissal is most certainly an indictment of ineffective leadership.

Did those two events warrant Ellen Pao’s resignation? It’s not my place to say. I’m not a Reddit board member, nor am I active on the site at all, beyond fishing for interesting topics write commentaries on for TR. The hundreds of subreddit moderators and hundreds of thousands of petition signatories (for the record, I did not sign the petition) seem to think so, and that was enough for Pao and the board to initiate change.

Todd Wohling

A long time ago on an Intellivision far, far away my gaming journey started with Lock n' Chase, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons The Cloudy Mountain, and Night Stalker. I earned both a BS-Physics and a BS-Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today I spend most of my time on PC. I left a career of 14 years in aerospace in Colorado, so I could immigrate to Norway.