Late this afternoon, as the weekly news cycle was winding down, a post appeared on Reddit’s subreddit for official announcements, revealing that interim CEO Ellen Pao had resigned and would be replaced by one of the site’s founders, Steve Huffman. Pao had been a controversial figure from the start—Reddit hosts a number of revanchist groups, including MRAs, who were unlikely to welcome a CEO who was, at the time, embroiled in a closely watched gender discrimination lawsuit. Anger at Pao had increased in recent weeks over new anti-harassment policies, and came to the boiling point over the dismissal of an employee who had served as the liaison between the admins and the site’s popular IAmA subreddit.
Five minutes after the announcement, Pao posted her own version to the “self” subreddit. It will, no doubt, be subject to a great deal of scrutiny in the coming days, but I think three things bear saying right away. The first is that, if you have any interest at all in this story, you ought to read Pao’s post for yourself. Though many will try to deny it, one of facets of this episode is the way that Reddit’s users lashed out at Pao, with her gender and ethnicity figuring in their comments as often as the decisions made under her leadership. (#ChairmanPao is a trending hashtag on Twitter at the moment.) The net result is that, in an industry already known to skew white and male, an executive position previously held by a woman of color now passes to a white man, and large portions of Reddit’s base have embraced that as the successful end to their protests.
Given how easy it would be for the woman’s voice to get lost in the general banter, one of the most significant ways most of us can respond is by making a conscientious effort to listen. So, go, read Pao’s statement. Here’s another link to make it easier.
Perhaps the most useful paragraph in her post is the one that reads:
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.
Personally, I wish she had left it at that. (She continues: “What has far outshone the hate has been the positive on reddit.”) Reddit needs to understand that its harassment is a scourge, and I worry that qualifying that message lets many on the site hold onto their complacency, on the premise that the balance is still tilted toward the positive. I’m sure that she received a great outpouring of support, though my experience with Reddit is that the positives tend to arrive in private messages, and the harassment by way of the front page.
Finally, I think there’s a great deal to be read between the lines of Pao’s own explanation for the decision to resign:
So why am I leaving? 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.
Given the events leading up to today, it’s a safe bet that the key “core principle” is Reddit’s laissez-faire approach to speech—which has often mean doing nothing about abusive subreddits until they’ve grown toxic enough to attract outside attention. Pao sought to draw a clearer boundary between speech and harassment; the users (or, at least, a vocal minority) blacked out much of the site in defense of the murkier, more permissive boundary. One could infer that, seeing many of their most disaffected users make noisy exits to even wilder Wests, like Voat, Reddit’s board cautioned Pao to cause fewer ripples with the base.
It seems, then, that the breaking point for Pao was the demand to attract users without addressing that toxicity. Perhaps better than the rest of the board or admins, she seems to have understood that the site’s growth is constrained by their unwillingness to take a firm stand against harassment. While she herself weathered the worst accusations and assignations Reddit’s users could muster, she saw that there would always be people unwilling to join a site that blithely hosts groups who organize around shaming, hating and harassing people for their bodies or backgrounds. Insisting that she guarantee growth, without curbing a latitude that redditors have come to regard as their right, put her between a rock and a hard place. Resigning lets her step away without incurring the blame that she’d have surely gotten for failing at an impossible task. She is, after all, just another human.