The July 10 resignation of Ellen Pao, the beleaguered interim CEO of the social networking site Reddit, has a troubling subset of the site’s community cheering. It’s the group of users that has engaged in #RedditRevolt, a vitriolic harassment campaign to oust Pao that has been marked by sexist language and racist imagery — treatment that Reddit board member Sam Altman described as “sickening.” The validation of this harassment campaign is a blow for those seeking to increase inclusive democratic participation in virtual spaces.
Pao’s resignation came about following the uproar over the abrupt firing of Victoria Taylor, a well-liked Reddit administrator. The coordinator for the site’s popular “Ask Me Anything” (or AMA) feature, in which people of all sorts — from Channing Tatum to Barack Obama to the man with two functioning penises — answer questions from the community, Taylor was a vital staff liaison for volunteer community moderators, whose labor keeps thousands of subreddits with millions of views each week afloat. Her sudden departure left the moderators scrambling and feeling betrayed.
In protest, the moderators of the AMA subreddit decided to set the page to private and make it inaccessible to regular users. Other subreddits followed suit, beginning with large communities that regularly ran AMAs with Taylor’s help (r/Books, r/Music, r/Science). In a matter of hours, hundreds of subreddits had gone dark.
The response — quickly dubbed #TheDarkening or #AMAgeddon — was in one sense a widespread user revolution around issues of corporate transparency and customer appreciation. However, under the banner of #RedditRevolt, a group of users has attempted to use the controversy to push an aggressively reactionary agenda that has its roots in ongoing battles about the inclusivity of the web. (For more on why #RedditRevolt is harassment dressed up as free speech, see my earlier piece.)
Neither Taylor nor the Reddit team disclosed the reasons for her firing. But opponents of Pao, who has been targeted by users hostile to new anti-harassment rules instituted under her watch, nevertheless began to grumble that Taylor was let go for allowing Redditors to ask combative questions to civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson in one of her final AMAs.
Conservative commentators were quick to draw conclusions. “The influence of radical identity politics over Silicon Valley executives like the ones who run Reddit should not be underestimated — Ellen Pao is notorious for her opportunistic use of discrimination law,” Breitbart.com author and high-profile #GamerGate supporter Allum Bokhari speculated, referring to Pao’s much publicized discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. “In Silicon Valley, someone like Jesse Jackson is akin to a deity.” The implication was that Taylor was fired for not kowtowing to the will of the PC police, symbolized by Pao.
But Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson, who was present for the AMA, wrote that “by Reddit standards” the hostility Jackson faced during the proceedings wasn’t particularly noteworthy. It appeared to be business as usual for the reverend, too. A Jackson rep who helped to coordinate the AMA told Harkinson, “We get that same Fox News/Hannity/Colmes/O'Reilly stuff almost every time.”
Meanwhile, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is quoted in the piece saying that Taylor’s firing had “nothing to do with the reverend’s AMA.”
Still, the rumor circulated. Users who rallied behind #RedditRevolt recognized an opportunity to continue their attacks on Pao and attached their hashtag to the blackouts. The spamming of hateful posts — images depicting her as a dictatorial “Chairman Pao” and comments describing her using an array of sexist and racist slurs — on Reddit’s front page has continued. A Change.org petition (only one of many) demanding Pao’s resignation quickly garnered more than 200,000 signatures.
Tellingly, there has been no equivalent backlash for Ohanian, no spamming of mocking images, no proliferation of hate-themed subreddits. The lone petition calling for him to be fired so far boasts only 79 signatures. (This, despite the fact that he taunted angry users as the subreddits went dark, commenting, “Popcorn tastes good,” and the fact that he ultimately claimed “full responsibility” for the decision to fire Taylor in an apologetic message to moderators.) To be fair, Ohanian’s role in the creation of Reddit has bought him a great deal of goodwill in the community. The same could be said of Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman, who is replacing Pao as CEO. Some might argue that Pao has been a magnet for so much vitriol because she is viewed as a community outsider. After all, she introduced changes both to the workings of the site itself and to Reddit’s corporate structure that have worried longtime users. Many are concerned that her ultimate goal is to monetize the community at the expense of the democratic, user-driven spirit that made it unique in the first place.
However, it’s important not to be fooled by the attempts to conflate the Taylor firing, which has instigated legitimate protest over issues of consumer appreciation and company transparency, and #RedditRevolt, with its more insidious agenda. The blackouts — in which the wider community came out in support of a woman in tech — have simply given consumer cover to the latter group’s reactive, anti-feminist aims. Witnessing the viciousness of the #RedditRevolt protests against Pao, it's difficult not to conclude that one of the things that marks her as a “community outsider” in the eyes of many users is her sex and her skin color — especially given that, in contrast, more sober blackout participants have refrained from personal attacks and instead focused on criticizing the decisions of the administrative staff as a whole.
The contrary aims of the #RedditRevolt subset were made clear in a post written by a moderator for one of the largest and highest-profile subreddits to participate in the blackout (after Ohanian and Pao responded to concerns about who would replace Taylor and the subreddits reopened):
A brigade of angry users began spamming the sub[reddit] with hundreds of rule-breaking posts … It is evident now that these users are willing to burn Reddit to the ground simply to spite the CEO. We’re dealing with them as best we can, but things won’t truly go back to normal until they run out of steam.
However the dust settles at Reddit, one lesson is clear. When consumers can make themselves heard and hold corporations accountable for their actions, it can be a wonderful thing. But there is a difference between a consumer revolt and an agenda based on racist and sexist harassment. We must not continue to let the vocal contingent of #RedditRevolt turn the former into the latter.