Reddit's fate hangs in the balance as revolt against CEO continues

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Reddit, the giant discussion forum for everyone from political junkies and comic book nerds to billiards enthusiasts and anarchists, is going through an insurrection – one that threatens the very existence of the pre-eminent social news sharing site.

For over 10 years Reddit has built a site that attracts 164 million readers a month to discuss and share everything from the latest political news to rare footage of the Viennese actionists. It’s Wikipedia with teeth, currently overseen by controversial interim CEO Ellen Pao, whose failed discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers made headlines last year.

Pao’s interim tenure (there is no replacement in sight) has so far lasted eight months, but Redditors seem dead set against her after a string of recent, unpopular decisions, and have gone so far as to publish a petition calling for her to step down containing more than 200,000 signatures. Pao is seen by the site’s users as pandering to both the commercial side of the business and to people upset by Reddit’s obsession with democratically giving voice to every possible perspective. The company did not respond to calls for comment.

Reddit has increasingly been trying to monetize its popularity by becoming a friendlier place to people who might conceivably spend money on advertising, or draw a crowd. On 1 July, the clash of cultures surfaced in one of its biggest forums: Ask Me Anything, a Q&A sessions board that has attracted everyone from Chris Pratt to Barack Obama. Cultural figures gain cachet for doing AMAs because it’s seen as venturing into the lion’s den. For the same reason AMAs can go terribly wrong.

Wednesday’s AMA with civil rights activist Jesse Jackson devolved rapidly into personal accusations and pointed questions about Jackson’s character – one user introduced a “question” about Jackson’s family life with the line: “You are an immoral, hate-filled race baiter that has figured out how to manipulate the political system for your own gain.”

The site’s director of talent, a popular employee named Victoria Taylor, was apparently dismissed shortly thereafter. Reddit denied that the Jackson AMA meltdown was the cause and Marc Bodnick, a venture capitalist with Elevation Partners posted (and then deleted) on Quora that Taylor had been removed for resisting greater commercialization of the AMAs. Whatever the reason, the dismissal appeared to be a serious misreading of the Reddit community by its leadership, because the moderators – volunteers who manage the forums – simply shut down huge sections of Reddit en masse in protest, including AMA.

“The admins [administrators, people Reddit actually pays to moderate the site] didn’t realize how much we [the unpaid moderators] rely on Victoria,” wrote user karmanaut in a post explaining why users could no longer get into r/AMA, the Ask Me Anything subforum. “We’ve had situations where agents or others have tried to do an AMA as their client, and Victoria shut that shit down immediately. We can’t do that anymore.”

Reddit’s top brass have painted the revolt as the actions of a disgruntled few whose needs are insignificant compared with those of the general-interest users who make up the vast majority of its user base. Those 200,000 signatures make up 0.12% of Reddit’s readers. “Most of the community is made up of thoughtful people, and they can appreciate what we all do, even if we don’t always agree,” Pao told the New York Times.

But some consider the disgruntled few the most valuable part of the company. “I’m a pretty apathetic content sponge,” wrote a user who calls himself CaptainObviousMC. “That fact is deadly dangerous to Reddit, because the moment the content creators jump ship, I’ll follow them like the fair-weather fan I am, because I don’t care – at all – where I get my content, or about which corporation or moderators are involved. If Reddit compromises its content stream by having moderators jump ship, I’m out too, not because I care, but because I don’t.”

Reddit’s pitch to advertisers positions it as the new mainstream, but that mainstream is the web’s largest agglomeration of niche enthusiasts, with people making friends and enemies in communities they sought out when they first came to the site, and going on to find or found others. Such wide topical latitude means Reddit’s queasier side often threatens to overwhelm the whole site.

The less reputable communities on Reddit have found themselves increasingly threatened over concerns about harassment (a term that, to widespread Redditor fury, hasn’t been clearly defined by company management; Pao has said it is anything that would make another user “feel unsafe”) and when that has happened, they have lashed out, convinced they are being persecuted for their quirks or fetishes. Reddit has often responded to those accusations with silence. “Silence,” wrote one Redditor using the handle SingularTier, “reinforces tinfoil.”

In a private message to the Guardian, SingularTier said they had high hopes for competitor site Voat, which is going through a fast-forward version of Reddit’s woes (Voat lost its relationship with PayPal when the dregs of Reddit, since banned, showed up posting child pornography) but thought Reddit would survive.

The tension at Reddit is often cast as a war between reasonable people and cranks, but in truth it seems that most of it is directed upward, at company management.

“In most cases, it is not infighting among Redditors,” wrote SingularTier. Inconsistent content policies, SingularTier said “combined with the shuffle of policies for monetization, the stories of former employees, and the background of the CEO herself, provide a perfect storm of distrust.”

What happens next, for Reddit and for Pao? SingularTier and others are sure the site will survive, and Pao has apologized, if vaguely, for dismissing the concerns of the site’s core community. Redditors’ revolts do tend to burn out quickly. And for obsessives of all stripes looking for a large, centralized and stable community, at present there is simply nowhere else for them to go.

Powered by article was written by Sam Thielman in New York, for on Tuesday 7th July 2015 18.44 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010