I would not consider myself a huge Reddit devotee. I have an account there, and by virtue of my profession, it’s something I check once or twice a day. I do not actively participate in discussions, but the site often surfaces interesting content or fun TV show theories that I can occasionally build upon.
I generally stick to the television subreddits, however, and do not dare explore the deeper bowels of Reddit, beyond the WTF?! subreddit because sometimes I need to ensure my gag reflex is still in working order. Knowing only what I know of the Redditors from comments in TV threads, I also know that it can be a fairly ugly place at times — sexism, racism, and bigotry in general are not hard to find on even the most benign subreddits, and I can only imagine what you might find on the Men’s Right subreddits, or some of the now banned subreddits like, /Jailbait, /Creepshots, and /FatPeopleHate.
It’s those banned subreddits in confluence with a couple of other factors that are at the root of what’s eroding the base of the most popular user-generated site on the Internet. Reddit is a huge operation (the 10th most popular site in the United States) with over 650,000 subreddits, and less than 100 employees to keep things under control, and those employees are currently under siege by their users.
The issue with Reddit right now, however, is that it’s biggest selling point is also what’s killing it: It’s user base. There are hundreds of thousands of registered subscribers and while the majority of those people are sensible, some of the others are terrible people: Think YouTube commenters with the ability to spell. That’s dangerous. And when you’re a site as huge as Reddit and you’re trying to attract big names like President Obama, Bill Murray, Peter Dinklage, or Amy Poehler to come onto your site for AMAs, you risk alienating them those very people by allowing subreddits like /FatPeopleHate to exist.
No one wants to associate with that kind of site. On the other hand, Reddit has a strong libertarian streak, and any form of censorship is likely to provoke outcry among the Reddit community. That’s exactly what happened last month when Reddit decided to ban five subreddits under the anti-harassment policy, including /FatPeopleHate, which had over 150,000 subscribers who stopped by to post pictures of obese people and ridicule them. Classy! (The other four banned subreddits have names that are too toxic even to write).
Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao immediately came under fire from free speech advocates for banning the hate groups, and things only got worse when — a couple of weeks ago — Reddit fired Victoria Taylor, a popular and highly visible employee on Reddit who also organized the AMA groups. Her firing, in fact, provoked over 300 moderators to shut down their subreddits — including the “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) forum — in protest. Details have since come out suggesting that Alexis Ohanian, a Reddit co-founder, had fired Taylor because he had in mind a different direction for the AMA forum.
In an ironic development, Reddit users demanded — and succeeded — in forcing Reddit CEO to resign on Friday, but in a cruel twist, it’s now Ohanian that will be taking back control over Reddit along with new CEO Steve Huffman.
The knife-in-the-back here is that Pao had to accept a month’s worth of hate and vitriol from Reddit trolls — who forced her resignation with a petition with over 200,000 signatures — but it’s Ohanion who gets to stay, even though it was Ohanion that made the decision that brought all the heat on Pao.
Ohanian’s decision to fire Taylor, in fact, prompted Yishan Wong — Ellen Pao’s predecessor as CEO — to lash out on Reddit. “I used to respect Alexis Ohanian. After this, not quite so much.”
He also suggested in what he later said was a joke post, that Wong — and the new CEO, Steve Huffman — had orchestrated the entire thing in order to wrestle control of Reddit back from the parent company, Conde Nast.
“When the hate-train started up against Pao, Alexis should have been out front and center saying very clearly ‘Ellen Pao did not make this decision, I did. Instead, he just sat back and let her take the heat. That’s a stunning lack of leadership and an incredibly shitty thing to do.”
Soon after Pao resigned, Reddit’s chief engineer Bethanye Blount also quit, only two months after having left Facebook to take the job. She credits the new direction of the site for prompting her to resign.
These are only the latest black eyes for Reddit, which had already generated extensive negative controversy over the two years by, for instance, wrongly identifying the Boston Marathon bombing suspect (the man they wrongly identified committed suicide) and for distributing hundreds of naked photos of celebrities illegally hacked from their phones.
However, in trying to rehabilitate Reddit in the wake of The Fappening, et. al, Ellen Pao ultimately alienated some of Reddit’s most valuable resource: Its users. She also didn’t help matters by approaching the outcry with meaningless corporate-speak.
What’s the upside/downside to the Reddit implosion? Thousands of users are now flocking away from Reddit and to other alternates, most notably a site called Voat, a Reddit clone that clearly doesn’t have the capacity or security to handle all the new users. It’s biggest selling point for former Reddit users, however, is also it’s weakest selling point for others: It doesn’t have no-harassment policy, which means that groups like FatPeopleHate can — and have — reform on Voat.