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The Fall of the House of Reddit

Ellen K. Pao the Interim CEO of Reddit isn't very popular right now. In fact, in her brief tenure as the head of 'The Front Page of the Internet', she's managed to galvanise most of the internet against her. It's an extremely impressive accomplishment if your goal is abject failure.

She's Reddit's own twisted Mance Rayder, uniting the diverse wildling clans for a single cause. People who post on forums about Dogecoin, Politics and yes, even the Furries have put up a banner that reads “Find us on Voat”. Where did it all go wrong and importantly for us what does this mean for advertisers?

The problems seems to have kicked off last month when Pao banned several Subreddits (forums), which users believe personally offended her, the largest of which was ‘Fat People Hate’. This was done under the manifesto of cracking down on harassment. It did not go down well. While this particular forum was combative, it wasn’t targeting or harassing individuals. In fact, there were strict rules against it. This was seen by many on the site as the first wave of content cleansing, censoring the parts of Reddit that Pao personally found distasteful. As of writing there are currently forums about having intercourse with dogs or the graphic sexualisation of My Little Ponies. (NSFW) It’s not that they exist, it’s fostering an environment of open speech where they can exist.

Having seemingly started the march of censorship on what people love to use as an open platform, Pao’s next trick was (and you couldn’t make this up) firing her best staff. First to go was a community manager, David Croach, whose only crime was having leukaemia. I really do wish I was making this up. She fired someone who had cancer because he had cancer.

Croach writes,

I pleaded with Ellen to let me stay, as I had been sick for over a full year now and the only thing that was on my mind was coming back to work - work I loved so very, very much. Unfortunately, a day later, she had called and once again stated that I was fired, stating that work would be too demanding for my health. When I asked what the specific reason was, she had roughly stated that "because of our discussion, you are too sick to properly fulfil your duties as Community Manager. "

After booting someone because their leukaemia relapsed, she then followed up by firing one of the most beloved members of the Reddit team, Victoria Taylor, Director of Talent and AMA (Ask Me Anything) coordinator. While neither Victoria nor Reddit are commenting on the reasons behind her departure, it is widely believed she was fired due to pressure to do a bunch of highly commercial things which she didn’t think were good for the Reddit community. The backlash was felt across the site as Moderators took their Subreddits ‘Private’, and in doing so created a content blackout in protest.

The mistrust and anger people feel towards Pao has now manifested itself in a petition for her to Step down as CEO of Reddit Inc.” As of writing, the petition has surpassed 135,000 signatures and is set to keep growing. Many believe that Pao doesn’t understand or care for Redditors, viewing them as a commodity to be sold, rather than a community to be fostered. And what does this mean for Conde Naste, Reddit’s parent company?

Quite simply, as soon as a better alternative comes along, unless things change – people are going to abandon Reddit in droves. Already sites like Voat are buckling under the load, as content creators are looking to jump ship. Voat has released a statement confirming they are looking for capital to scale up their business:

We have begun discussions with more than one venture capitalist firm that have approached us and voiced their support for Voat and the community. These investors share and support the principles in which we hold, that a free community is neccessary. They support us and our mission.

And Voat isn’t the only alternative. I’m no expert but I’ve also heard serious conversations about Aether or Snapzu being the next Reddit. Once that tiny but significant percentage of Moderators, Posters and Writers leave, the rest of the community will follow. It happened with MySpace. It happened with Digg. And it’s happening here.

When questioned on whether she intended on leaving, Pao told friends “You'll have to pry this position from my cold, dead hands.” Now here’s the thing. Condé Nast board members don’t care if the average Redditor hates her, as long as she can effectively monetise the site and start it making a profit. The fact that she tried and failed to sue her former employer Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination makes no difference. They probably don’t care that a jury of 6 men and 6 women found her claims to be totally spurious. They most certainly don’t care that her husband is cut from the same cloth, suing for racial discrimination and having the case dismissed, when his (alleged) ponzi scheme collapsed. What delightful people.

But this is leading Reddit down a dark road, and the effects are already being felt by advertisers. Because if you’re going to piss off a lot of people, you really don’t want them to be tech savvy.

Jordansideas writes:

If you don't have adblock, download adblock. If adblock is currently disabled for reddit, enable it. Hit them where it hurts, their wallets. When adblock is enabled, ad revenue plummets.

Another Redditor, Leadback, echoes these sentiments:

Casual reminder that you can use Adblock to deprive reddit of revenue sources.

The reality is that while a small minority of power users are going to download Adblock and untick the sneaky box that says ‘Allow some non-intrusive advertising’, the vast majority won’t. Maybe it will equate to a 1% loss of revenue; most people consume media rather than contribute to it.

There’s where Reddit is likely to fall down. When you isolate and piss off the community which is posting, commenting and adding value to your platform, they go elsewhere. And where the content goes, the eyeballs and the advertisers follow.

Reddit was great once. But even the Roman Empire had its day. Advertisers on Reddit should be very wary right now. There are right ways and wrong ways of monetising an aggregate platform. Firing a cancer patient, a loved and respected woman, and then refusing to acknowledge or communicate with your audience is the wrong way. Ellen Pao might as well say ‘Redditors Are Dead’.

If Gamergate has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t pander to the latest social justice trends while insulting and ignoring your core audience. Because they will boycott and move on. CEOs don’t have power. The user base has power. And they can and will vote with their feet and with their wallets. Reddit has always been about three things: Community, Freedom and Fetishes. And soon, it might just be another footnote in archives of internet history.

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Brandon's picture

Being a CEO does that mean she answers to a Board of directors? If I was on that board id be asking her to leave. Even if she has done nothing wrong she still found a way to be completely toxic to the company and site.

Ellen's picture

Another popular Reddit admin, Dan McComas aka kickme444, was also fired a few weeks ago. He had the idea for the popular Secret Santa campaign in which Redditors send each other gifts. Here he is saying goodbye: https://np.reddit.com/r/secretsanta/comments/3bypmf/goodbye_rsecretsanta/

hurin's picture

If Victoria had been Victor, the social justice friendly press could have tried to paint Pao's critics as basement dwelling misogynist like they did with GamerGate. But she isn't and so they can't.

Arthur's picture

I'm not sure what the editor of Vox.com is smoking, but:


"Reading up on the reddit “revolt,” becomes clear their real complaint is having a CEO who is a woman and non-white."

This does not "become clear" at all.

wes's picture

That is completely false. She has attacked everything the community stood for. Her race has nothing to do with it. You are just trying to paint a false picture to garner sympathy. Anybody who digs a little deeper will know you are a liar.

Michael Parks's picture

Correction: Reddit is no longer owned by Conde Nast and has not been since 2012.

Dabitch's picture

David, my apologies, I should have caught your Conde Nast info, which is incorrect. Reddit became a direct subsidiary of Condé Nast's parent company, Advance Publications, in September 2011.

When I founded Adland, I wanted many different points of views and opinions to be shared here. I don't always agree, and that's kind of the point. Reddit has always been about subreddits, some on topics one might not want to discuss in polite company, shall we say. And that's the point there. Any topic in the world can have it's own /r/ - there's even an advertising subreddit, that I never visit.

In this case, I thought it was a mistake for a magazine company to be buying a user generated site from the start. The unpaid actual content creators of the site are the site, and that asset can walk out the door at a moments notice because hello, it's not like you hired them. This happened to Digg and several sites before it. It'll happen again, and it's quite possible that it's happening to Reddit right now. It remains to be seen if the cat picture fans & "regular" users are enough of a traffic base for a financially successful Reddit. It's clear that this is what Pao is betting on.

I'm pondering if Ellen Pao isn't hired to be a butcher. When they dismantle companies they often put an "Interim CEO" in the top spot so that he can do all the unpopular things, such as laying off beloved staff. Then when the company is ready to fold into a parent company or rename or whatever the plan is, that CEO steps down and a "nice guy" is put in their place. It's a bit like good cop bad cop with CEO's. It seems to me that her lack of transparency in this process, dumping really popular and well known staff staff like Victoria Taylor, and Pao's insistence in moving all the staff to SF are the moves that really got the snowball rolling here. There's been a lot of smaller moves going on for a while, but when Victoria Taylor was canned and there's no word on why, Reddit users pretty much lost it. You don't want the users losing it on a user generated site.

JAS's picture

But that reasoning doesn't make sense. 'Butcher CEOs' are brought in to cut up a company so that they can resell the pieces. There are no pieces to Reddit... Nothing to resell if you start cutting it up because it is all user generated, and you can't cut up your userbase without completely killing the site. An attempt to spin off one subreddit to its own site wouldn't work because not enough people follow just one sub. The aggregate is what makes it viable and valuable.

JAS's picture

You forgot to mention that they fired Santa Claus. 3 weeks ago the impetus and driving force behind Reddit Gifts / Secret Santa and the Guinness Record Holding gift exchange system was fired. Yes, Pao fired Santa Claus.

Arthur's picture

> cut up a company so that they can resell the pieces...

That's what she's doing, she's repackaging the AMA/Funnypics/Fluffykittens hoping to become the safer cleaner first page of the internet. Even CNN money is reporting on this now. http://money.cnn.com/2015/07/06/technology/reddit-back-online-ellen-pao/