Go Set a Watchman on Fire: Reddit and Ellen Pao’s Resignation

The resignation of Reddit CEO Ellen Pao is terrible news for anyone interested in making the internet less toxic. After a month-long torrent of abuse that fixated on Pao’s race and gender stemming from her reforms to the site, gender advocacy, and the fact that the executive chair of the board fired a popular employee, Victoria Taylor, who managed the site’s well-known Ask Me Anything board, she’s decided to take her leave from the social media site. 

At present, the more defensive, mostly male Redditors stress that sexism had nothing to do with their antipathy to Pao, only that she was “incompetent” — a fig leaf if there ever was one. No one has credibly demonstrated any incompetence on her part that merited such an aggressive outcry. The one bad decision many point to was Taylor’s firing. She was a prominent community manager, plugged into the Ask Me Anything (AMA) board, who served as a go-between for the celebrities the board often interviewed and the wider community. By all accounts she was skilled and well liked, and she was also unceremoniously sacked by Reddit co-founder and executive Alexis Ohanian.

Despite Ohanian’s admission of his culpability here, the blame was laid at Pao’s door. A Change.org petition that gathered over 200,000 signatures called for Pao’s resignation but never mentions Ohanian. To be sure, in any hierarchy the buck stops with the leader, but the context of recent weeks suggests that there was far more at work in the targeting of Pao.

Two issues, more than any other, set the stage for the scapegoating of Pao: her unsuccessful gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, and her forthright anti-harassment initiatives on Reddit. Outspoken women, especially non-white women like Pao, are instant targets if they publicly acknowledge the existence of prejudice, worse still if they purport to do something about it. Even a cursory glance at the invective against Pao reveals deep-seated antipathy about the lawsuit, casting Pao as an evil money-grubber using feminist ideas to ruin peoples’ lives and mask her own incompetence. In other words, one of the most popular stock characters in the misogynist imagination.

“A vast majority of the Reddit community believes that Pao, ‘a manipulative individual who will sue her way to the top’, has overstepped her boundaries and fears that she will run Reddit into the ground,” wrote the author(s) of the Change.org petition. While it may be too much to say that “a vast majority of the Reddit community” believed this, it’s a certainty that a majority of the vocal, swarming mob that attacked Pao believed it.

Then there was what many, myself included, hoped was the beginning of a new approach to harassment on Reddit. The site announced that it was formally banning five subreddits for fomenting targeted harassment that spilled beyond the subreddits’ borders. This included the fat-shaming forum r/FatPeopleHate (which does what it says on the tin) and r/ShitNiggersSay. In a move that surprised no one, these particularly odious forums became martyrs for the cause of “free speech” on the site. Their closure, further, led to the cresting of misogynist and racist hatred for Pao — rape and death threats, as well as fantasies of violence, came pouring in, and the “Chairman Pao” meme was generated, which quickly cluttered the front page and even became its own subreddit, r/ChairmanPao.


Pictured: “Free speech” at work.

The front page was also flooded by partisans for r/FatPeopleHate, mocking anyone who was overweight, and also turning them into targeted attacks on Pao by photoshopping her head onto pornography and photos of obese people, as well as titling threads with epithets against Pao like “Saviour of the Ham Beasts” (see above) that demonstrated Reddit users’ unquestionable expertise in efficiently stated bigotry.

This is the “legitimate criticism” that some Redditors are now celebrating because “the great evil has been slain” by it, in the words of one commenter. In a moment that could only be described as the distilled essence of the site, the first Reddit commenter on the site’s post about Pao’s resignation was from a white supremacist named “DylanStormRoof” who wrote “Pao! Right in the kisser!” He was upvoted thousands of times before a vote war began on his comment due to the negative attention it received.

But make no mistake, the ones celebrating the hardest right now are those who have the most to gain from the continuation of Reddit’s toxic laissez faire policy on harassment and speech; particularly the white supremacists who’ve made Reddit a home to rival sites like Stormfront.

Draining the Swamp

This is the problem Pao was trying to address — and it’s an open question whether or not the changes she spearheaded are in jeopardy because of her departure. She understood, unlike the site’s founders, that Reddit’s problems were not confined to Reddit. The site’s toxic reputation was not merely the result of antagonistic reporting by morally-panicking outsiders, but rather because Reddit’s toxicity had mutated to the point where it routinely imposed itself on those far beyond the site’s bounds. It had become a breeding ground.

The feverish harassment of former BioWare game dev Jennifer Hepler began from rumors and escalating outrage ginned up in the r/Gaming subreddit after someone posted a then-six-year-old interview with her to the forum. The GamerGate movement-cum-harassment campaign, meanwhile, maintains a staging ground on the subreddit r/KotakuInAction, whose name is an homage to anti-feminist boards like r/TumblrInAction, both of which serve to organize and direct harassment at approved ideological targets. Meanwhile, the role of white supremacist boards in amplifying and deepening race hatred is increasingly well documented, and as the namesake of the first celebrant of Pao’s firing makes clear, such ideological indoctrination has consequences that go well beyond trolling on an internet message board.

Even if one ignored the site, as some of the site’s users claim we should, we still have to deal with its noxious output. It’s akin to telling malaria victims to simply ignore the swamp where all the pestilent mosquitoes are breeding. Solving the problem requires going to the source.

Pao was beginning the process of draining Reddit’s swamp. Many criticized the site for not going further (subreddits like r/CoonTown remain), but I was hopeful that the first wave of bans marked a tentative first step. Now, however, it’s quite clear that subreddits like that will be kept on because Reddit’s remaining leadership believes they can be “quarantined.” Even if this were so (it isn’t; the most toxic parts of websites come to define them, 4chan began its life as board for sharing anime images, after all), it boggles the mind that the vile nature of the content there is allowed to continue flying under the Reddit banner.

Worse, Pao’s stated reasons for her resignation were that “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.” Reading between the lines here, what this likely means is that she was under pressure to keep growing the site’s userbase while hewing to Reddit’s classic “free speech” ethos that prizes and shelters hatred and harassment. Pao’s strategy hitherto has been a sensible one: attract more users by making the site less toxic. Reddit is popular, but also overwhelmingly young, white, male, and hardly representative of the internet as a whole. But now it seems the site will continue catering to the id of its entitled population and its exercise in amoral pseudodemocracy will continue.

Women’s Work

But there’s a final issue that needs to be addressed, and it involves former employee Victoria Taylor. Many revolting Redditors claimed to be attacking Pao in her name, but now seem to be quieting down after Pao’s departure. The site is down two talented women and Reddit’s revolters now seem to be quite content. Beyond that, however, is that one of the reasons that Taylor’s firing was so troublesome has entirely escaped discussion: community management is both a highly feminized profession in the tech industry and one of its least valued despite being incredibly important.

Redditors were not wrong to identify Taylor as a keystone to the site’s success. The work she did in coordinating the AMAs, keeping the uglier parts of the site at bay, and becoming part of the community herself, were all essential. Indeed, one could suggest that part of why she was so well liked was that she was one of the most visible and accessible members of Reddit’s otherwise aloof staff. This is not unusual for community moderators; swimming in the community is part of their job. What is also not unusual is that their work is dramatically undervalued and seen as expendable; they’re often the first to go when cuts are made.

The Redditors who use Taylor’s gender as a shield for their own misogyny will not acknowledge that one of the structural forces that made even a phenom like Taylor expendable was the institutional sexism that undervalues emotional labour as a professional skill.

In the meantime, the site has lost two dedicated, watchful women who were both forces for making the site less toxic and more productive. Each acted as a pair of sharp eyes for the rest of us, always on the lookout for ways to make the site better, rather than kowtowing to bullies and their bottomless entitlement. Neither prized those toxic users’ concerns as the bleeding edge of free speech. Both, from their respective offices, were trying to make Reddit’s vaunted community a positive place and neither bought into the Silicon Valley ethos about “the wisdom of crowds.” Communities need ideals and standards beyond the mere expectoration of accountability-free speech.

Instead, Redditors just set one of those watchmen ablaze and used the other as a cover for it; now they are celebrating the whole sordid affair and the rest of us must live in fear of what this mob will be allowed to do next.

Editorial Note: Added language that better reflects Alexis Ohanian’s position at Reddit.

Header image credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Katherine Cross is sociologist and Ph.D student at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City specialising in research on online harassment and gender in virtual worlds. She is also a sometime video game critic and freelance writer, in addition to being active in the reproductive justice movement. She loves opera and pizza.

Sociologist and Unofficial Nerd Correspondent.

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