It’s looking more and more like Ellen Pao was, in some sense, set up to fail by her male board of directors. Her predecessor Yishan Wong says it. A top Reddit engineer said it right after quitting. It might sound conspiratorial if it weren’t about this particular site.
But this is Reddit. To the site’s super-dedicated core, an overwhelmingly male group of very vocal power-users whose understanding of progressive politics is limited to the idea that their pirated ecchi torrents have just as much a right to bandwidth as Netflix, few things are more offensive than being told what to do by a woman. And when harassment was banned and their fat-hating subreddit was shut down, they plugged their ears and screamed and stomped and spammed swastikas until they got their way. (It obviously didn’t hurt that their way also happened to align with the interests of the site’s founders.)
So Ellen Pao’s first mistake might have been thinking she could ever actually lead Reddit. But Reddit can’t even be governed by the white guys who founded it, let alone by an Asian American woman who’d fought a highly public court battle over gender discrimination. The truth is that no one can run Reddit, because Reddit already has a boss: an organized, malignant band of the adolescent and adolescent-at-heart, ready to topple any would-be savior who attempts to clean house.
Pao could never have been that savior. It doesn’t seem like she was a particularly good CEO, which isn’t to say that she was a particularly bad CEO. Given that Reddit is ostensibly a business and has never made any money in a decade, it’s fair to say it’s never had a very good CEO.
But for the purposes of this particular public blowup, business acumen doesn’t actually matter. Ellen Pao could have taken Reddit public or negotiated a merger with Exxon—nothing would’ve negated the fact that she was an Asian American woman who took her former boss to court for sexual discrimination, placed in charge of an unruly mob of mostly white, mostly male users unable to countenance the idea that anyone could tell them how to behave. Pao was toast from day one.
If her first mistake was taking the job in the first place, her second was trying to do anything at all from her position. When the site announced a new policy that would constrain the ability of men to post photos of naked women without their permission so that other men could jerk off to them, Redditors reacted as if ISIS paratroopers were just spotted over the Capitol dome.
To the Reddit shock troops, a common-sense policy against sexual harassment and violation was nothing less than the trampling of liberty. Remember SOPA? Hate it. Remember CISPA? No way. Remember the possibility of a rule that could make it a little more difficult to call your ex-girlfriend a whore [MORE PICS INSIDE] because your relationship disintegrated after you spent too much time on Reddit? Same principle. Ellen Pao was now an official enemy of “free speech,” and therefore the web itself. When Pao later banned a discussion section devoted to ridiculing fat strangers, it was open war, her or us, the CEO or the community.
But Reddit isn’t a community. A community compromises; it changes; it adapts as it grows. Communities are sites of give and take. A community has a sense of common culture and purpose. What Pao found herself up against was not a community but a vicious, malevolent movement that can only accept direction in the form of upvotes. The extremists were not interested in compromise and unable to see why it was in their interests to make their favorite site a more welcoming place for new users. They could not open and would not budge—the idea of sacrificing the divine right to mock the obese was unfathomable, too much to bear.
This is Reddit’s political reality: an aristocracy of the crass. Conde Nast, Y-Combinator, Snoop Dogg, Alexis Ohanian—all the people who’ve built and invested in Reddit are just figureheads and potential TechCrunch Disrupt panelists; emperors to the toxic praetorian guard of the men’s rights-Gamergate axis.
To this increasingly vocal coterie, anything resembling compromise away from adolescent male white mores is seen as the fascistic social justice agenda. Never mind that no one is being asked to do anything more than grow up: Fucking grow up, you don’t really need giant jiggling breasts in your Xbox games. Fucking grow up, it’s obnoxious, boring and lazy to make fun of obese strangers. And fucking grow up: if you have to go 4chan to make the same stale jokes about the holocaust, you are no less free than you were the day before.
So who would would ever come in from the outside to try and run this website? Its current leadership is tolerated only because it’s agreed to not lead at all, to permit the same laissez-faire operation that allowed /r/CoonTown to cheer on and advocate for the murdering of American blacks immediately after Dylann Roof’s Charleston massacre. (Reddit’s new CEO, Steve Huffman, has hilariously suggested that these vile sections of the site be “appropriately quarantined” and left alone.)
The real power, the administrative and bureaucratic power that keeps the site chugging along for its day-to-day users, is a collection of unpaid moderators who wield more power than any office executive. They can—and have!—shut down the site at will, using the same mass disruption tactics deployed to bring down Digg a decade ago.
Why would an outside chief executive expect to be treated any differently than Ellen Pao? Who going forward will dare tell Redditors that if they want to jerk off to teens or harass women, maybe they’ll have to go to another website? For Reddit to become something resembling a viable business, it has to make money, and that means making the bigots and stalkers and imbeciles feel less welcome—how many firms will do business with the company that pays to keep /r/GasTheKikes running? Any outside CEO is therefore facing an impossible job: fumigate Reddit sufficiently for advertisers while placating a hostile militia of superusers that can’t seem to distinguish between mild rules and a prison sentence on Robben Island.
Without cleansing itself a little, Reddit will continue on its current course: a petri dish for the web’s dullest, dumbest impulses, a lowest common denominator clearinghouse of lazy memes, stolen porn, casual racism, a recruiting ground for hate groups, and an overall bummer. Because Reddit is a place for cowards, run by cowards afraid to take responsibility for the machine they engineered, populated by cowards who won’t reckon with the adult world around them.
Illustration by Jim Cooke