Professionalism/Ellen Pao, Reddit, and the trolls

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In the summer of 2015, Reddit went through substantial policy changes as leaders made controversial decisions that bring up questions on free speech, anonymity, and ethical behavior. Lessons on professionalism can be derived from the decisions of Reddit's board and former CEO Ellen Pao as well as from the responses of Reddit users.

Background[edit | edit source]

Two University of Virginia students, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, created Reddit in 2005. They envisioned it as the "Front Page of the Internet", which remains Reddit's slogan today. Huffman and Ohanian joined Y Combinator, a seed accelerator led by Sam Altman, and expanded Reddit. They sold Reddit in 2006 to Conde Nast, but returned years later to take control after Ellen Pao's resignation. [1]

How Reddit Works[edit | edit source]

Reddit is a website that connects people with similar interests into communities. 'Redditors', or Reddit users, own their community and consist of about 80% males and 50% young adults from ages 18-24.[2] They are expected to act according to Reddit's core principles:

  1. Remember the Human - Reddit expects compassion and honesty from users.[3]
  2. Give People Voices - Reddit aims to create a safe space for all viewpoints.[3]
  3. Respect Anonymity and Privacy - Reddit values users' rights to be as anonymous as they desire.[3]

The Reddit hierarchy consists of:

  • Admins - Paid Reddit employees who minimally monitor the website to enforce the few Reddit rules, such as limiting self-promotion and not posting others' private information. [4]
  • Moderators - Volunteers who manage subreddits, and create and enforce subreddit rules. Subreddits are forums for specific interests, such as r/aww where cute animal pictures are shared.[4]
  • Redditors - Regular users who visit subreddits they find interesting and who are bound by the rules of the subreddits they frequent as well as Reddit's site-wide rules.[4]

Redditors value the hierarchy of Reddit, as it enables them to take charge of their own communities. After Ellen Pao threatened their freedom on Reddit, many redditors revolted.

Ellen Pao[edit | edit source]

Ellen Pao

Prior to joining Reddit, Ellen Pao filed a high profile gender discrimination lawsuit against her previous employer, Kleiner Perkins, where she claims to have encountered the glass ceiling. Pao was appointed Reddit's interim CEO in November 2014 after Yishan Wong resigned. She continued her battle against harassment at Reddit soon after becoming CEO.[5]

In May 2015, Reddit enacted its first official anti-harassment policy. It encouraged redditors not to tolerate harassment and to email the admins if they were victims. However, it was highly ambiguous as to what qualified as systematic abuse and what the repercussions would be.[5]

In June 2015, Reddit shut down 5 subreddits, which offended people of certain races, weight, and sexual orientations, without giving notice to the moderators or users.[5] Subreddits dedicated to insulting Ellen Pao were created. She was targeted by angry Reddit users who sent death threats and hateful messages. Redditors also leaked her personal information online. [6]

In July 2015, Reddit inexplicably fired Victoria Taylor. Taylor functioned as a liaison between Reddit and Ask Me Anything, one of the most popular subreddits with over 10 million subscribers. Taylor was a beloved member of the community, as she was one of the only people who moderators believed represented their interests and voice at Reddit. Upset moderators protested and took down over 250 popular subreddits, leaving Reddit in chaos.[7] While Alexis Ohanian, the executive chairman, took responsibility for the firing, Ellen Pao took all the heat for causing the chaos.[8] As she was already unpopular after losing her lawsuit and shutting down subreddits, thousands of users called for her resignation through a petition.[9]

On July 10th, Ellen Pao resigned, citing her inability to meet the Board's demands and that she had "just endured one of the largest trolling attacks in history." She worried that trolls were winning the battle for the internet. Co-founder Steve Huffman replaced Pao as CEO of Reddit.[6]

Trolls and Moderators[edit | edit source]

Trolls[edit | edit source]

Many of the trolls who harassed and threatened Ellen Pao claimed that they did so because she was hurting the community by not allowing free speech. This claim is hypocritical, however, as the trolls damaged the Reddit community significantly by allowing hate and bigotry to prevail in a community that holds paramount authenticity and empathy towards others.[3] Their agenda was thus revenge, not improvement of their community.

The movement of the trolls against Ellen Pao is characteristic of a phenomenon called deindividuation. In deindividuation, a person becomes an anonymous member of a mob movement and gives up personal responsibility for their actions. They are prone to act contrary to social norms or rules because they are not directly faced with the consequences of their actions, at least not on an individual basis. It would have been difficult and unpopular to ban every individual Reddit user who made a hateful comment, so the trolls felt safe harassing Pao as a mob. This occurrence substantiates the idea that anonymous attacks are acts of cowardice. A brave and virtuous individual would be able to accept responsibility for their actions and be willing to face the consequences; instead, the trolls used the anonymity afforded by a mob to give up personal responsibility for their actions and hid from the consequences.

Moderators[edit | edit source]

After anti-harassment policies were enacted, moderators at Reddit temporarily took down popular subreddit’s like AMA (Ask Me Anything) and r/Science. [7] An r/Science moderator claimed they took the subreddit down because management failed to include moderators, who “help tend the subreddits”, in the conversation and how those changes would affect them, given that moderators are Reddit's biggest resource. Moderators are masked by usernames on Reddit, but unlike ordinary users, their reputation is what affords them their power. Since Reddit would easily be able to identify who shut down a given subreddit, the moderators put themselves at risk of losing their moderator status and power. Therefore, although they had some degree of anonymity, the moderators were willing to face the consequences of their actions without hiding, in contrast to the cowardice of the trolls. In retaliating against how the policies were enacted, moderators abided by Reddit’s two core principles to remember the human and respect anonymity and privacy. [3]

The Board's Professionalism[edit | edit source]

Glass Cliff[edit | edit source]

Ellen Pao was brought into Reddit as interim CEO in a time period of instability and was later forced to resign. Pao, among other women like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and HP CEO Carly Fiorina, were brought into leadership to make unpopular decisions in the face of impossible standards. They were then removed and replaced by a male CEO. These scenarios are characterized by the glass cliff phenomena. [10]

Premeditated Scandal[edit | edit source]

After former CEO Yishan Wong resigned, Board member and Y-Combinator President Sam Altman, who played an instrumental role when Reddit first took off, persuaded co-founder Alexis Ohanian to rejoin Reddit to focus on the product and the site’s community and policies. At the same time, Pao was brought in as Reddit’s new CEO.[11]

Hours after Pao’s resignation, former Reddit CEO Wong claimed the entire scandal was premeditated in a post on Reddit titled “What the best ‘long con’ you ever pulled?” [12] Wong responded stating he knows of one, and targeted the Board of Reddit. Wong claimed that the Board manufactured “a series of otherwise-improbable leadership crises” referencing the multiple leadership changes and the hacking scandal which then led the Board to ‘scramble’ to find a new CEO. Wong targeted Sam Altman, claiming he used his position on the Board to facilitate the scandal by reintroducing Alexis Ohanian back to Reddit. The claims stated the Board planned the elaborate scandal in an effort to regain control of Reddit from Conde Nast after Ohanian and Huffman.

Pao’s resignation sheds light into the struggle between her and the Board. [13] She said “So why am I leaving? Ultimately, 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 principle” highlighting the clash between the different visions she and the board had. However, after Pao’s departure, Reddit retained the same board members but appointed co-founder Steve Huffman as CEO, who kept Reddit’s anti-harassment policies.[14]

Washington Post Op-ed[edit | edit source]

Months later, Pao, in her Washington Post op-ed, shares that Board members pressured for higher user growth and earnings, and called for policies against harassment in an effort to clean up Reddit for it to be an appealing platform for advertisers. [6] It was in the Board’s interest to maintain strong policies to prevent discrimination, not just Pao’s. Pao served as the scapegoat, making the unpopular decision to enact anti-harassment policies as the Board pushed her off the glass cliff.[10]

Ellen Pao's Professionalism[edit | edit source]

Ellen Pao, while CEO of Reddit, wasn’t held to codified ethical standards like lawyers or engineers are. However, as the leader of Reddit, which is both a company and a community, she can be judged by how she treated her people. Actions of the board indicate that Pao was a pawn used to make unpopular changes; however, further evidence also suggests that she had a legitimate conviction to end hate speech, harassment, and discrimination wherever she worked. Pao lost her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins yet expressed no regret over suing, as she was able to empower women in the technology industry to stand up to sexual harassment [15]. When she started working for Reddit, she took initiative in ending salary negotiations- because of how they favored men-[16] and banning revenge porn. [17] Pao thus acted professionally in following her convictions when she implemented the controversial anti-harassment policies. Despite being used by the board, she never lost sight of her personal goals and responsibilities to protect the privacy and well-being of her employees and website users.

After shutting down the five subreddits, Pao regretted her authoritative approach in enforcing the anti-harassment policy, feeling that she had let down the community. She issued the following statement:[5]

“I want to apologize for how we handled the transition yesterday. We should have informed the moderators earlier and provided more detail on the transition plan. We are working to make improvements and create the best experience for our users and we aren’t always perfect. Our community is what makes reddit, reddit and we let you down yesterday.”

It was only a matter of days before Pao realized she needed to resign: she knew she could not continue the fight against harassment and hate speech with such a tarnished reputation with the Reddit community. She accepted the fact that a more popular leader- particularly Steve Huffman- was needed to continue the fight and allow her convictions to come to fruition. She thus sacrificed her career for the sake of her convictions, further qualifying her as a professional.

Generalizable Lessons for Professionalism[edit | edit source]

Three lessons can be derived from this case study to help professionals when facing ethical dilemmas:

  1. A professional must place their convictions above their career.
  2. An individual still must act ethically when given anonymity in order to advance positive change.
    • Anonymous attacks are not examples of free speech, but rather of cowardice. The trolls upheld the GIFT theory and failed to honorably wear the Ring of Gyges because when given anonymity, they behaved immorally and betrayed the core principles of Reddit.
  3. A professional must be responsible to both their shareholders and their clients, customers, and users.

Ellen Pao illustrated lessons 1 and 3 when she resigned as CEO and allowed the Board and new CEO to better implement anti-harassment policies. Moderators followed lesson 2 when refraining from unethical attacks on Ellen Pao and shutting down subreddits in protest, rather than trolling and threatening Pao as some redditors did. The Board can benefit from lesson 3 since they failed their duty to their CEO when pushing her off the glass cliff. They did try to meet shareholders' needs by improving Reddit as an advertising platform; however, they sacrificed their duty to redditors by giving little notice or explanation to users before shutting down subreddits and firing Victoria Taylor.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Fiegerman, S. (2014, Dec 3). Aliens in the Valley: The complete history of Reddit, the Internet's front page. [1]
  2. Morris, K. (2011, Sept 12). Who's on Reddit?. The Daily Dot. [2]
  3. a b c d e Reddit. (n.d.). These are our core values. [3]
  4. a b c Deimorz. (2014, July 30). How reddit works [Blog]. [4]
  5. a b c d O'Connor, B. (2015, July 11). The Rise and Fall of Ellen Pao: Timeline of a Reddit Tantrum. Gawker. [5]
  6. a b c Pao, Ellen. (2015, July 16). Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao: The trolls are winning the battle for the Internet. [6]
  7. a b Lynch, Brian & Swearingen, Courtine. (2015, July 8). Why We Shut Down Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ Forum. [7]
  8. Isaac, M. (2015, July 13). Details Emerge About Victoria Taylor’s Dismissal at Reddit. [8]
  9. Johnson, B. (2015, July). Step down as CEO of Reddit Inc. [9]
  10. a b Branstetter, Gillian. (2015, July 13). How Reddit shoved former CEO glass cliff. [10]
  11. Altman, Steve. (2014, November 13). A new team at reddit. [11]
  12. Wong, Yishan (yishan). (2015, July 11).What’s the best “long con” you ever pulled? [12]
  13. Pao, Ellen. (2015, July 10).Resignation, thank you. [13]
  14. Huffman, Steve (spez). (2015, July 13). Content Policy Update. AMA Thursday, July 16th, 1pm pst. [14]
  15. Johnson, Eric. (2015, May 27). Ellen Pao 'Didn't Plan on Becoming a Symbol' for Women in Tech (Video). [15]
  16. Sillers, Anna. (2015, April 7). Reddit CEO Ellen Pao bans salary negotiations. [16]
  17. Goldstein, Jessica. (2015, February 25). With The New Reddit Ban, Revenge Porn Loses Another Battle. Will It Lose The War?[17]