SAN FRANCISCO — Earlier this year, at the sexism trial that rocked Silicon Valley, a frequently cited defense argument for not promoting Ellen Pao was that Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers leaders believed she was better suited for an operating role inside a company.
Now, after becoming the poster child of sexism in tech with her ultimately unsuccessful suit, Pao is at the center of yet another controversy in exactly that type of role. However, the snafu may say more about the popular discussion forum she runs, Reddit, than the executive herself.
Last week, the interim chief executive of Reddit fired one of the company’s long-time and popular moderators, Victoria Taylor, to the dismay of many colleagues, who reacted by shutting down their forums or subreddits in protest. On Monday, Pao wrote an apology in which she noted that not only did she screw up last week but also for a “history of long mistakes.”
“The buck stops with me,” she wrote.
Last month, Reddit announced an effort to curb harassment of individuals on the site, a policy that did not sit well with free-speech proponents in the community. Even though most of the forums have been restored, a Change.org petition calling on Pao to step down as CEO spawned by that decision soared to nearly 200,000 signatures after the latest beef, with over 100,000 added in the last few days.
The commotion at Reddit highlights the conflicts between a community that feels it has serious ownership of the site, a leader who wants to crack down on some of the distasteful content, and a corporate entity that needs to generate revenue. While it is worth asking whether Pao’s leadership is a problem or if she is in the wrong job, the more pertinent question is whether the clash between the company and its community is the beginning of the end of one of the most popular online forums.
The company, which was purchased by Conde Nast in 2006, operates as an independent subsidiary. In June, it had 145.3 million pageviews, according to its most recent traffic statistics. As Reddit becomes more of a social news site and media platform, moderating its content becomes even more important, especially as the company seeks advertisers. And a pro-free-speech community, with constant battles and controversies, is anathema to advertisers.
The big question is whether Reddit will go the way of Digg and lose its lofty perch. Once one of the most popular social news sites, Digg started out as a tech news site that morphed into a vast community site where users voted up stories they liked. But Digg slowly alienated its huge community through a series of moves, including an upgrade in 2010 that allowed news organizations to auto-submit content to Digg. A huge uproar among its community ensued, and Digg lost its massive popularity, fueling the rise of the younger Reddit.
The Reddit community currently seems to be polarized by Pao and the controversy surrounding her lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins. While putting a major spotlight on the problem of sexism in tech and venture capital, Pao’s case had many problems, including Pao herself, who was frequently described in testimony as difficult, hard to work with and not a team player.
But Pao may not be the problem. Reddit is a Wild West free-speech forum in the style of an early Internet bulletin board, which may not be the best fit for any executive who puts the interest of the company ahead of the community.
Venture capitalist Fred Wilson postulated in a blog post that the struggle at Reddit will ultimately answer the question of whether a media platform is viable with centralized control by one entity.
“It may be that there is no viable middle ground between a centrally controlled media platform and an entirely decentralized media platform,” Wilson wrote. “You are either going to police the site or you are going to build something that cannot be policed even if you want to.”
Wilson also suggested that building a truly decentralized media platform could ultimately be among the killer apps for the blockchain technology behind Bitcoin, the distributed digital record of events, or in Bitcoin’s case, all the transactions in the Bitcoin network.
Reddit, Wilson believes, is going through a “natural evolution of platforms that need to cater to the needs of management and shareholders” and that the current controversy does not spell its end.
Reddit’s downfall would not be unprecedented. The Internet has a long history of once-popular forums and chat rooms, from the early CompuServe and AOL days to Slash.dot to many others. It’s probably safe to say that Reddit, too, will eventually be supplanted in popularity.
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