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Reddit doesn’t just need a new CEO—it needs a new culture

The future of the Internet is at stake.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Reddit must have some bad karma. Because lately, the front page of the Internet has been nothing but bad news, and the site seems to be facing down a growing PR problem.

Last week, a shakeup at the immensely popular website surprised everybody, when CEO Yishan Wong stepped down after serving over two years in the position. In a statement he released on Quora, Wong said, “The job as CEO of Reddit is incredibly stressful and draining. After two and a half years, I’m basically completely worn out, and it was having significantly detrimental effects on my personal life…I never really had a good baseline, i.e. how stressful is too stressful, until multiple outside people and coaches I was working with remarked to me that I looked incredibly worn down for months on end and it wasn’t supposed to be this hard.”

Rumors of Wong’s departure first leaked when Reddit investor Sam Altman discussed it on his blog. As unlikely as it at first sounds, Altman listed disputes over a new office as the specific reason for Wong’s exit, a detail which Wong himself later confirmed, though not without some clarification. “I feel the board is a very supportive and friendly one, but we had a strategic disagreement wherein I felt that locating an office in San Francisco proper is an increasingly difficult thing given the strains the city is facing and the high rents it imposes on employees who wish to live close to the office,” claimed Wong, though he continued, “On the other hand, many of our current employees live there so the proposal to find an office location just outside the city (Daly City is immediately to the southwest outside of S.F.) was very unpopular, and there are plenty of startups who locate in S.F. and are very successful.”

Wong hints that the office was more or less the straw that broke the camel’s back. He said, “If the job had been a energizing one rather than one that had been so draining, this probably wouldn’t have been an issue I resigned over.” It’s also worth mentioning that the end of his tenure at reddit comes on the heels of general manager Erik Martin quitting in October, and a very public feud between Wong and fired ad programmer David Ehrman erupting that same month.

It’s not hard to figure out what Wong is talking about when he describes the job of being Reddit’s CEO as “draining.” Though there were obviously a myriad of factors at work here, Wong’s decision to leave Reddit now is emblematic of the struggle to determine what the future of the site will be. Because Reddit is having a culture crisis, and if things don’t change, it seems all too likely the site will eat away at itself from the inside out.

Chief among Reddit’s problems are the sites privacy policies in the wake of this year’s nude celebrity photo leak, Celebgate (or as it was crudely nicknamed among the Reddit community, “The Fappening”). The incident found Reddit’s principal tenant of free speech contrasted against pervasive illegality and lack of common decency. Though Reddit claims to be vehemently against “doxing,” the practice of giving out personal information online, Celebgate proved that there is only so much the site can do to police users in this regard.

A lot of the blame for the whole Celebgate fiasco was pointed directly at Wong, who took a fairly unpopular stance on the matter. “Moderators’ pleas have almost entirely fallen on deaf ears,” writes Mashable’s Jason Abbruzzese. “Reddit’s commitment to remaining as open as possible is well documented. Most recently, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong penned a defense of the site’s lack of action concerning its role in disseminating leaked celebrity photos…The site has seen similar battles surrounding misogyny and more recently the GamerGate fiasco.”

Indeed, Reddit’s frequently toxic stance on Gamergate ties directly into this as well, since doxing has ended up being an integral part of the scandal. What’s even worse is that though the site has lined up to fight the NSA in the past, the hypocrisy of Celebgate and Gamergate make such efforts incredibly hard to take seriously.

Reddit’s sexist reputation was done no favors in the wake of Wong’s departure either. When the company’s chief operator, Ellen Pao, was named interim CEO, site co-founder Alexis Ohanian commented on the decision by saying that “this is technically Ellen’s job to lose.”  Though Ohanian likely didn’t mean to be offensive, his statement was still slightly unfortunate. As Valleywag’s Nitasha Tiku put it, “Since Redditors are so fond of sleuthing, I’d love to see other examples of an interim CEO who was publicly told it was his job to lose.” For the record, Ohanian has since responded to Tiku on Twitter. “@nitashatiku disappointed you put my quote in such a context,” Ohanian wrote. “I have total confidence in Ellen as CEO and I’m grateful we have her.” But Tiku’s contention was never so much about Ohanian’s intent, as much as it was about whether he was unintentionally “Peggy Olsening” her with his choice of words.

The brief spat between Ohanian and Tiku has shown how the sexism inherent in Reddit’s culture has sadly infected their larger place in the Internet of today. Ohanian was actually trying to praise Pao, but because the website he’s a part of has been linked to so many regressive attitudes, it’s only natural his claim that the job is hers “to lose” looks problematic. Subreddits like the now defunct r/beatingwomen and the still active r/TheRedPill have proven time and again that misogyny is alive and well, and on the Internet, Reddit is a prime haven for it.

Hopefully, Pao’s appointment will help to fix some of this. As Slate’s Amanda Marcotte notes, “perhaps having a woman in charge of a site that is, among other things, a stomping ground for misogynists will have a positive effect.”  Moreover, the choice of Pao specifically is interesting, considering her background. Marcotte continues, “Pao has a history of confronting sexism in the real world. In 2012, she sued Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for sexual harassment and discrimination. She could be CEO of Reddit when that suit goes to trial.”

But Reddit’s culture crisis goes beyond that. The so-called “Reddit effect” is a reminder of the site’s overwhelming power. However, this power isn’t only about their ability to drive traffic. Personified best in the site’s Boston bombing witch hunt of 2013, Reddit continues to demonstrate the way Internet communities can foster a mob mentality.

“After site members, known as Redditors, turned into amateur sleuths and ended up wrongly identifying several people as possible suspects, Reddit went from a font of crowdsourced information to a purveyor of false accusations, to the subject of a reprimand by the president of the United States himself, to the center of another furious debate about the responsibilities of digital media,” wrote the New York Times’ Leslie Kaufman, after Reddit’s campaign to find the bombers was extinguished. “While Reddit has never pretended to be a news organization, it is learning that as it grows bigger and more influential, the rest of the world expects it to exercise judgment—judgment that is often at odds with the freewheeling culture it and its members prize.”

In addition to Wong’s departure, this year has also seen infighting erupt throughout Reddit over their policies on trolling and the responsibilities of their moderators. Yet despite all these troubles, Reddit remains wildly successful. In September, the site was injected with $50 million in venture funding, amidst the fallout from Celebgate.

The flip side of all their negative press is that, undoubtedly, Reddit also has tremendous potential for good. From simple acts of kindness to energetically fighting for net neutrality, the site represents the best of what the Internet has to offer, along with the worst. Let’s not forget that the beginning of this month saw Aaron Swartz Day, in memory of the legendary hacktivist and Reddit partner. Swartz fought and died for online transparency and access to information. He was emblematic of what Reddit can and should be—a crusader for life in the digital age.

But sadly, if Reddit continues to mistake crusading for doing whatever you want under the guise of anonymity, its fate may already be sealed. “Reddit wants to be a techno-libertarian’s wet dream, but in practice it’s a weak feudal system that’s actually run by a small group of angry warlords who use ‘free speech’ as a weapon,” asserts the Verge’s T.C. Sottek. “Reddit is mostly a nice place filled with nice people who run nice little communities, but there’s virtually nothing keeping them safe from bullies like ‘John,’ a 33-year-old man who brazenly dispersed stolen private photos and then cried foul when the Washington Post published information about him. Reddit’s government is more interested in protecting John than the women he harassed.”

Though the site isn’t going away anytime soon, it’s easy to see Reddit turning into something like 4chan, an enthusiastic but isolated community of Internet tricksters, beset largely on anarchy and confusion. Wong’s departure marks a critical moment in what more or less comes down to a war for the very soul of Reddit. That criticizing the site in any way automatically opens up the possibility you will draw ire and inspire seething anger from some of its subsets means they’re doing something right, at least from a business perspective; Redditors are nothing if not passionate. But passion is not always a good thing. Passion can inspire altruism or cruelty, and until Reddit finds a way to reconcile these disparate elements of their culture, they will continue to personify the worst corners of the Internet.

Photo via Antonio Zugaldia/Wikimedia Commons

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