What's happening to Reddit?

We chart the convoluted, confusing and conspiratorial breakdown of one of the internet's most notorious communities

News

28/07/15: Reports are emerging that a fourth female employee has exited the company in the space of less than a month.

Jessica Moreno, Reddit's head of community, confirmed she had parted ways with the firm in a statement issued to Re/code. Reddit also confirmed Moreno had left, with both parties saying the departure would mean she could spend more time with her family in Salt Lake City.

While no references were made on either side to recent accusations of gender discrimination at the firm, Moreno did cofirm she was liaising with Reddit's CEO Steve Huffman to ensure a transition plan was in place.  

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Moreno's exit follows that of director of talent Victoria Taylor, interim CEO Ellen Pao and chief engineer Bethayne Blount. 

17/07/15: The results of Steve Huffman's AMA on Reddit's new content policy are in, and it's surprisingly lenient. Many were anticipating sweeping purges of the site's numerous hate groups, but it seems that most will be spared.

The new content policy proposed by Huffman is largely a formalisation of Reddit's existing harassment policies, which specify what admins considered 'harassment'.

These rules prohibit several forms of content, including spam, sexually suggestive content featuring minors, and illegal material (such as copyrighted media - discussion of illegal content is still allowed).

Also among the list of banned content is "anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people", and "anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people".

Huffman clarified that these statements mean that no matter how objectionable, as long as a group is not harassing users or directly inciting violence, it's safe from the wrath of the banhammer.

This means that racist and sexist sub-Reddit will still be permitted, as long as they keep to themselves.

"Harboring unpopular ideologies is not a reason for banning", he said. "Filling someone's inbox with PMs saying, 'Kill yourself' is harassment. Calling someone stupid on a public forum is not."

This is a surprisingly moderate policy, given prior fears that all of the uglier subreddits would be shut down. In essence, this is nothing more than a clarification of Reddit's existing stance on harassment.

One big difference is a new classification for material that "violates a common sense of decency". Similar to adult content that is tagged as NSFW, content such as this will have a separate, clearly-defined designation.

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It will also "require a login, must be opted into, will not appear in search results or public listings, and will generate no revenue for Reddit". Huffman claimed that this strategy "allows us as a company to repudiate content we don't want to associate with the business, but gives individuals freedom to consume it if they choose".

Whether this approach will work remains to be seen; internet trolls are a notoriously tenacious bunch, and may not take well to this attempted marginalisation. Should they push back, however, Huffman has warned that Reddit will "try more aggressive approaches".

Jump to: 

Reddit is in the middle of a site-wide meltdown. The past few weeks have seen the community forum mired in scandal after scandal, with controversies and revelations piled one on top of the other.

The whole circus began with the termination of a treasured employee and has snowballed to the point where, less than two weeks later, the fate of the site appears to hang in the balance.

A labyrinthine maze of betrayal, outrage and corporate politics, our sister site Alphr has aptly compared the incident to Game Of Thrones.

It's difficult to keep track of just what exactly is going on over at Reddit - particularly given the fact that new information seems to arrive daily so we've built a timeline to help answer some key questions: 

What's happening to Reddit?: A farce in five acts

Act I AMAgeddon

It all started with Victoria Taylor, Reddit's former director of Talent. As an in-house administrator, one of her primary responsibilities was organising and directing the site's famously eclectic Q&A sessions.

Known as AMAs (short for Ask Me Anything), these sessions covered a huge range of people, from famous authors and celebrities to ordinary people with interesting careers or life experience. Taylor set up the sessions, verified the identity of prospective guests and guided them through the process if they were unfamiliar with the format.

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However, Taylor's employment recently ceased, with unclear circumstances surrounding her departure. This sparked outrage within the community, and many of Reddit's volunteer moderators were up in arms about not being consulted prior to Taylor being let go.

Taylor, they said, was instrumental in organising the AMAs, and without her, one of their major sources of content had suddenly become unwieldy and next to impossible to organise.

Reddit user Karmanaut, one of the top moderators for the /r/IamA subreddit (that hosts the majority of AMAs), was a vocal critic of the company's decision.

"For /r/IAMA to work the way it currently does, we need Victoria. Without her, we need to figure out a different way for it to work."

"We have been really blindsided by all of this," Karmanaut said. "As a result, we will need to go through our processes and see what can be done without her."

In the wake of Taylor's departure, the sub-Reddit was set to private, ostensibly so moderators could figure out how to arrange forthcoming AMAs without her. More followed, with mods from various sub-Reddits protesting both Taylor's termination and what they viewed as a lack of communication and support from the admins that run Reddit.

This quickly turned into a landslide; up to 100 sub-Reddits went dark as waves of mods threw their support behind the event that became known as AMAgeddon'. As the protest grew, it became clear that, to the mods, Taylor's exit was just a symptom of Reddit's wider problem.

User MockDeath, one of the mods for /r/rAskScience, was outspoken about the resentment some members of the community feel towards admins. "This is an issue that has been chronically inadequate for moderators of large subreddits reaching out to the admins over the years.

"Reddit is a great site with an even more amazing community, however it is frustrating to volunteer time to run a large subreddit and have questions go unacknowledged by the people running the site."

Act II Panic stations

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As AMAgeddon spiralled out of control, Reddit's staff, understandably, went into damage control. Co-founder Alexis Ohanion posting on Reddit as /u/Kn0thing took to the site's moderator-focused sub-Reddits to firefight the backlash that erupted in the wake of Taylor's departure.

"Your message was received loud and clear. The communication between Reddit and the moderators needs to improve dramatically", he said.

"We will work closely with you all going forward to ensure events like today don't happen again. At this point, however, the blackout has served its purpose, and now it's time to get Reddit functioning again.

"I know many of you are still upset. We will continue to work through these issues with you all, but redditors don't deserve to be punished any further over an issue that is ultimately between Reddit and the moderators."

CEO Ellen Pao also weighed in with an apology, saying: "Our community is what makes Reddit, Reddit and we let you down yesterday. I want to apologise for how we handled the transition yesterday. We should have informed the moderators earlier and provided more detail on the transition plan."

Pao's statement joined the veritable avalanche of comments from senior Reddit figures. However, despite her firing being the catalyst for the widespread shutdown of various sub-Reddits, Taylor was seemingly the only one who had not commented on the issue. 

She broke cover soon after Pao's first comments, addressing the events of the past week in a Reddit post. Her main message was one of thanks for the community's support.

"I'll never forget my time at reddit. You allowed me to be a part of some of the greatest conversations of our time, and it was an honor to be your ambassador. I just want to take a moment to say thank you to all of you who have reached out."

She also praised the community activism displayed by the protests, saying: "I've been incredibly humbled and honored to serve this community, and I truly believe all voices matter. Your voices matter. You proved that this weekend.

"And really, this weekend wasn't about me. It was about you. And if I know one thing about this community, it's that you'll continue making your voices heard. And that's an inspiration.

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Confusion still reigned as to the nature and cause of her departure from Reddit, and Taylor did not elaborate. What was clear, though, was that a return to her previous post was unlikely.

She stated: "I know many of you may be curious about what's next for me, and I'm still figuring that out. However, I can assure you, wherever the road leads, I will live up to the faith you've had in me."

By this point in the saga, the protest had more or less lifted, with virtually all sub-Reddits once again open for business.

Act III Apocalypse Pao

Unfortunately, for Pao, the damage was done. As CEO, many users saw her as the cause of Reddit's problems, with Taylor's apparent firing being the final straw. She quickly became a scapegoat for the AMAgeddon incident, while a Change.org petition for her removal reached 213,500 signatures.

Just over a week after Reddit started imploding, it was announced that Ellen Pao had resigned "by mutual agreement". Pao denied that the petition had forced her out, saying: "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 principles."

Some of the camps calling for her removal had been more than a little unpleasant towards Pao, as frequent users of Reddit may not be surprised to learn.

In a somewhat barbed dig at these detractors, she stated in her resignation letter that "in my eight months as Reddit's CEO, I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly on Reddit. The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity."

Sam Altman, president of accelerator fund Y Combinator and one-time CEO of Reddit for eight days announced the departure. He also took the opportunity to decry some of Pao's Critics. "As a closing note, it was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen", he wrote.

"The reduction in compassion that happens when we're all behind computer screens is not good for the world. People are still people even if there is internet between you."

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Pao's resignation was something of a blow for the company. In spite of Pao's assertions, it looked for all the world like the inmates were running the asylum, with community pressure forcing the CEO out based on shady accusations and murky assumptions.

Only a few days after Pao was ousted, Reddit's chief engineer, Bethanye Blount, also chose to part ways with the site. She stated that her decision, while not directly linked to the CEO's resignation, was due to a fundamental change in the way Reddit is being run.

Blount predicted rocky times for the company, stating: "There are some very aggressive implied promises being made to the community in comments to mods, quotes from board members and they're going to have some pretty big challenges in meeting those implied promises."

To make matters worse, ex-CEO Yishan Wong has recently jumped on the bandwagon. He has claimed that it wasn't even Pao who chose to fire Taylor in the first place. Couching the revelation in shadowy, conspiratorial language, he left inflammatory words on a discussion of the incident, and directly placed the blame for the whole disaster on Ohanion.

"I'm glad Redditors have started to piece together all of this. Here's the only thing you're missing: It travels upstream, except when it comes from the CEO's boss."

"Alexis wasn't some employee reporting to Pao, he was the Executive Chairman of the Board, i.e. Pao's boss. He had different ideas for AMAs, he didn't like Victoria's role, and decided to fire her. Pao wasn't able to do anything about it. In this case it shouldn't have traveled upstream to her, it came from above her."

"Then when the hate-train started up against Pao, Alexis should have been out front and centre saying very clearly Ellen Pao did not make this decision, I did.' Instead, he just sat back and let her take the heat. That's a stunning lack of leadership and an incredibly shitty thing to do.

"I actually asked that he be on the board when I joined; I used to respect Alexis Ohanian. After this, not quite so much."

The allegation, which implies that an innocent woman may have been hounded out of a job, was surprising enough as it was. And then things stepped up a notch.

Ohanion himself broke one of the cardinal rules of corporate scandals, and directly responded to his accuser, saying; "it saddens me to hear you say this, Yishan. I did report to her, we didn't handle it well, and again, I apologise."

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Wong remained unconvinced, replying that "it wasn't we didn't handle it well' - Ellen actually handled things very well, and with quite a bit of grace given the prejudices arrayed against her and the situation she was put in - you didn't handle it well. There was tremendous amounts of unnecessary damage done as a result".

Act IV The Purge

Following these high-profile staffing changes and public spats, Reddit has bought in co-founder and ex-CEO Steve Huffman to restore order to the troubled company and put the site back on track.

Reddit's problems, however, may be far from over. Yishan Wong has once again appeared to cast doubt on proceedings, and what he had to say is certain to leave many Redditors feeling more than a little shell-shocked.

He claims that Reddit has just shot itself in the foot in a major, unequivocal and, quite possibly, fatal way. Far from taking the site back to the good old days', he says, deposing Pao has simply opened the door for a draconian purge the likes of which Reddit has never seen.

Reddit, while not quite the anarchic free-for-all of communities like 4Chan, is nonetheless known as a site where freedom of speech is important. This means that the vast majority of content is tolerated if not welcomed no matter how objectionable.

Unfortunately, certain areas of the site have become a haven for hate groups and other unsavoury collectives as a result. In a Westeros-level twist, Wong has revealed that, far from threatening this status quo, Pao was actually one of its biggest defenders.

"The most delicious part of this", he says, "is that on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed /u/ekjp [Pao] to outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge. She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a shitshow."

"Ellen was more or less inclined to continue upholding my free-speech policies. /r/fatpeoplehate was banned for inciting off-site harassment, not discussing fat-shaming."

He also claimed that during her tenure, Pao acted as a sort of shield, protecting the more offensive sections of Reddit from being called out.

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"What all the white-power racist-sexist neckbeards don't understand is that with her at the head of the company, the company would be immune to accusations of promoting sexism and racism: she is literally Silicon Valley's #1 Feminist Hero".

"She probably would have tolerated your existence so long as you didn't cause any problems - I know that her long-term strategies were to find ways to surface and publicize Reddit's good parts - allowing the bad parts to exist but keeping them out of the spotlight."

Huffman, by contrast, is far less inclined to suffer this kind of community, according to Wong. During Wong's tenure, there were calls to ban a sub-Reddit that posted anonymised but revealing pictures of unaware women, and he approached Huffman for guidance.

"I wrote to him to ask for advice. The very interesting thing he wrote back was back when I was running things, if there was anything racist, sexist, or homophobic I'd ban it right away. I don't think there's a place for such things on Reddit'."

"I read the occasional posting here where people say the founders of Reddit intended this to be a place for free speech' Sorry to tell you guys but NO, that wasn't their intention at all ever."

With Pao out of the picture and Huffman back in the driver's seat, Wong predicts that huge swathes of Reddit's underbelly will be put to the sword. Now that he's back in charge, Wong claims that "/u/spez [Huffman] has the moral authority as a co-founder to move ahead with the purge. We tried to let you govern yourselves and you failed, so now The Man is going to set some Rules."

Act V Brave new world

Wong's tone in commenting has been one of aloof mockery. Indeed, he signed off his revelations with a trollface image. He also acknowledges that his actions have made him essentially unhireable, saying "I'm pretty sure no one will ever hire me as a CEO or any other executive position again."

In many ways, that has been the overarching theme of this whole debacle, with uncertainty about the future ruling almost every stage of Reddit's rapid and exceedingly and very public self-destruction.

Taylor, whose dismissal sparked the crisis, left moderators unclear about the future of AMAs. Mods, uncertain as to the future direction of Reddit under Pao, called for her dismissal. The executive board, with no CEO and an uncertain future for the company, called in the Old Guard. And now, according to Wong, large sections of the site have no future at all.

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So what's next for Reddit? Well, that depends on your perspective. For the vast majority of users, nothing at all will change; the most common sub-Reddits like /r/news, /r/gaming, /r/funny and/r/gif are all going to stay exactly where they are.

However, those that currently use Reddit as a place to share views that the admins consider among "the more offensive and obscene content on our platform" will likely have to move elsewhere in short order.

Huffman recently announced an AMA in order to discuss new a new content policy with the community. This will detail which content is banned on the site, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out which groups are for the chop.

"The overwhelming majority of content on Reddit comes from wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities. That is what makes Reddit great."

"There is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don't have any obligation to support them. And we also believe that some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all."

Huffman's stance on the issue is clear: he doesn't like the hate groups, and he wants them gone. They're bad for publicity, and both he and the board would be happy to see them scrubbed from the site altogether.

The internet will always have homes for people like this, however, and many have already flocked to Voat, a Reddit-esque site with an almost identical layout but virtually no moderation. Ultimately, the racist and sexist communities that have festered on Reddit will simply move on, as they have in the past.

Interestingly, the plight of the AMAs has been largely forgotten amongst the carnage and resignations, with Reddit still lacking a cohesive, community backed strategy for AMA organisation.

However, despite the doomsaying, for virtually all of Reddit's users, the only tangible end result of this whole catastrophe is that Reddit will become a much nicer place to be.

Concerns have been raised as they always are in situations such as this about the twin specters of censorship and freedom of speech. In fact, many people will be echoing the sentiments of Yishan Wong when confronted with the changes: "I can't say I'm terribly upset."

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This article was originally published on 16/07/15 and has been updated multiple times (most recently on 28/07/15)

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