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How two women (unintentionally) broke the Internet

Reddit Rage

Ellen Pao and Victoria Taylor find themselves on opposite ends of the Great Reddit Revolt

By Brigit Katz on July 8, 2015

Spend enough time online and at some point or another, you’ll find yourself perusing through the media vortex that is Reddit. The news and link-sharing site garnered more than 7 billion page views last month, and has designated itself (not inaccurately) as the “front page of the Internet.” Over the years, Reddit has become a spirited hub of communication, where users can discuss anything from grilled cheese to information security. But this past weekend, major portions of the site went dark.

The silence, it turns out, was a form of revolt. Reddit is sustained by a community of devoted users, who feed and moderate forums (called “subreddits”) on what is essentially a volunteer basis. On July 2, moderators shut down hundreds of subreddits in order to protest the abrupt dismissal of a woman named Victoria Taylor, who had worked as the site’s “director of talent.” Taylor managed Reddit’s wildly popular “Ask Me Anything” subreddit, in which a range of personalities—some of them very high-profile—answered users’ questions in real time. Operating under the username “Chooter,” Taylor built up a following of her own, and is often referred to as someone who simply “got” how the site worked. Her firing is now known among disgruntled users as the “Chooting.”

To understand the hullabaloo surrounding Taylor’s dismissal, it’s important to appreciate how Reddit works. The site is fueled by principles of community, transparency, and—perhaps above all—a lack of censorship. Subreddits can range from the benign (baby elephants GIFs), to the profound (existentialism), to the downright disgusting (I won’t even get into it). Site administrators have, in the past, let pretty much everything fly. “We stand for free speech,” former CEO Yishan Wong once wrote in a private post that was leaked to Gawker. “We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious, or if we personally condemn it.”

Within the massive, diverse, and sometimes freaky Reddit universe, Taylor emerged as a popular corporate employee. She not only recruited big names for “Ask Me Anything” sessions (or AMAs), but also acted as a liaison between celebrities and so-called “Redditors.” Often, Taylor would select the best questions during an AMA, read them to the talent, and transcribe their responses in real time. She was an accessible resource for moderators across the site, and publicly advocated for the integrity of the user experience.

“Victoria was a great asset to reddit,” Redditor DeadalusMinion, moderator of the subreddit “books,” wrote in a message to Women in the World. “[S]he was always polite and professional and was loved and liked by everyone in/r/books?and we were greatly appreciative of her help in assisting us with AMAs.” 

Enter Ellen Pao, the interim CEO of Reddit who is perhaps better known as the defendant of an unsuccessful gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byer. She seems to have been at least in part responsible for Taylor’s dismissal, and has since apologized for her handling of the situation. “We screwed up,” she wrote in a Reddit post. “Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes.” 

Even before the blackout, Pao had incited the ire of Reddit users after she began banning subreddits that engaged in harassing behavior—a move that was viewed as subversive to the site’s incredibly generous policies of free speech. That Pao fired Taylor without warning the moderators who relied on her help is seen as further indication that Pao does not understand the way the site functions. A petition calling for her resignation has, in fact, drawn more than 200,000 signatures.

But there is a gendered element to the controversy too. Pao has spoken publicly about the difficulties of being a woman in the male-dominated tech world, and about the need for making Silicon Valley a more inclusive space. And yet Pao fired Taylor, an influential and successful female figure operating on one of the most-trafficked websites in the world. Details about the circumstances surrounding Taylor’s dismissal are scant—Taylor has remained largely silent about it, with exception a single tweet—but some members of the Reddit community see an immense hypocrisy in Pao’s actions.

Victoria is a strong, powerful, independent woman,” the user Latex_Man wrote in a recent post. “She had more power at reddit [sic] than Ellen Pao ever would have in her entire life … If anyone should sue their former employers for gender discrimination, it’s probably Victoria. She’d do true feminists (not the SJW sort), women, and girls aspiring to work in technology a tremendous service. As someone we can all actually look up to.”

It’s interesting to see how quickly the two women at the heart of this scandal were cast into familiar tropes: Pao as a vindictive and powerful shrew, Taylor as a crusading darling, a woman of the people. One can only assume that the truth of the matter is a little more complex. What does seem clear is that Taylor understood how to bridge the gap between the corporate side of Reddit and the army of volunteers who make up the site’s lifeblood. Whether or not Pao can manage to strike a similar balance remains to be seen.

Update: On July 8, Victoria Taylor posted a message to Reddit, thanking her supporters and breaking her silence on her dismissal.

“I’ll never forget my time at reddit,” Taylor wrote.  “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 … 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. You can take the woman out of reddit, but you can’t take the reddit out of the woman. I believe in you. And that’s a promise.”