Yishan Wong, Reddit’s CEO from 2012 to 2014, has basically spent the past seven days living out every ex-employee’s ultimate revenge fantasy. He’s all over the comments’ threads, spilling Reddit’s dirt. He’s verbally dismantling his old bosses and co-workers in a way most of us only wish we could.
In the process, he’s turning a number of near-universal conceptions about Reddit, its corporate leadership and their recent drama on their heads. Among them: the fundamental belief (upheld as inviolable law, by certain vocal minorities) that Reddit has always existed for the sole ideal of advancing absolute free speech.
As one Redditor put it, perfectly: “So Ellen Pao was Severus Snape all along?” Here are some other key plot twists, according to Wong.
Misconception: Reddit’s leadership has always been adamantly, almost militaristically, in favor of absolute free speech.
Reality: Early Reddit actually took a hardline against racism, sexism and other slimy things.
When things were heating around the /r/creepshots thing and people were calling for its banning, I wrote to [Reddit co-founder and new CEO Steve Huffman] 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. Of course, now that reddit is much bigger, I understand if maybe things are different.”
I’ve always remembered that email when I read the occasional posting here where people say “the founders of reddit intended this to be a place for free speech.” Human minds love originalism, e.g. “we’re in trouble, so surely if we go back to the original intentions, we can make things good again.” Sorry to tell you guys but NO, that wasn’t their intention at all ever. Sucks to be you, /r/coontown — I hope you enjoy voat!
The free speech policy was something I formalized because it seemed like the wiser course at the time. It’s worth stating that in that era, we were talking about whether it was ok for people to post creepy pictures of women taken legally in public. That’s [not great], but it’s a far cry from the extremes of hate that some parts of the site host today. It seemed that allowing creepers to post (anonymized) pictures of women taken in public, in a relatively small subreddit that never showed up on the front page, was a small price to pay for making it clear that we were a place welcoming of all opinions and discourse.
Having made that decision — much of reddit’s current condition is on me. I didn’t anticipate what (some) redditors would decide to do with freedom. reddit has become a lot bigger — yes, a lot better — AND a lot worse. I have to take responsibility.
Misconception: Recently departed CEO Ellen Pao was a pro-censorship dictator who wanted to purge Reddit of even mildly offensive speech.
Reality: Pao was an internal defender of liberal content policies that permitted just about everything.
The most delicious part of this is that on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed [Pao] to outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge. She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a [disaster]. Ellen isn’t some “evil, manipulative, out-of-touch incompetent she-devil” as was often depicted …
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. 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, so any [social justice warriors] would have a hard time attacking the company for intentionally creating a bastion (heh) of sexist/racist content.
Misconception: Reddit’s problems are recent.
Reality: They predate Pao by several years, going back to when Wong was CEO.
She’s not really responsible. She’s been in the job for a few months and is cleaning up the mess I made.
The way redditors have been treating Ellen is eerily similar to how Republicans blamed Obama in his first years of the presidency for the problems he was working on fixing that were caused by the Bush administration.
Misconception: Ellen Pao fundamentally did not “get” what Reddit was, as a user.
Reality: Pao does use the site, and Reddit has struggled to find executives with both management and Redditing experience.
She was approved by the board and recommended by me because when I left, she was the only technology executive anywhere who had the chops and experience to manage a startup of this size, AND who understood what reddit was all about. As we can see from her post-resignation activity, she knows perfectly well how to fit in with the reddit community and is a normal, funny person — just like in real life — she simply didn’t sit on reddit all day because she was busy with her day job …
This is actually a real problem when it comes to trying to hire people for management (not to speak of senior management) positions at reddit when you want someone who really gets reddit.
Misconception: Returning control of Reddit to its founders will spontaneously save the site.
Reality: According to Wong, at least, Reddit co-founder and long-time board member Alexis Ohanian is actually the source for many of Reddit’s current problems.
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 center 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 s—– 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.
Misconception: Returning control of Reddit to its founders will permanently halt any attempts at “censorship.”
Reality: Reddit’s leadership has never been more ready to clean house.
[Pao] probably would have tolerated [racist, sexist and homophobic subreddits’] 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. It would have been very principled — the CEO of reddit, who once sued her previous employer for sexual discrimination, upholds free speech and tolerates the ugly side of humanity because it is so important to maintaining a platform for open discourse. It would have been unassailable.
Well, now she’s gone (you did it reddit!), and [new CEO 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.
As Wong himself notes on Reddit, comments like these have probably already made him “un-hireable.” We will continue updating this post, if he continues to push the envelope.
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