Reddit CEO Says Miscommunication Led To Blackout Protest

Jul 5, 2015
Originally published on July 7, 2015 3:19 pm

This past week, users of the social-sharing platform Reddit — one of the busiest sites on the Internet — hit a wall when moderators on several of the site's largest sections, called subreddits, locked users out.

The shutdown was a protest sparked by the dismissal of Victoria Taylor, Reddit's director of talent, who was a key figure behind the site's highly popular r/IAmA (Ask Me Anything) series, which has attracted various celebrities — even President Obama.

Those moderators said they were "blindsided" by Taylor's firing and that she was "an essential lifeline" for the parts of the site she managed. Reddit users have demanded answers from Reddit's interim CEO Ellen Pao, who many say is responsible for various recent changes at the 10-year-old company.

In an interview with NPR's Arun Rath, Pao said she couldn't talk about an individual employee, but that there was miscommunication around the transition.

"We have apologized for not communicating better with the moderators," Pao said. "They should have been told earlier about the transition and we should have provided more detail on the transition plan."

Pao said they are working on improved tools for moderators as well as expanding the community management team. Kristine Fasnacht, a long-time Reddit user and community manager at the site, will also take on the duty of being a liaison between moderators and staff.

Like the CEO of any company, Pao has a mandate to make Reddit profitable. The shutdown Friday emphasized the role of Reddit's moderators, volunteers who manage and maintain the individual subreddits on the site, a role and importance that Pao acknowledged.

"We rely heavily on the moderators and we really depend on them," she said. "What we learned from this event is that we need to communicate better with them and that we don't take them for granted."

But even with the users who volunteer their time having such a large stake in the site's operation, Pao doesn't feel restricted.

"I don't think of it really as a restriction so much as figuring out who our different users are and making sure that we have choices for each of those users," she said.

Pao said that she is confident that communication can be improved and that what moderators and users are looking for from the site is the same thing that she and the site's owners are actually looking to provide.

"We want to build them better tools, we want to make sure we're incorporating them in our decisions and we want to make sure we are being thoughtful in how we move the company forward," she said. "We are very much aligned in what we want — the question is just making sure we have a better relationship and closer coordination going forward."

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

This past week, a lot of people visiting the popular social sharing website Reddit hit a wall. Volunteer moderators of many subeddits - those are topics - those are forums for forums from history to video games - had locked out users. It was a protest over the dismissal of Victoria Taylor, Reddit's director of talent and facilitator of the site's popular Ask Me Anything interviews, where anyone from Bill Gates to Bill Murray will answer questions from users. Much of the frustration is being directed at Ellen Pao, the site's interim CEO. I spoke with her this morning.

Ellen Pao, welcome.

ELLEN PAO: Thank you.

RATH: So it seems like the dismissal of Victoria Taylor is what set this off. Can you talk to us about why you decided to let her go?

PAO: No, we can't. We don't talk about individual employees. I think the dismissal surfaced issues around a transition, and we have apologized for not communicating better with the moderators. They should have been told earlier about the transition, and we should have provided more detail on the transition plan.

RATH: What do you think is the substance of why people are upset?

PAO: I think people have different reasons for being upset. One of the big reasons for the moderators being upset is the communication not just about the transition, but about where Reddit is going and around our plans. And we are working on improving communications. Also, they have struggled with, you know, the tools that come from a 10-year-old company, and we are looking to try build tools for the next 10 years. We have hired a product manager focused on tools and community. And we have also hired up five more for our community team, so that we can make sure that we're providing enough people to help with the community.

RATH: You have sort of a mandate to make Reddit become profitable. I'm wondering with - obviously, this is a model where the people - the volunteers - who make it happen have a big stake in it. How does that restrict you in terms of moving the company forward?

PAO: I don't think of it really as a restriction so much as figuring out who our different users are and making sure that we have choices for each of those users. So for core users, for our moderators, for the people who contribute content, I think they really appreciate the site for what it is and for how we are very sensitive to how we put advertising on the site, how careful we are with our privacy and how respectful we are of what they want to do on the site and how they want to use the site.

Our focus for them will be on better performance, making sure that the site stays up longer and that they can get their information faster. On the other side, we have a bunch of new users who, when they come to the site, they have a hard time navigating. For them, we're building these apps so that they get to the content that they love in a way that doesn't require a lot of work and doesn't require them to learn a whole different system.

RATH: I'm curious if what's happened this past week has exposed a vulnerability in Reddit. If the moderators - the volunteer moderators of these subreddits can shut these forms down in this way, are you concerned?

PAO: I'm confident that we can improve communication so that we can work with them. We are very much aligned in what we want, and the question is just making sure that we have a better relationship and closer coordination.

RATH: Ellen Pao is interim CEO of Reddit. Ellen, thank you very much for your time.

PAO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.