The dismissal of a staffer who handled the site’s popular Ask Me Anything interviews appears to have triggered a full-fledged soul-searching on the part of Reddit’s CEO, Ellen Pao, who admitted in a post on Monday that management of the online community “screwed up” in the way it handled this and other incidents. Her acceptance of blame may have been fueled in part by the fact that more than 190,000 users have signed a petition asking for Pao to be removed.
What sparked this confession on Pao’s part was the firestorm of criticism from Reddit users and moderators over the way the site handled the departure of Victoria Taylor, but it’s clear that the incident also helped to shine a spotlight on some ongoing issues between users and management of the company, which recently raised a $50-million financing round. Pao admits this in her comment, saying she is sorry not just for recent events but for what has happened “over the past several years.”
“We screwed up. 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. We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them. When you’ve had feedback or requests, we haven’t always been responsive. The mods and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of reddit.”
Pao said that in an attempt to make it up to users of the site, the company is working on a number of solutions, including additional tools to help moderators manage the forums or “sub-Reddits” that they manage (moderators are not Reddit staff, but volunteer users). She also said Reddit had appointed a “moderator advocate” who would help to bridge the gap between moderators and the management of the company. And Pao added that this was just the beginning of her proposed changes:
“I know these are just words, and it may be hard for you to believe us. I don’t have all the answers, and it will take time for us to deliver concrete results. I mean it when I say we screwed up, and we want to have a meaningful ongoing discussion. I know we’ve drifted out of touch with the community as we’ve grown and added more people, and we want to connect more. I and the team are committed to talking more often with the community, starting now. Thank you for listening.”
As a way of showing her commitment, the Reddit CEO spent several hours on Monday responding to comments and questions on the site that were posted below her statement. One criticism of her behavior following Taylor’s departure was that she had commented first to the New York Times and other media outlets, but Pao noted that she had posted an apology to the site before she gave those interviews, and that it wasn’t seen by many users because it was so heavily down-voted by other users.
Pao was also criticized for saying in an interview with the New York Times that only a vocal minority of users on the site cared about the issues surrounding the moderators and the departure of Taylor, and that “most of the community is made up of thoughtful people, and they can appreciate what we all do.” She explained in her discussion with users later that this was misinterpreted:
“I assume you’re referring to the NYT quote. I’d like to clarify the quote’s context. The reporter asked about people posting and commenting really negatively about me, not about mods and content creators. That’s what I was referring to as a vocal minority. I do understand that the site lives on its content and voting, and I know that we all owe a lot to our mods and core users.”
In her comments, Pao also said that the site’s co-founder and chairman Alexis Ohanian—who returned to help manage the company after the departure of former CEO Yishan Wong last year—would be in charge of the Ask Me Anything interviews in Taylor’s absence. The AMAs are one of the most popular features on the site, which reportedly generates about 170 million monthly unique visitors and is said to have a market value as high as $250 million.
In the discussion with users, Pao also responded to questions about the ongoing monetization of the community, which some cited as one of the reasons for Taylor’s dismissal, and something that has been an ongoing source of tension. The Reddit CEO said:
“We just received over $50 million in funding last year, so we don’t have a need to monetize more aggressively. We’re being careful in how we invest our new funding, and plan to keep the site as quirky and authentic as it is today. We’re focused on helping more people appreciate reddit.”
In response to a question about whether she was concerned about her job following the outpouring of criticism, Pao said that she worries “more about how to improve our relationship with mods and the community than about my job,” and that she is glad to work “for a company whose users are so emotionally attached to its communities.” She added that she wants to make the site as open as possible, in order to “bring as many views and ideas as possible,” and that she loves the “authentic conversations on reddit.”
For his part, former CEO Yishan Wong responded to a question about why Pao was expressing regret for things that had been going on for years, saying: “Because 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.”
Will Pao’s apologies and explanations restore some of the faith that Reddit users seem to have lost in the past few months? Or will Taylor’s departure be seen as the moment at which she lost her grip on the company? As more than one person has mentioned in the past few days, Digg—a large online community that in many ways was Reddit’s predecessor—started to fail after the site implemented a redesign and restructuring that was poorly communicated and led to a loss of faith by hard-core users. It never recovered.