“We screwed up” isn’t a phrase you’d expect to hear from a former lawyer who used to keep a grievance chart to track colleagues who slighted her.
But when you’re CEO of a social media company like Reddit, and the slights are coming from your own multi-million-strong user base, contrition is really your only option.
And there’s been a lot of contrition on display this week, from both CEO Ellen Pao and Executive Chairman Alexis Ohanian, both of whom have spent the last five days struggling to contain the greatest user rebellion in Reddit’s history.
In an announcement on the site, Pao acknowledged that Reddit admins had made mistakes “over several years,” adding that “the mod[erators] and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of reddit.”
Alexis Ohanian also made a number of apologetic comments to users on the site. “I was stupid,” said Ohanian. “I communicated terribly.” He also attemped to assuage fears of rampant censorship, promising to “get the banning under control” and calming fears about /r/KotakuInAction, the site’s Gamergate hub, being shut down.
There were signs of cautious reconciliation between the site leadership and its volunteer moderators, who run the sprawling network of “subreddits” which make up the site. After bringing the site to a standstill over the weekend by shutting down their communities, most have now been brought back online.
The moderators are happy to wait until the admins’ self-imposed deadlines of 30th September and 31st December to deliver on their promises to make specific improvements, although they have also warned the admins that a second shutdown will take place if the deadlines are not met.
Reddit’s userbase is less forgiving. Many users hold Ellen Pao personally responsible for a new wave of censorship on the site, and a petition calling on her to step down as CEO is currently at 200,000 signatures and rising. A thunderclap to promote the petition is planned on July 19th.
The subreddit /r/Blackout2015 has emerged as the central organising hub for discontented users and has quickly become one of the most active communities on the site. Although it is unlikely to gain quite the same amount of traction, users from the subreddit are pushing for another boycott this Friday.
But there’s another danger on Reddit’s horizon — its main competitor, Voat.co. So far, the site has been hamstrung by its servers, which proved unable to handle the massive influx of users fleeing Reddit during the revolt.
Voat was previously run by its creator, Atif Colo, as a hobby, with no budget to speak of. And with PayPal choking its donations (albeit for very dubious reasons), there were few options to fund its expansion.
That may be about to change. At the height of the Reddit revolt over the weekend, Voat added a note to their landing page confirming that they had been approached by venture capitalists.
Atif Colo has laid down some unambiguous conditions for investors, telling his users that any investor will have to sign a document committing them to the site’s free-speech philosophy. It is still unclear if any of them will accept, although Voat’s initial note did emphasise that the VCs “support the principles we hold, that a free community is necessary.”
If a deal is forthcoming, it’s bad news for Reddit. The only thing that stopped their users from fully embracing Voat during the controversy was the competitor’s inability to handle high traffic. With venture capital behind him, Colo will have more than enough resources to address that problem.
If Voat is able to upgrade its servers, it would put Reddit just one revolt away from a potentially crippling user migration.
It’s still somewhat early to tell, but the flames of the latest and greatest Reddit revolt seem to be dying down.
Perhaps the most amusing part of the controversy has been watching Ellen Pao’s defenders scramble to defend their hero as the revolt unfolded. As you might expect, this involved baseless accusations of sexism.
“Why is the world so angry with Pao?”, asked one Guardian contributor. “Could it be because she’s a woman in a position of power?”
Max Fisher, of Vox Media (of course!), went further. “Reading up on the Reddit ‘revolt,’ becomes clear that their real complaint is having a CEO who is woman and non-white.”
What’s interesting, however, is how infrequently these claims were made. Most tech reporters, even the hyper-progressive ones, knew this narrative wouldn’t fly. The peasants (and barons) of Reddit are mobilized. Spinning and smearing won’t work — only genuine contrition and compromise can pacify them now. Pao understands that, even if her die-hard defenders don’t.
Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter.