Will Reddit Revolt Against Ellen Pao?

Former Kleiner partner Pao arrives at San Francisco Superior Court in San Francisco
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

When failed discrimination plaintiff Ellen Pao was appointed CEO of Reddit last January, many predicted that it would herald a new age of censorship on the link-sharing and discussion site. Those predictions appear to have come true, as a number of communities on the site (known as “subreddits”) have just been unilaterally shut down.

The sudden move resulted in the removal of one popular subreddit, /r/fatpeoplehate, which until its closure was the 13th-most active community on Reddit. The subreddit was dedicated to mocking fat people and the “fat acceptance” movement, although it was not known for engaging in any off-site harassment. Other Redditors have cited the subreddit as an important source of motivation to maintain a healthier lifestyle.

The crackdown came after a week of censorship on Reddit, including the mass deletions of links to media stories and even satirical cartoons concerning CEO Ellen Pao. There was also a bizarre incident in which a moderator of a gaming community demanded a user write a 500-word essay on trans acceptance before being unbanned. The user’s crime was using the word “trap”: a common, but not derogatory, term of Internet slang to describe crossdressers. Despite protestations from transwomen who said they were not offended, the moderator refused to relent.

There are early indications that the Reddit admins may have finally crossed the Rubicon on the road to alienating their user base. User activity on their main competitor, Voat.co had been rising steadily since social media censorship became an issue during the #GamerGate controversy, but in the past few hours their figures have skyrocketed.  At the time of writing, there are over 3,700 active users on Voat’s alternative to /r/fatpeoplehate —almost double its number of subscribers.

An alternative to /r/fatpeoplehate has also sprung up on Reddit, although it is unclear how long it will be allowed to remain. Activity on /r/KotakuInAction, a #GamerGate subreddit with a reputation for anti-censorship, has also surged.

Reaction from Reddit’s user base appears to be overwhelmingly negative. The top-voted comment underneath the administrators’ announcement points out a number of other subreddits that have not been banned. These include the racist subreddit /r/coontown, and the notoriously pro-censorship /r/shitredditsays, which was recently found to be the “most toxic Reddit community”  (where toxicity was measured by comments attacking other users).

With only the vaguely-defined criteria of “harassment” to guide their actions and scant warning given to the banned subreddits and their users, the widespread perception of Redditors is that the admins are behaving arbitrarily. In just over an hour, over 2,500 comments have appeared underneath the admins’ announcement post, with the vast majority offering negative sentiments. Link submissions attacking the decision have also surged to the top of /r/all, the famous “front page of the internet”.

Minecraft creator Markus Persson comments on Reddit’s censorship.

Reddit’s turmoil will surely please web culture bloggers who have at times appeared hellbent on the site’s destruction. BuzzFeed blogger Ryan Broderick has previously cited Reddit as part of the “white male Internet” that needed to be “bulldozed.” The Washington Post‘s Caitlin Dewey, who has cited Broderick as a source, also seems rather keen on on the downfall of Reddit. This is to say nothing of Gawker Media, which has been trashing the site for years. These columnists have much in common with /r/ShitRedditSays, a controversial community that built its reputation by attacking the culture of the wider Reddit community.

The danger for Reddit now lies in the rapid mobilisation of its large constituency of anti-censorship users. If the membership surges on Voat and the anti-censorship subreddits can be converted into an organised boycott movement, it may cause Reddit’s status as the “front page of the Internet” to quickly become a passing memory.

After months of quietly smoldering resentment from her user base, Ellen Pao’s relentless march towards a more censorious Reddit has sparked a digital riot. The question that observers of web culture will be asking is: could it turn into a long-term revolt on the scale of #GamerGate?

I, for one, wouldn’t bet against it. The direction taken by Reddit’s leadership is fundamentally at odds with the values of its userbase —and no amount of “Ask Me Anything” sessions will bridge the gulf.

Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter. 


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