Was Ellen Pao Unfairly Scapegoated in the Reddit Fiasco? Reddit’s Former CEO Thinks So

July 13, 2015 Updated: July 13, 2015

One week.

That’s how much time passed between the Reddit protests—during which unpaid moderators effectively paralyzed the website by shutting down many of its most popular forums—and the resignation of the company’s CEO, Ellen Pao.

The protests were instigated by the firing of Victoria Taylor, a Reddit employee that worked closely with the moderators on the Ask Me Anything discussion discussion areas (in shorthand, “IAmA”), where celebrities often engage in questions and answers directly with Reddit users. It’s one of the most successful discussion areas on Reddit, regularly drawing in between 20 and 30 million views per month.

The Ask Me Anything discussion area was shut down by its moderators on July 3 to protest Taylor’s removal. Moderators for many other discussion areas, who had gradually become resentful of being neglected by the Reddit staff, did the same in solidarity with the Ask Me Anything moderators.

Scarcely a day later, the protesters disbanded, most of the closed discussion areas were re-opened, and the front page of Reddit was no longer filled with posts denouncing Ellen Pao, whom Reddit’s user-base naturally held responsible for Taylor’s removal, but the damage had been done; more than 200,000 people had signed a Change.org petition to have her removed as CEO, and a mass migration of the website’s user-base appeared imminent unless a drastic measure was taken—and it was.

Now, Reddit’s critics have started to build a narrative exculpating Pao, portraying her as a scapegoat for problems that were already deeply rooted in the company when she became CEO, taking the fall for the company’s executive chairman, Alexis Ohanian.

Many attribute the collective ire directed at Pao to the alleged sexism and racism of Reddit’s user-base, rather than anything that Pao did personally, and now a convenient detail has emerged that could vindicate that perspective: Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit employee who oversaw the restructuring of the Ask Me Anything, was also the executive chair of Reddit’s board of directors, technically making him Pao’s boss.

This point was raised on Sunday by Yishan Wang, a former CEO of Reddit and a personal of friend of Pao, in a post on Reddit. He argued that since Ohanian was the executive chair of the board of directors, he has authority over Pao, and should’ve taken the blame for Taylor removal, among Reddit’s many other problems.

If true, Wang’s theory could indict Reddit’s user-base as going after the wrong person, lending more credence to the widespread accusation that Reddit’s user-base went after Pao because she was a woman and a member of an ethnic minority.

Inverted Hierarchy

“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 AMA [the Ask Me Anything discussion area,] he didn’t like Victoria’s role, and decided to fire her. Pao wasn’t able to do anything about it,” Wang wrote on Reddit.  

When news broke of Taylor’s removal, Reddit’s user-base naturally blamed Pao, as she was the CEO and had already become a suspect figure after her controversial sexual discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, a venture capital firm. 

“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,” Wang wrote. “That’s a stunning lack of leadership and an incredibly [irresponsible] thing to do.”

Ohanian was quick to reply that, as counter-intuitive as it may sound, he reported to Pao, and not the other way around, which would make her ultimately responsible. Dan McComas, a former senior vice president of Reddit who had been dismissed around the same time as Taylor, corroborated Ohanian’s answer.

“The interesting thing here Yishan that you may not know is that Alexis DID report to Ellen,” McComas. who has organized Secret Santa on Reddit, wrote. “I remember the negotiations at the time to make it so. Granted, this creates all sorts of problems due to his position on the board.”

Wang’s jab at Ohanian is further dampened by the fact that the latter did, in fact, try to blunt the attack on Pao by taking responsibility for the miscommunication with the r/IAmA moderators. Ohanian wrote on the day that the shut-downs took place: “I’m sorry for how we handled communicating change to the AMA team this morning. I take responsibility for that,” and a day after Pao’s removal wrote, “It was my decision to change how we work with AMAs and the transition was my failure and I hope we can keep moving forward from that lesson.”

A Mixed Track Record

Still, Ohanian refuses to disclose the reason for Taylor’s removal, or what role Pao played in the process, and Reddit’s representatives have assiduously avoided naming any single individual as responsible for the removal (Ohanian said again today that he couldn’t “comment on the specifics.”) However, given Reddit’s nimble size—it only has around 70 employees—it’s difficult to imagine that Pao was entirely oblivious to the decision to let Taylor go.

And Taylor’s dismissal, far from being the sole cause of the Reddit protests, resembled more closely the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Numerous moderators said that the maelstrom surrounding her removal provided an opportunity for an airing of grievances, and the Change.org made no mention of Taylor, instead slamming Pao for leading Reddit into “a new age of censorship” making “empty promises” to moderators.

An initial wave of contempt for Pao blossomed earlier in June, when Reddit, without warning its user-base, suddenly deleted five discussion areas on the website because the content had been deemed controversial—most prominently, one discussion area was devoted to the ridicule of people considered overweight.

This, along with Pao’s sexual discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, led many to see her as a vanguard of a new wave of political correctness that sought to end the free-wheeling atmosphere that has characterized Reddit from its inception.