The online community Reddit revolted over the weekend, following the dismissal of an employee who was particularly important to users, reports say. By Monday morning, a petition for the removal of controversial interim CEO Ellen Pao had garnered more than 160,000 signatures.
Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s director of talent and communications, was let go Thursday, and as a result, hundreds of “subreddits” went dark as moderators shut down their threads in protest.
Ms. Taylor had acted as a middleman between moderators, who are unpaid volunteers, and Reddit’s administrators, CNN Money reported. She also helped moderators organize the popular “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) section, where public figures like Barack Obama answer questions submitted by users.
One user, an AMA moderator who helped lead the shutdown and goes by the username karmanaut, posted a subreddit after the AMA thread became private, locking out users, explaining why Taylor’s dismissal “blindsided” moderators and hurt the Reddit community.
Without Taylor’s facilitation of AMA sessions, karmanaut said, there is no way of ensuring the authenticity of the person responding to questions.
“The admins didn't realize how much we rely on Victoria,” the user wrote. “Part of it is proof, of course: we know it's legitimate when she's sitting right there next to the person and can make them provide proof. We've had situations where agents or others have tried to do an AMA as their client, and Victoria shut that … down immediately. We can't do that anymore.”
A number of AMAs had been scheduled for the day Taylor was fired. While according to Forbes, Reddit co-founder Alex Ohanian said he would step in for the time being, Reddit moderators were not happy with the compromise.
“We need a way to keep the quality up without her, and we have no way to do that,” karmanaut wrote in another post. “She was the one ensuring that they did look at tough questions (even if they didn't have good answers), and ensuring that they devoted lots of time to the AMA and all of that. Without her, we can't know or enforce any of that.”
Pao apologized for not keeping moderators abreast of the changes Reddit administrators were planning, and told NPR Reddit “rel[ies] heavily on the moderators,” and "what we learned from this event is that we need to communicate better with them."
The interim CEO already has a tempestuous history with Reddit moderators. Recently, she drew fire for her enforcement of the forum’s new harassment policy, in which administrators deleted a number of subreddits for targeting members of certain communities, inviting accusations of censorship and of pandering to commercial interests.
On Wednesday, the online forum announced that it has banned five of its online groups, also known as subreddits, which are dedicated to ridiculing gays, the obese, and blacks, among others. The move is the website’s first attempt to crack down on abuse on its pages.
While antiharassment advocates cheered the decision, Internet freedom supporters were quick to criticize. “Reddit increases censorship,” read one post on the Reddit group r/freespeech.
As Reddit aims to become more mainstream, the company will have to master the delicate balancing act between curbing online abuse and catering to a user base that craves absolute freedom. The company’s current predicament is a typical phase in the evolution of many online sites, experts say.
No official information has been released over the cause for Taylor’s termination, but speculation abounds among users on the forum.
According to Forbes, users have pointed fingers at the recent AMA with Rev. Jesse Jackson that was largely seen as a failure, Reddit’s supposed requirement that all employees relocate to San Francisco or face termination, and at possible policy differences between Taylor and Pao.