Ellen Pao Is Right. The Trolls Are Winning.
It's been a tumultuous week for the people of Reddit, both employees and users alike. After the highly public firing of longtime, popular employee Victoria Taylor — she was the primary force behind the hugely popular Ask Me Anything (AMA) series — the site boiled over with criticism and outrage. Popular subreddits were set to private, effectively shutting them down, and on July 10 Reddit CEO Ellen Pao ultimately resigned from her position. Now, in a Washington Post op-ed, she's sending a candid message: Ellen Pao says the trolls are winning, and she's not wrong.
What happened to me while head of the popular online forum Reddit for the past eight months is important to consider as we confront the ways in which the Internet is evolving.
If you're unfamiliar with Pao, she's long been a talking point for feminism, tech, and the intersection of both, particularly in the last year. That's when she was the plaintiff in a hugely high-profile sexual discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, which is a big part of what's motivated a lot of the sexist attacks against her, both on Reddit and across the internet more broadly, although there are some more nuanced critical assessments of her tenure over at Reddit, as well.
Regardless, if there's one thing she's become pretty well acquainted with, it's online trolls. And, according to her op-ed, she thinks they're coming out on top. Here are three reasons you ought to agree with her, because the internet can be a sketchy place sometimes:
1. An Infamously Awful Racist Subreddit Is Safe, For Now
A huge part of what landed Pao in hot water with some Reddit users was her effort to clean up some of its most hostile, harassing corners. This was perhaps most visibly represented by /r/FatPeopleHate, a subreddit dedicated not only to mocking, attacking, and hating on overweight people, but sometimes doxing and harassing them in real life, too. That was the stated justification for it being banned under the site's new anti-harassment policy — that it was spilling over into tangible, offline harassment.
What that means, however, is that a subreddit that reflects abhorrent ideas but doesn't cross that line is A-OK. For a vivid example, take — apologies for the slur, but it serves to illustrate — /r/CoonTown, a virulently racist, hateful subreddit which has seemingly managed to stay within the letter of Reddit's laws.
Obviously, fair-minded people can disagree about whether this should be allowed. Reddit has earned a lot of credit through the years as a near-absolutist free speech zone, and although it's a private company and can institute whatever standards they want, there's nothing illegal about racism unless it motivates criminal acts. But it's undeniable that this is a victory for some pretty bad people.
2. There Are Always Other Havens For Trolling And/Or Abuse
Make no mistake, even if every awful subreddit out there shut down tomorrow — even if the entire Reddit empire somehow collapsed overnight, which would suck for all the awesome people who post there, too — that's not going to stop the sort of disturbing chatter or harassment that goes on there. Simply put, there are too many outlets for this sort of thing online, and many of them are a great deal more hazardous.
Think about 8chan, for example, the virtually zero-accountability message and image board that got temporarily shut down earlier this year over allegations of child pornography. Or, to use an example from the world on online race hate, consider Stormfront, the neo-Nazi and white supremacist site. Would you rather people stop going to Reddit, where there's at least a hint of civility and that old, disinfection sunlight now and then, in favor of those kinds of places? I sure wouldn't. But that's yet another reason why trolls and abusers are winning — options abound, and some websites are beyond shame.
3. Trolls Will Feel Emboldened By Pao's Dismissal
There are perfectly valid business reasons to think that Pao's tenure at Reddit was a lost cause, considering how much ill-will had built up against her. To successfully guide Reddit away from its darkest instincts and towards a more easily monetized model was going to be a hard enough job for anyone, after all — much less for a high-profile feminist easily scapegoated by a mob mentality.
But make no mistake: for a lot of the people who're most excited about Pao's resignation, casual sexism (and residual anger over her sexual discrimination litigation) is in play. The misogynistic and racist attacks she's absorbed have been abhorrent, though sadly not surprising on any level.
And that's maybe the biggest tragedy in all this. Regardless of whatever realistic, understandable reasons Reddit might have had to want to cut ties with Pao, and whatever her reasons were for leaving — she said she was asked to "demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believe I can deliver while maintaining Reddit's core principles" — the trolls will simply chalk it up as a win for their brand of retrograde nonsense, and keep moving along. That's why it's important not to make this story entirely about her harassment — in some ways, these kind of people tend to get as much power as we credit them with.
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