TIME Internet

Reddit’s Ellen Pao and Alexis Ohanian Explain Site Shut Down

Ellen Pao
Eric Risberg—AP Ellen Pao, the interim chief of Reddit, has alleged she faced gender discrimination from former employer Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers

Protests rippled through much of the popular message board on Friday

Reddit moderators shut down hundreds of the online message board’s most popular sections on Friday. The outages were part of an apparent protest by users after the surprise removal of a popular employee, Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s director of talent and a facilitator of the Ask Me Anything feature.

The move affected nearly 300 individual discussion areas, or subreddits that focus on various topics ranging from technology to art. Subreddits are moderated by community members, not Reddit employees. The shutdowns began on Thursday evening and expanded quickly on Friday.

“I want to apologize to our community for yesterday,” Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao told TIME on Friday. “We handled the transition in a way that caused some disruption, and we should have done a better job.” Pao said the company’s management should have informed moderators earlier about planned personnel changes. Pao declined to comment further on Taylor’s departure.

Alexis Ohanian, one of Reddit’s co-founders and the company’s current chairman, said the site has appointed a dedicated point of contact on staff to communicate with the site’s moderators. Kristine Fasnacht, a long-time Reddit user and current employee, will take on the role, he said.

Ohanian said the plan was to have an email alias available for moderators who needed to contact Reddit employees, but that was not widely communicated after Taylor’s departure. “Unfortunately, we did not announce the transition right after that happened,” he said.

Ask Me Anythings, or AMA for short, are the tumbling question-and-answer sessions hosted on the site that have become very popular over the past few years. They are an entirely user-created genre—any Reddit moderator can host one. In instances with famous participants, like President Barack Obama’s 2012 AMA, the site has an employee help with planning and managing the logistics. “They existed before we had anything to do with them,” said Ohanian. The company is looking into appointing an staffer to continue doing that kind of liaising in the future.

Reddit users speculated Taylor’s dismissal was connected with her moderation of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s AMA on Wednesday, which became disorganized after a flurry of questions about racial issues. “That definitely had nothing to do with it,” said Ohanian.

Ohanian, who has tight bond with the community, said he spent the last 24 hours communicating with the site’s moderators and other users, much of it over Reddit itself. He was fielding questions on the site until about 3 AM Thursday night, he said, and made about a half-dozen phone calls to users. “Some people are understandably skeptical,” he said, “but at the very least it’s a step in the right direction.”

“Now it’s on us to act,” Ohanian continued, “to use Reddit to create a dialogue to better keep our community and user base informed.” He said the discussions so far had been fruitful. “They made some very good points. The first thing we could do was get a moderator like Christine to be the point person just for moderators. So if users have a question or want someone to talk to, we’re there.”

Pao and Ohanian said the site had returned to almost normal as of Friday evening. “Of the 50 default subreddits, 48 of them are up and that’s what most people see on the front page,” said Pao. The site’s homepage—the content on which is generated by the number of up-votes on threads throughout the site, a measure of activity and popularity—contained several threads on Taylor’s dismissal. One pointed out that Google searches for “Reddit alternative” had spiked in the wake of the protests.

After years under the ownership of Advance Publications, parent of the Conde Nast magazine empire, Reddit was spun off and raised $50 million in funding last year. It is reportedly valued at about $250 million. The company is currently trying to kickstart a major expansion but has weathered a series of hiccups over the last few months including policy changes to address bullying and “involuntary pornography.”

“We have a responsibility to [users] to figure out how we can be better stewards,” Ohanian said. “There have been times when we made mistakes. The important thing is that we learn from them.”

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