Reddit CEO Ellen Pao Is Stepping Down

8 minute read

Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao is stepping down, Reddit investor and Y Combinator President Sam Altman announced in a Friday post on the site. Pao will be replaced by Steve Huffman, a Reddit co-founder and its first CEO.

Reddit, the popular online message board founded a decade ago, has been in turmoil since July 2 when many of its moderators—who largely work for free painting the site’s more than 9,000 discussion threads—began shutting down some of the most trafficked parts of the site. They were protesting the surprise dismissal of a popular employee, Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s director of talent and a facilitator of the Ask Me Anything feature.

Ultimately, Pao apologized. “We handled the transition in a way that caused some disruption,” she said at the time, “and we should have done a better job.” But her apology seemed not to appease many users. Writing in a July 8 New York Times op-ed, Brian Lynch and Courtnie Swearingen, two Reddit moderators, argued that “Ms. Taylor’s sudden termination is just the most recent example of management’s making changes without thinking through what those changes might mean for the people who use the site on a daily basis.” Though the site returned to normalcy, the chorus of users calling for Pao’s firing continued.

Pao, 45, is likely most well-known for her unsuccessful gender-discrimination lawsuit against venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In late June, she told TIME the company’s board had given her a year to make her mark and that she hoped to stay on longer. Pao, who will serve as an advisor to Reddit’s board through the end of this year, could not be reached for comment.

MORE: Inside the Trouble at Reddit

Pao’s tenure came during a rocky period for Reddit. She was installed as interim CEO in late-2014 after the company’s previous chief, Yishan Wong, left abruptly in the wake of a hacking scandal in which Reddit became a hub for distributing illicit photos stolen from celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. (He said he resigned over a dispute with the board about where to headquarter the company.) Ohanian, who left the company in 2009, was called back in as chairman. Altman’s Friday post says Ohanian will now have the title of “cofounder.”

In May, when Pao and co-founder Ohanian began more closely policing some of the content on Reddit that was bullying or offensive, moderators also became upset. Retaliatory threads comparing Pao to Hitler and calling for her resignation quickly shot to the front of the site’s home page. “It’s the Internet,” Pao told TIME of the personal attacks in a recent profile, “and something I’ve been dealing with for a year. I just ignore it.”

The leadership changes come as Reddit tries to find its balance in order to expand. Reddit is the 10th most trafficked website in the U.S., eclipsing Netflix, Pinterest and the New York Times, according to Internet tracker Alexa. Its 164 million users generated more than 7 billion page views in June. Once a unit of Advance Publications, parent company of the Conde Nast magazine empire, it was spun off in 2011 and late last year raised funds reportedly valuing it at $500 million.

Here’s Altman’s post in full:

Ellen Pao resigned from reddit today by mutual agreement. I’m delighted to announce that Steve Huffman, founder and the original reddit CEO, is returning as CEO.

We are thankful for Ellen’s many contributions to reddit and the technology industry generally. She brought focus to chaos, recruited a world-class team of executives, and drove growth. She brought a face to reddit that changed perceptions, and is a pioneer for women in the tech industry. She will remain as an advisor to the board through the end of 2015. I look forward to seeing the great things she does beyond that.

We’re very happy to have Steve back. Product and community are the two legs of reddit, and the board was very focused on finding a candidate who excels at both (truthfully, community is harder), which Steve does. He has the added bonus of being a founder with ten years of reddit history in his head. Steve is rejoining Alexis, who will work alongside Steve with the new title of “cofounder”.

A few other points. Mods, you are what makes reddit great. The reddit team, now with Steve, wants to do more for you. You deserve better moderation tools and better communication from the admins.

Second, redditors, you deserve clarity about what the content policy of reddit is going to be. The team will create guidelines to both preserve the integrity of reddit and to maintain reddit as the place where the most open and honest conversations with the entire world can happen.

Third, as a redditor, I’m particularly happy that Steve is so passionate about mobile. I’m very excited to use reddit more on my phone.

As a closing note, it was sickening to see some of the things redditors wrote about Ellen. [1] The reduction in compassion that happens when we’re all behind computer screens is not good for the world. People are still people even if there is Internet between you.

If the reddit community cannot learn to balance authenticity and compassion, it may be a great website but it will never be a truly great community. Steve’s great challenge as CEO [2] will be continuing the work Ellen started to drive this forward.

[1] Disagreements are fine. Death threats are not, are not covered under free speech, and will continue to get offending users banned.

Ellen asked me to point out that the sweeping majority of redditors didn’t do this, and many were incredibly supportive. Although the incredible power of the Internet is the amplification of voices, unfortunately sometimes those voices are hateful.

[2] We were planning to run a CEO search here and talked about how Steve (who we assumed was unavailable) was the benchmark candidate—he has exactly the combination of talent and vision we were looking for. To our delight, it turned out our hypothetical benchmark candidate is the one actually taking the job.

And here’s Pao’s departure post in full:

After more than two years at reddit, I have resigned today. My first day was April 1, 2013 (go orangered[1] !), and every day since has been an adventure.

In my eight months as reddit’s CEO, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly on reddit. The good has been off-the-wall inspiring, and the ugly made me doubt humanity.

I just want to remind everyone that I am just another human; I have a family, and I have feelings. Everyone attacked on reddit is just another person like you and me. When people make something up to attack me or someone else, it spreads, and we eventually will see it. And we will feel bad, not just about what was said. Also because it undercuts the authenticity of reddit and shakes our faith in humanity.

What has far outshone the hate has been the positive on reddit. Thank you, kind strangers, for expressing your support. You gilded me 100 times. (For those of you who apologized for generating a wave of accusations that I gilded myself, please don’t feel bad. You did a good thing.) And thank you for sending cute animal pics and encouraging me to “Stay safe!” when the site overheated with expressions of hate in various forms. There were some days when your PMs inspired me more than you can imagine.

Most touching were the stories from regular users. Some told of people they knew who had committed suicide for being transgender or exposed in revenge porn. Others shared their experiences of being harassed and expressed empathy and gratitude. More recently, several users apologized for trolling me and for not giving me the benefit of the doubt when the troll hivemind moved against me. Initially users said they were afraid to post supportive messages openly; recently they started fighting back against the trolls publicly on reddit with support, corrections and positive messages.

So why am I leaving? Ultimately, the board asked me to demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believe I can deliver while maintaining reddit’s core principles.

You will be in good hands — our strong leadership team will now be led by u/spez [2] , one of reddit’s original co-founders. Like u/kn0thing [3] , he’s lived and breathed reddit since its inception and will work passionately to ensure reddit’s success.

Thank you to all the users who shared your excitement about reddit and what we’ve done and for encouraging everyone to remember the human. And thank you for making my time here at reddit an amazing learning experience.

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