Reddit CEO Ellen Pao tries to calm furor with huge 'mea culpa'

After controversial firing, Pao admits 'we screwed up'

Reddit's logo

Reddit's logo

Ellen Pao, interim CEO of online community site Reddit, offered the site's users an apology Monday, saying that "we screwed up."

She went on to acknowledge a litany of sins, focusing on poor communication from site administrators about major changes, broken promises and a lack of responsiveness to concerns from users. Moving forward, Pao said Reddit will make key improvements, including giving a site administrator the position of advocating for the fleet of volunteer moderators who make Reddit tick and building new tools to help those moderators do their jobs.

The apology comes after a weekend of rage aimed at Reddit's administrators in general and Pao in particular. On Friday, a group of moderators shut down some of the site's most popular communities in protest after the sudden dismissal a day earlier of Victoria Taylor, who some volunteer moderators say was instrumental in setting up "ask me anything" question and answer sessions with high-profile celebrities.

Her sudden departure left some moderators in the lurch, and they chose to make their communities private, while others followed suit to express their dissatisfaction with Reddit's administration.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian said in a comment on Pao's post that the company wants moderators of individual communities to organize celebrity AMAs, rather than having Reddit coordinate them directly. The company's "talent relations team" will encourage celebrities and other notable people to become regular users of the site.

Pao's apology and subsequent responses to people commenting on it haven't stemmed the tide of criticism. A petition on Change.org calling for her resignation has more than 190,000 signatures as of this writing, and a pair of comments on the apology calling for Pao's ouster each received hundreds of upvotes.

The whole fracas illustrates one of the central tensions of Reddit: the site's continued operation relies on a set of unpaid, passionate and (in some cases) grumpy moderators. Moderators of AskReddit, one of the most popular "subreddit" communities, said they will consider closing the part of the site they control if new features are not delivered on a timetable discussed by Reddit over the weekend. Several of the company's employees said Monday that it's unlikely to meet that schedule.

Taylor's departure from Reddit comes at a tumultuous time for the site. In the past two months, the company has instituted new policies aimed at reforming a community that can, at times, resemble the worst qualities of a garbage fire. Last month, the company banned 5 subreddits (including the somehow popular "FatPeopleHate") for harassing behavior, and instituted new policies prohibiting harassment of the site's users.

Those changes and enforcement actions spurred the creation of the petition calling for Pao's resignation. Some Reddit users have since headed to other communities including Voat, a new site that mirrors much of Reddit's functionality while claiming to offer a "censorship-free community platform."

Reddit must now keep the furor over the changes it has made in check. The site's popularity was spurred in part by the demise of Digg, a news aggregator that was a darling of the Web 2.0 era but lost most of its user base before selling to Betaworks in 2012. In a similar way that the collapse of Myspace and Friendster offer important lessons for modern social networks, Reddit has to avoid becoming the next Digg.

As for the future, Pao said she doesn't expect users to take her word that changes are afoot, but pledged that the company will make progress.

"I know these are just words, and it may be hard for you to believe us," she wrote. "I don't have all the answers, and it will take time for us to deliver concrete results. I mean it when I say we screwed up, and we want to have a meaningful ongoing discussion. I know we've drifted out of touch with the community as we've grown and added more people, and we want to connect more. I and the team are committed to talking more often with the community, starting now."

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