#Blackout2015: A Tale of Bad Public Relations, An Unexpected Firing, and a Power Move by Reddit Moderators

I went on a little road trip to Vermont this past week with my girlfriend, spending some time in the mountains and enjoying the rugged natural landscape around the Trapp Family Lodge (yes, that Trapp family). I made an attempt to treat it as a break from tech and social media, but I quickly found that using my phone as my primary camera was akin to an alcoholic using a vodka bottle to hold his water. No sooner had I set my bags down in my Austrian-themed room than I was sitting on the patio, 6 Plus in hand, uploading photos on Instagram and retweeting news on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent flurry of landmark decisions.

reddit* is almost always my go-to source for…well, anything and everything pertinent to my interests. /r/Apple, /r/Jeep, /r/XboxOne, /r/Watches, /r/WorldNews, /r/RVA, /r/LeagueOfLegends, /r/HipHopHeads, /r/TrueDetective…after 3 ½ years, the list of subreddits that I follow is like a highlight reel of everything and everything I care about. With that being said, you can imagine my surprise when I began to encounter an unfamiliar screen when I visited some of the largest subreddits on the site in terms of amounts of subscribers.

“THIS SUBREDDIT IS PRIVATE: The moderators of this subreddit have set it to private. You must be a moderator or approved submitter to view its contents.”

Confused, I started to look for anything that could explain what was going on. I came across this thread in the /r/OutOfTheLoop subreddit, which ended up being one of the first posts ever written concerning the impending “blackout”: “Why was /r/IAmA, along with a number of other large subreddits, made private?”

I began to sort out the details. Victoria Taylor, Director of Talent and one of the most important administrators at reddit who worked alongside both moderators and users to coordinate Q&A interviews in the famous /r/IAmA subreddit (and many others), had just been inexplicably let go from her position at the company.

You’d be hard pressed to find a more unexpected firing. Victoria, or /u/chooter, worked with almost all of the big-name celebrities and personalities who come to reddit to engage in interactive interviews where the commenters can directly ask them questions. These are called AMAs (“Ask Me Anything”) for self-explanatory reasons, and Victoria would be tasked with coordinating the interview between the subreddit’s moderators and the interviewees. She would also be able to provide proof that, say, President Barack Obama was actually the one answering questions in his AMABill Gates in one of his many AMAs…or “Carroll Spinney, the lucky puppeteer who has brought life to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for the last 46 years”…or Marilyn Manson…You get the gist. In addition, she would often be the person who typed everything that the interviewee was saying, which often led to some great moments where she had to translate specific inflections/tones/accents into text. The AMAs with Jeff Goldblum and Norm Macdonald stand out in my mind as being particularly amusing.

Anyways, she was fired without any warning being given to the moderators of the subreddits that had their own AMA programs that she helped to coordinate. This had a direct affect on a number of things. The moderators were already tired of reddit’s inability to provide up-to-date and powerful mod tools for one of the biggest websites in the Internet. In addition, subreddit moderators volunteer their time to keep the site running as smoothly as possible while users submit thousands upon thousands of posts and comments every minute. They enforce each sub’s unique set of rules and ensure that subscribers live up to each Internet community’s expectations. For the administrators of reddit to fire one of the most important admins without giving the moderators a heads up in any way, shape or form, the mods took it as a sign of disrespect and an irresponsible move. This doesn’t just apply to the firing itself; without Victoria, other subreddits like /r/Books and /r/Science had no way to contact the authors and scientists that were scheduled to give AMAs that day, since Victoria had held all of the contact information.

Rather than sitting idly by, hundreds of moderators on the site decided to fight back and, effectively, hold the site hostage as a protest against the admins. One of the comments in the first thread I’d found kept an active tally on which subreddits’ moderators had set their subs to private and had created what became known as “The Blackout.” This was an unprecedented move in the history of the site: there had been situations where mods stepped aside for a week or so to see what would happen when subscribers posted and commented with no oversight, but there had never been a time when so many subreddits went private.

/r/IAmA was one of the first to close, a subreddit with over 8.5 million subscribers. Then came /r/AskReddit (8.9 million subscribers), /r/Funny (8.9 million subscribers), /r/Books (5.1 million subscribers), /r/Movies (7.7 million subscribers), /r/Science (8.6 million subscribers)……you see where this is going. Moderators of some of the largest subreddits on the site had shut their doors to the world, a move that would not go unnoticed by news outlets around the world. After all, reddit’s signature slogan is “The Front Page of the Internet,” and much of what you see and read on a day-to-basis originates on the website through user submissions (especially breaking news stories, where I often struggle to determine if Twitter or reddit is faster in terms of getting the word out and disseminating the facts).

Most of the anger that users have held against the folks working on the site stems from one big decision in reddit’s history: the hiring of Ellen Pao as interim CEO. If you recognize her name, it may be because of her involvement in the sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer, venture capitalist firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. While she ended up losing the lawsuit, Wired writer Davey Alba, who covered most of Pao’s lawsuit, argues that her case in particular brought gender discrimination in Silicon Valley to the forefront of tech news and shook up the way that gender is discussed in the industry. She joined reddit in 2013 and became CEO in November 2014 after Yishan Wong resigned.

During her brief but memorable time at reddit, she has eliminated salary negotiation for employees at reddit and, less than a month ago, banned five subreddits for harassment. She has earned many titles and nicknames, including the popular moniker “Chairman Pao,” and some argue that she is not only totalitarian in her ways but completely disconnected from the reddit community as a whole, only seeking to please investors and to (finally) try and make reddit a profitable site. Recently, a petition calling for Ellen Pao’s resignation reached 150,000 signatures, a milestone that was reached primarily due to reddit’s reaction to the aforementioned firing of Victoria Taylor, which brings us back to the topic at hand.

In the midst of #Blackout2015, with almost all of the “default” subreddits down and out, Ellen Pao sat down for an interview with the New York Times that only served to infuriate users even more. “Redditors do not care about the departure of Ms. Taylor nor subreddits going ‘dark,’” she argued. “Most of the community is made up of thoughtful people, and they can appreciate what we all do, even if we don’t always agree.” She also claimed that the petition, which at the time had a mere 124,000 signatures, “did not faze her.”

One of the top reddit comments for the link above seemed to resonate with the community, enough to earn nine “gildings” (Redditors gild other Redditors for quality posts/comments by buying them reddit Gold, the key to unlocking premium tools and settings for users). I’ll include the comment in full below:

“She’s right.

The vast majority of reddit users don’t give a damn.

The vast majority of reddit users didn’t even notice.

The vast majority of reddit users rarely even hit the voting buttons.

reddit is not the vast majority of reddit users.

reddit is the communities that attract those users, and those communities don’t exist without the moderators, the dedicated users, and the content creators.

Of those people, damn near all of them give a damn, and they’re very, very upset with how this whole affair was handled.

Saying the “vast majority of reddit users are uninterested” is the equivalent to saying “the vast majority of the United States is uninterested in its infrastructure.”

No duh.

They’d sure be pissed off if it stopped working, though, and firing Victoria without any warning threw a huge wrench into the works.

Ellen Pao is out-of-touch with the company that she runs, the service it provides, and the people who use it. In her ongoing quest to make it a safe, marketable environment, she is driving it into the ground.”

There was a second comment in the reddit thread that gained an equal amount of respect from users (including four gildings) explaining how reddit as we know it could go down if just a few users left for other sites:

“The thing is… She’s absolutely right, I 100% don’t care at all about this situation, reddit, or the moderators. I’m a pretty apathetic content sponge.

That fact is deadly dangerous to reddit, because the moment the content creators jump ship, I’ll follow them like the fair weather fan I am, because I don’t care — at all — where I get my content, or about which corporation or moderators are involved. If reddit compromises its content stream by having moderators jump ship, I’m out too, not because I care, but because I don’t.

So she’s right — most reddit users absolutely don’t care a bit about this, or the site, or really anything. And that’s why she can’t afford to piss off the moderators, who are the people who do care.

What’s hilarious is that the reddit administration seems unable to see that most people not caring is precisely what makes the moderators caring so dangerous: they’re wielding my caring by proxy, because they hold the keys to content.”

As a member of the reddit community, the past few days have seemed like a watershed moment in terms of revealing the sheer power of volunteer moderators and the importance of transparency and open communication between mods and the administrators who run sites like reddit. They are supposed to work together and, when everything is going as planned, the website has an effective chain of command that ensures that important AMAs, staff changes, and updates to the website run smoothly. When the moderators and the administrators are not in sync, as with the case of the firing of Victoria Taylor…well, this happens.

The blackout began to pick up some serious traction in the media few days, with Bloomberg, The Guardian, CNN, BBC, and many others publishing their own stories on the event. Meanwhile, the subreddits that had gone private returned to their original states and usually had a message from the moderators pinned to the top of each sub’s page explaining why that particular community had gone dark and what was to be done going forward. For example, the mods of /r/AskReddit published a lengthy post regarding their participation in the blackout to their 8.9 million subscribers:

“Yesterday morning, we learned that Victoria was let go of reddit and were understandably unhappy. She has been a huge asset to reddit, /IAmA, or otherwise. While her departure mainly affected subs that host AMAs, it spoke to a bigger issue the mods have been dealing with for a long time; this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back…Going forward, we hope to get a better relationship with the admins, although tensions will likely be high at first. We want this to be the best website it can, and unfortunately that means putting our collective feet down to object at a certain point. Closing subs is obviously not something we like doing, but it does effectively show our disapproval. We appreciate the admins have been receptive to change and seem to be listening to our concerns. We hope they follow through with their agreed upon changes.”

Then there is the mod response in /r/IAmA, one of the first subreddits to go dark and by far the most affected subreddit in terms of the impact that Victoria’s firing had on the community as a whole:

“We have taken the day to try to understand how reddit will seek to replace Victoria, and have unfortunately come to the conclusion that they do not have a plan that we can put our trust in. The admins have refused to provide essential information about arranging and scheduling AMAs with their new ‘team.’ This does not bode well for future communication between us, and we cannot be sure that everything is being arranged honestly and in accordance with our rules…As a result, we will no longer be working with the admins to put together AMAs. Anyone seeking to schedule an AMA can simply message the moderators or email us at AMAVerify@gmail.com, and we’d be happy to assist and help prepare them for the AMA in any way.”

Keep in mind that many of the smaller subreddits like /r/RVA and /r/Houston chose not to go dark. The best way for the blackout to be effective was for the largest subreddits to close their doors in order for the impact to be felt on a large scale, but limiting user’s access to smaller subreddits was not particularly necessary. Nevertheless, the moderators of these less-populated subreddits often called for a vote among their users to decide whether or not they should join the protest.

It has only been about three days since this entire situation began to unfold, which is a relatively short amount of time in non-Internet terms, but considering that almost everything during #Blackout2015 happened online with new updates coming out every hour, it will take some time to sift through the facts and study the ramifications that the protest will have on how other sites manage their moderator-administrator interactions. There are countless sites out there that function similarly to reddit, where volunteers act as moderators to enforce the rules of their communities and to let them thrive while the administrators manage the business, coding, and professional side of the website. The protest was not an immature reactionary move to a firing that still hasn’t been fully explained yet, but rather a call for more transparency, more respect, and more communication between different types of users on the website.

I, for one, will be following the situation as it unfolds out of intrigue more than anything else. Between Ellen Pao’s inability to do anything at all to please the users and the plethora or rumors surrounding the specifics behind the firing, coupled with the effects of the protest itself, the event makes me wonder who actually has the power on these types of websites: the administrators, or the users? The admins may be able to fire staff and ban users and communities, but with enough cooperation and motivation the user base can easily alter the playing field by simply refusing to play the admins’ games.

It also makes me much more aware of how easily a site like reddit can go under in such a short amount of time. The site is nothing without its community, and if the community is not getting what it wants out of the site (whether it be original content, thoughtful discussions, or the freedom to participate in communities relevant to one’s interests), the community will move on to other areas of the web and the site will shrivel up and die. There is already an exodus currently taking place with many redditors beginning to populate Voat.co, a site eerily similar to reddit in almost every way with less controversy and more server issues (they’ve been down almost every day because of the amount of new users attempting to register).

MySpace and Digg are two of the biggest busts that come to mind. Digg, for example, was sold for around $500,000, a fraction of the $160 million it was thought to be worth at its height. reddit was born directly from Digg’s ashes like a phoenix, and like all things in the digital realm, it will have to adapt to changes in the technological landscape, respond to its community’s thoughts and concerns, remain open and transparent, and manage to avoid falling into the same mistakes that killed off its predecessors.

*Before your head explodes, I just want to address that reddit is lowercase)

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