If you're looking for an example of just how grim things are over at Reddit, CEO Ellen Pao's mea culpa is a perfect place to start.
This afternoon, Pao posted a 335-word apology for Reddit's “long history of mistakes” over the past few years, in the wake of a holiday weekend crisis in which prominent subreddits were closed off to the public by moderators. The subreddit blackout was in response to Reddit's dismissal of community moderator and employee Victoria Taylor, who championed, among other things, Reddit's popular “Ask Me Anything” community. In her apology, Pao laid out some steps the company plans to take to help moderators, including better search, employee support, and new community moderation tools.
“I know these are just words, and it may be hard for you to believe us. I don't have all the answers, and it will take time for us to deliver concrete results,” Pao wrote. “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.”
Far more illustrative of Reddit's quagmire, though, is the community's response to Pao's apology.
The first — and most upvoted — comment rips Pao for her decision to give a statement on the recent controversy to “third-party newsfeeds,” including BuzzFeed, before first addressing it on Reddit itself. Pao responded privately to the commenter, noting that “it was hard to communicate on the site, because my comments were being downvoted. I did comment here and was communicating on a private subreddit. I'm here now.”
The inability of Reddit's executive leadership to get a statement of remorse past the vindictive downvoting squad of irate redditors is yet another sign that the organization is not only facing an open rebellion from its community, but perhaps losing it as well.
Reddit's decision last month to moderate its content and shut down some of its most dangerous committees was met with a protest, in which the site's homepage was defaced with crude images of Pao as well as content from r/fatpeoplehate, one of the banned communities. It took hours for the site to gain control of its homepage. Similarly, Pao's admission that Reddit's inability to wrangle its own community forced it reach out to third-party media outlets to explain last weekend's crisis suggests the company's leadership has lost control of a site that is literally unraveling before our very eyes.
Indeed, as of this morning, a Change.org petition to replace Ellen Pao as CEO of Reddit has amassed over 190,000 signatures; in late June the petition had roughly 10,000 signatures. That the vast majority of signatures were collected following Taylor's dismissal demonstrates that a large and growing swath of redditors believe it's time for an executive change.
Reddit's problems are innumerable, ranging from the site's underbelly of vile, hateful, and fast-growing communities to its frustrated, underserved base of volunteer moderators to the site's current ideological existence as a shrine to the early internet’s naïveté. Yet all of those seemingly intractable problems pale in comparison to its biggest failure: the site's profound inability to lead its own community. A Reddit with weak leadership and tenuous authority might be dangerous, but a Reddit with no leadership and no authority is untenable.