An online petition calling for Reddit CEO Ellen Pao to be sacked now has more than 200,000 electronic signatures.
The protest began last week when hundreds of Reddit's popular sections, known as subreddits, were set to "private" by moderators, who oversee postings and comments. By changing the status to "private," the volunteer moderators essentially closed their subreddits to users.
The protest was kicked off by the firing of Victoria "chooter" Taylor, a paid employee hired in 2013 to oversee one of the most popular sections of Reddit, known as AMAs (ask me anything). AMAs have hosted online Q&As with celebrities, such as actor Bryan Cranston, and world leaders, such as Barack Obama. Yeah, the AMA subreddit also hosted a conversation with a man who had two penises.
Taylor, whose title was director of talent, was in charge of organizing online AMAs and was the go-between for moderators. Her firing literally left the moderators "in the lurch," they wrote in posts.
On Sunday, Pao apologized for her handling of Taylor's firing as well as for not doing more to help Reddit's all-volunteer moderators.
Pao told National Public Radio that Reddit is working on improving tools for moderators and is adding more paid staff to help out. She announced Kristine Fasnacht, Reddit's community manager, will take on the duty a liaison between moderators and staff.
One moderator described Taylor's dismissal as having "the rug pulled ripped out from under us" and having been "betrayed."
Taylor's dismissal, which has never been fully explained by Pao, was the last straw in a long line of complaints from moderators, most of which center on a lack of communication from Reddit's leadership.
If you've not visited Reddit or are not familiar with how it's run, the website's data center and staff are located in San Francisco but the website is overseen by a large cadre of online volunteers who manage hundreds of subreddit sections that run the gamut from "worldnews" and "technology" to "memes" and "music."
Larry Chiagouris, a professor of marketing at Pace University's Lubin School of Business in New York, said while Pao may be a brilliant strategist, she has "never managed large groups of people before.
"The first thing she should have done upon becoming the head is to bring on someone who complements her skillset," Chiagouris said in an email reply to Computerworld. "Someone who can be the ombudsman and sensitive sounding board to the moderators and community members so that she could concentrate on strategy."
A sex discrimination lawsuit that Pao brought against former employer Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers may have also tainted the Reddit community's image of the executive, Chiagouris said. A jury found in favor of Kleiner Perkins, but Pao is appealing the decision.
Another news aggregation forum, Digg.com, also holds a critical lesson for websites like Reddit that depend on their online communities to determine their content and popularity: Don't tick off your user base.
Within two years of going live in 2006, Digg was the darling of the Internet, with 29.1 million unique visitors monthly and an estimated value of $160 million (not including $45 million in venture capital funding). By 2010, Digg's popularity was waning. Its monthly unique visitors had dropped to 9.2 million (still impressive), one-third of what it once boasted. In 2012, the Digg website and technology was sold off to Betaworks for an estimated $500,000.
Today, Digg gets about 3.8 million unique visits a month, according to web traffic measuring site Quantcast, and is ranked the 918th most popular site in the world. Reddit is ranked 33rd and has 160 million unique visitors per month. In the U.S., Reddit is the ninth most popular website.
Digg's fast fall from grace is attributed by many to the website's changing its user experience and ignoring complaints from visitors that "power users," or those with immense posting and commenting popularity, controlled too much of the content that made up the site's front page.
Chiagouris said what happened to Digg could "easily happen to Reddit."
On Reddit, moderators act as free labor, policing the site for inappropriate text and image submissions, trolls, hateful comments, or "brigades" of users who collaborate to control subreddits' content. A moderator's only reward is social status among peers.
One complaint by moderators is that Reddit has not provided them with tools to answer user questions and manage their subreddits.
The moderators of the popular AskReddit section, for example, have threatened to shut down their subreddit on Dec. 31 if Reddit doesn't provide new tools for managing it.
"The admins have given us their word. If by September 23, we do not see the changes they promised (and they have not given us good communication as to why this has been happening), we will send them a written warning that we are planning on closing," the moderators wrote.
Additionally, while Reddit makes some money from ad revenue and sponsored posts, it is not profitable. As Reddit attempts to generate revenue, the moderators are concerned it will become too commercialized, and paid content could become a more common revenue source.
"They are concerned that the approach taken might not be to their liking," Chiagouris said. "However, if Reddit doesn't find a way to monetize itself soon, it will be a non-issue as Reddit will cease to exist."
To stay alive, Chiagouris said, it will have to accept a financial infusion from a large tech entity that can find synergy between what it does and what Reddit does.
"Think Apple or Amazon or even Google," he said.