The reddit Blackout Protest. Explained.

reddit isn't known for being the most accessible of platforms out there. But this comparatively ancient community site gives a stark representation as to the changing face of the internet. It shows the conflict between the average user, freedom of speech and monetisation. With a petition calling for the CEO to step down just passing 200,000 signatures, let's take a trip into the heart of one of the most grass roots organisations in the world and understand why.

So, what the hell is reddit?

reddit is essentially a social network mixed with an online bulletin board. Within it users can vote submissions up or down to determine its position on the page. Content is then respectively organised into ever more niche groups ("subreddits") - anything from r/gaming to r/mildyinfuriating. This voting system means that links of most interest are highlighted on the front page - representing trends during and before they actually happen.

With over 160 million unique users a month (take note, marketers!), the site is a powerhouse of activity. It can be a hub for some the most fascinating and unusual discussions and news stories around. It also has some of the darkest and most disturbing groups if one is inclined. 

Who is Ellen Pao?

Ellen Pao is the interim CEO of reddit, taking on the role in November 2014. Pao was also involved in one of the most prominent gender discrimination suits of recent times, and is an outspoken feminist. Both factors which, unfortunately, predispose many internet users against her. 

What's all the fuss about?

Recently the popular group r/IAmA was made private on the 2nd of July. This community was where users could ask a person of interest any question they like. It has hosted some fantastic conversations including: President Obama, Keanu Reeves and even an Amazon Warehouse worker

With no explanation many users were left confused. It was later revealed that Victoria Taylor, Director of Communication and moderator for the group, had been let go suddenly. As a prominent individual of the community this did not go down well. In an act of defiance a "blackout" was called, where over 700 other subreddits were made private, severely limiting user conversation.

It was then revealed that two other employees had recently been fired. One was David Croach, who had been suffering from leukaemia and who was fired for not being able to fulfil his role despite his pleas. The Guardian also suggested that Taylor was fired for pushing back on the commercialisation of the r/IAmA group. 

All this, along with some recent closure of certain offensive groups, has led users to fear that Pao is prioritising money over freedom of speech and the community. 

So, who's in the right?


Pao has already apologised for her handling of the Victoria situation and has agreed that clearer communication is needed. The step was a mess and it does bring to question her understanding of the community as a whole. In addition, there's a question as to whether at this point she can ever regain control. Networks can lose traffic very quickly - MySpace, Digg and Bebo to name a few. 

We screwed up. Not just on July 2, but also over the past several years. We haven’t communicated well, and we have surprised you with big changes. We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them. When you’ve had feedback or requests, we have often failed to provide concrete results. The mods and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of reddit.
— Ellen Pao

On the subject of her harsher moderation, the freedom and self-moderating aspects of reddit has helped produce and champion some of the best creative and thought provoking discussions of our time. Chances are, if you've seen a trend on the internet, it's either been developed by, or made mainstream through, the reddit community. Importantly, it's also helped those who feel isolated instead feel included. 

That said, where there's ultimate free speech there's going to be some ugly content. There are some pretty dreadful groups and communities - posting things that "cannot be unseen". Generally the site does also play host to a considerable number of chauvinists and bullies - and it's fair to say that a substantial amount of the hate towards Pao is further fuelled by sexism. 

Finally, without seeing the full numbers it's difficult to know how viable reddit is as a business. Some reddit users claim that her leadership has seen the site run into the ground, but Pao has said she is trying to make the site more viable for advertising. Either way, the future of reddit is currently murky and many, including me, just want to see it safeguarded from becoming yet another relic of the past. 

Want to find out more? This summary of the reddit incident can be found here.