Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ellen Pao Out At Reddit: The Search For The Perfect Villain

I've been rather busy with a number of issues lately IRL, so I had little to say about Ellen Pao's resignation from Reddit. Pao, you may recall, lost a high-profile sex discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, and was even obliged to pay part of their claimed legal expenses. Predictably, the gang at industry watering holes The Verge, Ars Technica, TechCrunch, and mainstream press like the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, eagerly painted a picture of the case somehow amounting to a blow against sex discrimination in Silicon Valley, even though it was in fact a resounding rejection of that premise. Pao came off as a conniving tool, looking to shiv her employer once the right moment presented itself; who keeps a running journal of slights, except someone determined to sue?

But lost amid the raucous and empty self-congratulation in the popped balloon of Pao's hopes was the fact that she ended up at Reddit after resigning from Kleiner Perkins, i.e. she had a real job at a troubled but sizable Internet company that needed turning around. Was she up to the job? One answer comes from the snarky #ChairmanPao hashtag around Twitter, which certainly reflects the high-handed attitude she took toward the users she was charged with serving and monetizing. Her resignation letter is both predictably politically biased and myopic, affecting a stiff upper lip while sniping at the user base. "'[S]everal users," she writes, "apologized for trolling me and for not giving me the benefit of the doubt when the troll hivemind moved against me" (emphasis mine).
So why am I leaving? Ultimately, the board asked me to demonstrate higher user growth in the next six months than I believe I can deliver while maintaining reddit’s core principles.
The "higher user growth" she complains of certainly wasn't helped when Reddit unceremoniously fired "Ask Me Anything" coordinator Victoria Taylor, who was apparently the glue keeping many disparate parts together. Many sub-Reddits went dark rather than continue operating without her, as much in protest as in recognition of Taylor's utility in keeping the freewheeling communities from derailing. Regardless of who pulled the trigger in Taylor's firing, it clearly touched a nerve with Redditors, 150,000 of whom signed an online petition to fire Pao.

It's important to recognize that because of Pao's symbolism, it's unlikely the press will view her as the incompetent, brittle hack her brief tenure at Reddit has exposed her to be; they need a villain to absolve her of anything like accountability. Gawker has framed it as a "misogynist tantrum". Hot Air hunted down a TechRaptor piece showing the New York Times almost completely rewrote their original, just-the-facts-ma'am story in favor of a spin cycle worthy of Maytag, changing the headline from "Ellen Pao Is Stepping Down as Reddit’s Chief" to "It’s Silicon Valley 2, Ellen Pao 0: Fighter of Sexism Is Out at Reddit". And most predictably, outrage-meister and perpetual beta male Arthur Chu ran straight for the charge of "terrorist" claiming Taylor's firing was "a fig leaf". But once we get past the hubbub of culture wars, Chu has one point that survives unscathed:
The problem is that Reddit has been trying to sell a false bill of goods to investors all this time—something that Ohanian and Huffman and other true believers still cling to against all evidence.

This is the idea that you can build a functional community without having to spend any money or effort to manage it—that it just happens spontaneously through the “wisdom of crowds.” The Web 2.0 dream has always been to outsource all of the hard jobs to your users—that unpaid enthusiasts will do all the work of creating your content, curating your content, and promoting your content out of love, and all you have to do is pay some techies to keep the lights on.
Which is to say, the residue of Netscape — the notion that one can create value by giving away something for free — remains a deeply animating force in Silicon Valley. Pao had a difficult job no matter who ran Reddit, and it's far from clear anyone can fix that company. But pretending she had no role in her own downfall there only serves a dead narrative.

Update 7/13/2015: Here's a fascinating backgrounder from Vanity Fair on Ellen Pao and her husband, Buddy Fletcher. Fletcher's career eerily mimics Pao's: precocious youth, an Ivy League education with multiple degrees, and financial success that turned out to be a house of cards. Fletcher's hedge fund collapsed, with Louisiana public employee pension funds suing to liquidate their positions. But more interestingly, he sued his New York City coop on racial discrimination grounds when they refused to allow him to buy a fourth apartment. The backgrounder also contains a detail I had previously missed in the fracas: Kleiner Perkins testified in the suit that "despite her claims to the contrary, Pao had never, during the five years in which she alleged she had been harassed and discriminated against, complained to anyone at the firm."

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