After user revolt, Ellen Pao is out as Reddit interim CEO

Pao, a polarizing figure in Silicon Valley after a high-profile gender discrimination suit, stepped down as the leader of the popular social-networking and news site after hundreds of thousands called for her to resign.

Terry Collins Staff Reporter, CNET News
Terry writes about social networking giants and legal issues in Silicon Valley for CNET News. He joined CNET News from the Associated Press, where he spent the six years covering major breaking news in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before the AP, Terry worked at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Kansas City Star. Terry's a native of Chicago.
Terry Collins
5 min read

Interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao resigned over differences with the social-news site's board members. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao has stepped down after controversy involving a political firing of a key staffer and debates over free speech on the popular Internet message board.

Pao resigned after reaching a mutual decision with the company's board of directors, Reddit board member Sam Altman said Friday. Steve Huffman, Reddit co-founder and the company's original CEO, takes over immediately, Altman said.

Pao came under scrutiny at the San Francisco-based community forum site after an online petition that began in June called for her resignation. Users accused her of ushering in "a new age of censorship," as the petition collected more than 200,000 signatures. The drive was preceded by the debated removal of five community forums, known as subreddits, as part of the company's newly adopted antiharassment policy, and the sudden firing of a well-respected key administrator.

Pao, 45, said in a post on Reddit on Friday that in her eight months as the company's CEO, she's seen "the good, the bad and the ugly," on the site, mentioning that the good has been "off-the-wall inspiring," and the ugly "made me doubt humanity."

"I just want to remind everyone that I am just another human; I have a family, and I have feelings. Everyone attacked on reddit is just another person like you and me," she said. "When people make something up to attack me or someone else, it spreads, and we eventually will see it. And we will feel bad, not just about what was said.

"Also because it undercuts the authenticity of reddit and shakes our faith in humanity."

Read: Pao's resignation letter from Reddit

Pao's departure comes as Reddit and many of the world's largest social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, attempt to strike the right balance for users between uninhibited speech and a more controlled climate from abusive, racist and pornographic content by introducing new policies. Social networks have spent the past decade working behind the scenes to police their sites.

In an interview with CNET, Altman rejected the suggestion that Reddit is struggling to control its community. Instead, he attributed their outrage to the company's communications.

"I think there are clearly users who are really upset by the lack of attention to moderators...and the communication of the company," said Altman, who has also defended Pao's contributions as interim CEO.

Users who commented on Pao's resignation letter, which was posted on Reddit, agreed. One, posting under the name 1millionbucks, said Pao "interacted with the community more in this post than in her entire tenure as CEO."

Though some were supportive, many others cracked jokes at her expense, often referencing her high-profile lawsuit.

Some Reddit users were critical of Ellen Pao, even after she resigned as CEO. Reddit

Altman said Pao brought focus to chaos at Reddit and recruited a world-class team of executives and drove growth.

"She brought a face to reddit that changed perceptions, and is a pioneer for women in the tech industry," said Altman, adding that Pao will remain as an adviser to the board through the end of 2015. During an "Ask Me Anything" session later Friday with members, Altman said Pao walked into an incredibly tough situation.

"She made some mistakes, for sure, but I think she did remarkably well in a very tough situation. And Steve is happy to be taking the baton for her here," he said.

Huffman is currently the co-founder of the flight and hotel startup Hipmunk. He founded Reddit in 2005 with his college roommate Alexis Ohanian. Reddit has grown to become one of the most visited sites on the Web. It's been called "the front page of the Internet," for people who are drawn to its free-for-all style where they can share or say nearly whatever they want, whenever they want.

That emphasis has attracted a diverse array of voices who've weighed in on everything from politics to food to sports and everything else imaginable. It's also attracted audiences larger than most countries. Nearly 164 million people visited the site in June, 3 million of whom logged in as members who can post and comment. More than 36 million accounts have registered on its service, according to the company.

Altman said that Reddit members deserve clarity on what its content policy is going to be.

"The team will create guidelines to both preserve the integrity of reddit and to maintain reddit as the place where the most open and honest conversations with the entire world can happen," he said.

Altman also told CNET that to repair its relationship with users, Reddit should begin delivering on product changes that the community has called for, including a mobile app.

Pao joined Reddit as its business and partnerships strategist in April 2013, a year after she filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against prestigious venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. That lawsuit made her a household name in the tech industry while reigniting the debate over Silicon Valley's treatment of women and minorities. Pao sought $16 million on accusations she was fired in 2012 after complaining about pervasive sexism. A San Francisco jury in March rejected her claim, but Pao has intimated she intends to appeal the verdict.

All the while, Pao continued doing her job at Reddit, even being promoted to interim CEO of the site in November 2014.

That changed in early June when Reddit banned five community forums, claiming it violated a new antiharassment policy and had caused some people to shy away from the site. Some users cried foul, arguing the site was straying from its roots as a champion of free speech.

Tensions flared again in July after moderators discovered Reddit had fired Victoria Taylor, the site's popular director of talent and quasi-liaison between the company and volunteer moderators. She had run the popular Ask Me Anything "subreddit," a section that allow Reddit users to engage in real-time Q&A sessions. Celebrities ranging from Bill Gates to Elon Musk and even President Barack Obama have participated in the format.

In response to Taylor's abrupt dismissal, moderators shut access to dozens of subreddits, each of which had tallied millions of subscribers.

Pao eventually apologized. She said Reddit "screwed up," and admitted the company had made "a long history of mistakes" communicating with its community. She said the company vowed to make changes in three key areas: tools, communication and search.

Altman reiterated that in his post on Friday.

"(Moderators), you are what makes reddit great," he said. "The reddit team, now with Steve, wants to do more for you. You deserve better moderation tools and better communication from the (administration)."

Huffman also posted that he was "super excited" to be back.

"It's been a crazy day," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do. Fortunately, I've got five years of ideas stacked up, and I'm looking forward to getting to work."

Update, 3:45 p.m. PT: With comments from Altman and Huffman.

-CNET's Max Taves contributed to this report.