Reddit CEO Pao apologizes as Pao-must-go petition gathers steam

Critics say Ellen Pao is fostering censorship that will destroy the community-curated news site. Reddit issues mea culpa, saying it's "screwed up" for years.

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.
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Update, July 10 at 3:20 p.m. PT: Interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao stepped down Friday after controversy over the firing of a key staffer and debates over free speech on the popular Internet message board.

Ellen Pao, interim CEO at Reddit, is under fire from the site's volunteer moderators unhappy with her leadership. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao has issued a no-nonsense apology to users of the popular website: "We screwed up."

Pao on Monday took to Reddit to address an issue that flared up over the weekend after the company fired a popular administrator, and used the opportunity to say sorry for problems that date back years.

Meanwhile, an online petition launched three weeks ago calling for her resignation now lists more than 190,000 signatures, just shy of the 200,000 milestone. That number represents about 1 percent of the nearly 164 million visitors Reddit tallied in June, 3 million of whom logged into the service. Reddit said more than 36 million accounts have registered on its service.

In her post, Pao acknowledged missteps reaching back "over the past several years. We haven't communicated well, and we have surprised moderators and the community with big changes," the post reads. "Today, we acknowledge this long history of mistakes." She also vowed to make changes in three key areas: tools, communication and search.

The Change.org petition accuses Pao of ushering in "a new age of censorship" on the community-curated news site and adds that some users worry that Pao will "run Reddit into the ground." It also buys into an unfavorable characterization of Pao stemming from her high-profile discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, venture capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers -- calling her "a manipulative individual who will sue her way to the top." The petition started gaining steam on Friday, a day after Reddit fired Victoria Taylor, one of Reddit's high-profile staffers.

Pao has the "full support of the team," her spokeswoman, Heather Wilson, said in response to the petition.

Emotions flared up last week after moderators learned Reddit had fired Taylor. Reddit's director of talent, she was responsible for overseeing the popular Ask Me Anything "subreddit," a section that allows Reddit users to engage in real-time Q&A sessions. Notables ranging from Bill Gates to President Obama to Arnold Schwarzenegger have participated in the format. Taylor also acted as liaison of sorts between the company's employees and its volunteer moderators. In response to Taylor's abrupt departure, moderators have made dozens of subreddits -- each with several million subscribers -- private, redirecting readers to a static landing page.

Pao has been a polarizing figure in Silicon Valley since seeking $16 million from Kleiner Perkins, alleging she was fired in 2012 after complaining about pervasive sexism. A jury in March rejected her claim, but Pao has said she intends to appeal the verdict.

The latest incident put a spotlight on moderators' ongoing concerns, Reddit moderator Gilgamesh explained in an online post.

"As much as Victoria is loved, this reaction is not all a result of her departure: there is a feeling among many of the moderators of reddit that the admins do not respect the work that is put in by the thousands of unpaid volunteers who maintain the communities of the 9,656 active subreddits, which they feel is expressed by, among other things, the lack of communication between them and the admins, and their disregard of the thousands of mods who keep reddit's communities going," Gilgamesh wrote.

It appears that the company is paying attention.

"We appreciate all [that moderators] do for reddit and are putting in place a system for better and more continuous dialogue with them and our community," Pao said in an email. "We want to make reddit a great place for everyone and moderators are critical to this."

Editors' note: This story was originally published July 5 at 9:40 a.m. PT. It was updated several times with new tallies for the petition, Reddit comment in reaction to the petition, and most recently with Ellen Pao's apology.