Monthly Archives: July 2015

Tim Hunt, Ellen Pao and the Reddit Debacle

A Letter to New Scientist

Ellen Pao at Reddit office

Ellen Pao (seated) at the offices of Reddit – formerly

The final straw was the New Scientist article by Soraya Chemaly, “The anti-social network” (25 July 2015) referring to Ellen Pao’s resignation from Reddit. The sub-title conveys the tenor of the piece: “The gender gap in the tech industry and on line attacks on women are inextricably linked“. I will leave aside that I find this assertion exceedingly improbable (one reason being that on line “attacks” on men are equally common). The salient points are these. Firstly, the article has nothing whatsoever to do with gender balance in technical fields. So how could it possibly be used to support the assertion? Moreover, on-line trolling was not a causal factor in Ellen Pao’s departure from Reddit in any case.

It would have been better by far if New Scientist had stayed out of the fetid world of gender politics. It seems New Scientist are determined to continue with this editorial policy. Essentially similar articles on Ellen Pao’s resignation from Reddit have appeared in the Guardian and The New Statesman. But with these august journals one knows what to expect. In contrast, it is surely incumbent upon New Scientist, if it must enter the gender political arena, to be objective, logical and unbiased. This article fails on all counts.

The double standards at work here are stark given that this comes hot on the heels of the Tim Hunt affair. Hunt actually was hounded out of his job by an angry Twitter mob, aided by the press, including, distressingly, New Scientist. In case you missed it, this is what Tim Hunt actually said in Seoul, South Korea, last month,

It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls?

Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.

No reasonable person could take exception to this. But to raise a Twitter storm, and the subsequent press mob, all you have to do is to miss out the first sentence and the second paragraph. Then you get the egregious misrepresentation exemplified by  Debora MacKenzie’s “What Nobel winner Tim Hunt’s sexist outburst actually tells us” in New Scientist on-line, (11 June 2015), and the dismissal of a perfectly decent man from his job. This article, which is so preposterous as to imply that Hunt was seriously suggesting gender-segregated labs, remains the only comment made in New Scientist on the Tim Hunt affair. For shame!

I repeat, no reasonable person could take exception to what Tim Hunt said. What we are dealing with here is a movement which seeks reasons for grievance in every nook and cranny. The grievance need not be genuine, it need only provide an excuse for claiming the scalp of another white man – the more prominent the man the better.  (No, it’s not me being racist, “senior white male” was the phrase Debora MacKenzie used). Hunt’s Nobel Prize did not protect him. It did the opposite. It made him a more valuable scalp.

But back to the Ellen Pao affair.

The article by Soraya Chemaly spins the story of Pao’s resignation from Reddit as if she had been hounded out by a gang of misogynistic young men. The people in question here are, of course, the customers of the Company of which Pao was interim CEO. It seems likely that Pao held her customers in no greater esteem than does Soraya Chemaly. When a CEO despises her Company’s customers, it isn’t going to end well. But I get ahead of myself. Here is the actual story.

Ellen Pao had been serving as Interim CEO of Reddit for two years when she was obliged to resign this month, July 2015. The resignation followed a petition from the user base, signed by more than 213,000 people, demanding she must go. It also followed a period in which Reddit was haemorrhaging users to alternative sites after Pao’s actions had seriously alienated its core user base. But neither of these were the most serious issue. The truly terminal issue was that the staff and moderators of Reddit virtually shut the service down, so bad had relations with the administration become.

In short, Pao had to go because she was either incompetent or deliberately intent on destroying the company. It does not quite align with Soraya Chemaly’s telling of the story, does it?

Who is Ellen Pao? She is a graduate of both  Princeton and Harvard with degrees in law and business. At 38 Pao was a junior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the most venerable venture-capital firm in Silicon Valley. A former corporate attorney, she has worked at several tech companies, including Microsoft. It is fair to say that, prior to joining Reddit, she had a foothold in the higher circles of the business world. What she was not was a techie.

I am a simple person. You are “in tech” if you are yourself a technical person, not if you merely make money out of technical people. Pao made money out of technical people. She was the boss. She was a lawyer and a business woman. She was not, in any sense I recognise, “a woman in tech”. So, to cast Pao in the role of a poor struggling “woman in tech” is completely false. She was a high powered business woman and lawyer.

Ellen Pao joined Reddit with gender political baggage. After five years with Kleiner Perkins, she left the company by raising a lawsuit, alleging that she had been the victim of sexual discrimination. It was thought that the settlement might reach astronomical figures, as high as $100 million, but she lost the suit. Moreover it was ruled that, despite 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.

As for Reddit itself, what must be admitted is that a great deal of what can be found on Reddit is really unsavoury stuff. I don’t use social media myself. I have looked in on Reddit only a couple of times. But that is not the point. The core ethos of Reddit is to provide a very uncensorious platform for the frank expression of views which may be unpopular. It upholds – or did uphold before Pao’s influence – a rigorous adherence to free speech, subject to some necessary legal restrictions. Reddit did not ban communities solely for featuring controversial content. It was accepted that the price you pay for this laissez-faire ethos is having to stomach the occasional troll reddit or morally questionable subreddits. And the reward Reddit has reaped for this open approach is a cool 165 million people using Reddit every month. This is the equivalent of the entire adult population of the UK using Reddit every 9 days.

Pao implemented policies to change this open approach, culminating in June in wholesale banning of certain subreddits. The user petition was raised in response to these actions. The petition expressed the matter thus,

Yesterday a new policy was implemented on Reddit and was put into action immediately. Many subscribers of the banned subreddits and others became enraged.  This petition, however, does not only concern that change, but the changes that have been made since Interim CEO Ellen Pao has been in charge. The new changes and new policies are in no doubt censorship which panders to a vocal minority. Advance Publications needs to fix this or risk irreversible harm to their international brand, Reddit Inc. Action must be taken to prevent Reddit from being further run into the ground.

The immediate effect of this censoring of certain subreddits was that users fled to alternative sites, such as the Swiss-based clone site Voat – which suddenly got so many people it couldn’t cope with the influx. Reddit’s hit rate was plummeting.

I suggest that if over 213,000 customers of any company demanded the CEO’s resignation and, in addition, a large proportion of customers had gone elsewhere in a matter of days, the CEO would find it tricky to remain. But even this did not lead immediately to Pao’s downfall.

What finally led to her downfall was crap communication and a failure to understand how the Reddit business works. Reddit is not like a traditional company. In a traditional company the boss has the workers by the balls (or whatever the female equivalent may be). If the workers do not do the boss’s bidding, they risk finding themselves unable to pay their rent. Reddit does not work like this because the key people, the subreddit moderators, are mostly unpaid. I guess they must be genuine techies – because I can’t imagine anyone else working for nothing. But this radically changes the power dynamic. It is the workers who hold the bosses by the balls in this situation because the workers are free to create havoc without any risk to themselves. The key thing in such a corporate setup is that the boss needs to be very nice to these people. They are, after all, working for free.

Pao failed to understand this.

For a long time before July 2015, the moderators had been unhappy: it all hinged upon crap communications from the top and lack of facilities to do their job well. You can get techies to work for no money, but they get really pissed off if they have to work without the right tools.

To appreciate the next turn of events, consider Jimmy Smithers. You know Jimmy. He’s the guy that everyone knows really runs the company. Only the Board don’t know that. That’s OK so long as the Board don’t do anything silly – like sacking Smithers. Oops – Reddit sacked Smithers – or, in this case, Victoria Taylor – Reddit’s director of talent. Taylor was one of the paid staff, and held in very high regard by the moderators. She effectively provided a link between the subreddit moderators and the Reddit administration, partly making up for the administration’s crap communication with the moderators. Taylor’s sacking was the final straw for many of the staff, paid or unpaid. The petition was updated to include the statement…

3 Jul 2015 — Today the reddit community has learned that Victoria has been let go from her job at Reddit. Victoria has been an essential part of Reddit that help subreddits such as /r/iama, /r/science, /r/books, /r/music run smoothly. Without Victoria, these subreddits can no longer run smoothly, or run at all for that fact, without Victoria. These subreddits, especially /r/iama, are huge traffic drivers for reddit that bring in tens of thousands of people all around the world. Without Victoria and these subreddits running smoothly, reddit is bound to lose more traffic and users. We cannot let Reddit continue on its downward path! Spread the word and speak up. We cannot have things like this happen, especially behind our back. There is no transparency here.

You will note that the concern of the staff/moderators is that the Reddit service is being wrecked by the actions of the management, and that these actions have been taken without warning the staff and without putting in hand arrangements to manage the change. This is not gender politics. It is just managerial incompetence.

The firing of Victoria Taylor led to a revolt among many subreddit moderators who proceeded to shut down hundreds of discussion boards in protest. Apologies from Ms. Pao and the company’s founder, Alexis Ohanian, were not enough. At this point Ellen Pao was obliged to resign. Only then did she make adverse comments about Reddit users. Only then did it become the nasty, misogynistic young men who were to blame.

I have no doubt that Pao did indeed receive abusive, even threatening, missives from the disgruntled user base. I do not condone such behaviour. Unfortunately with such a massive user base, 165 million per month, it is impossible to avoid there being a number of unpleasant fools. But at no point did trolling play a part in Pao’s downfall. The trolling was a symptom, not a cause. It became convenient to blame the trolls only after the event. In truth, Pao was the architect of her own downfall.

She was simply crap at her job.

The New Scientist article states that,

In the case of Pao, the first woman to run the company, user hostility was always likely.

Appeal is being made here to the reader’s readiness to believe that misogyny was at the heart of the revolt against Pao. But there is no reason to think so, and every reason to believe that the sex of the CEO was irrelevant. It was her actions which provoked the hostile reaction from users: her actions in banning certain subreddits and in sacking Victoria Taylor. That’s right – the wrath of the users, and the moderators, was invoked by the sacking of a woman. How on earth does this stack up with a claim that these nasty “young men” were motivated by hatred of women? They liked Victoria well enough to shut down much of the site in reaction to her dismissal. But then, Victoria was not exercising censorship – she was doing the opposite. She was opposing it.

And as regards the narrative of “sacking a woman in tech”, Victoria Taylor is a far better casting than Ellen Pao for the role of victim – and it was Pao and the Reddit management who did the sacking. How does this sit with Soraya Chemaly’s spin?

Why exactly is the feminist lobby so busy penning press articles pushing the line that this is a case of “a poor woman in tech being unfairly ousted by a bunch of nasty misogynistic young men”? The explanation lies in where gender politics enters this story. The place where gender politics really enters the picture is not with Pao’s sacking, but earlier – with the areas which the company was targeting for censorship.

This is what a regular user of Reddit, Hannah Wallen – yes, a woman – had to say to the administrators of the site,

I started using this site because I found it to be an effective and fun communication tool with which I could reach out to others who have similar interests. The ability to communicate openly and share information with a widespread user base was and is very valuable to me. Early on, under account names now defunct because I expressed political opinions someone didn’t like, I made personal connections that never would have happened had the site not existed. I formed friendships with people all over the world. I discovered whole communities with a variety of interests and opinions, and a place for discussion and debate that helped me expand my knowledge and sharpen my critical thinking skills and as a result, evolve my whole outlook on life.

And then something terrible happened.

I watched you reduce Reddit’s usefulness and comfortable openness with the addition of censorship tools armed and executed with political bias. I’ve seen you shadowban users for expressing disapproved opinions. I’ve seen you quietly eclipse or even delete discussions about disapproved topics. Simply put, I’ve watched the tools purportedly created to protect the site from spam get exploited as silencing tools to “protect” the site from open, meaningful discussion that might lead to conclusions which don’t jive with a specific worldview.

I’ve seen you selectively enforce rules of conduct depending on the political affiliation of the accused. I’ve seen you refuse to communicate with subreddit moderators, so that they cannot inform their subscribers on how to use the site without falling afoul of your increasingly limiting biases. I’ve seen you use arbitrary labelling to excuse banning links to small news sites based on whether or not they align with a specific worldview. Seeing you ban users for linking to news and research published on sites against which you have a political bias has been very disturbing. It indicates a sense of entitlement to manipulate public opinion by limiting what can be presented…

Multiply the concern expressed above by 213,000 and you have the nature of the user base’s anger. But what about the views of informed parties outside the user base?

The Wall Street Journal asked some knowledgeable people in the industry their opinion of what had led up to Pao’s resignation. Here are the responses,

Adele Cehrs, chief executive, Epic PR Group:

“Ellen Pao is not a victim, she is just a bad communicator. In times of a crisis, people want transparency, leadership and solutions. The trolls didn’t get Ms. Pao – she and her corporate cronies had vague responses to a very public decision on what is the most unforgiving platform on the Internet. No matter what type of community you are dealing with, you don’t say, as Ms. Pao did: ‘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…The mods and the community have lost trust in me and in us, the administrators of Reddit.’ Pao served herself and Reddit up on a silver platter to a community best known for devouring people’s reputations. While it’s unfair Ms. Pao received death threats, had her personal information posted and had racial slurs used to describe her…this is a classic case of not knowing your audience. As the company was being skewered…..things got worse when Reddit’s moderators took hundreds of subreddits down and made them private, virtually shutting down the site.

Richard Nicolazzo, managing partner, Nicolazzo & Associates:

“Given that the embodiment of Reddit’s business model is ‘communications,’ its initial management of this controversy was surprisingly inept. The firing of Ms. Taylor was clandestine at best, tossing the website into chaos and virtually shutting down moderated conversations. The first, official company apology was decent but left the Reddit universe wondering if the company actually has the ‘horsepower’ to effect meaningful change. Not only did she say the company ‘screwed up’ on the Taylor firing, but that the company was in general chaos. This is not how CEOs communicate. Her early posting was, in a word, juvenile. Overall, Reddit gets a ‘D’ for how it first handled communicating.

Mike Paul, the Reputation Doctor:

“Ellen Pao learned the hard way that blaming her downfall on Reddit’s own users and getting rid of popular discussion coordinator Victoria Taylor was like pouring gasoline on a fire. A true apology has no ifs or buts; she should have taken full responsibility for the problems at Reddit as interim CEO. The buck stopped with her. Blaming end users as well as a very popular employee, and not thinking from the end users’ point of view, was horrible stakeholder relations, a critical skill any good CEO should master. I give her grade of ‘F’ for her exiting comments and actions.

So where does all that leave Soraya Chemaly’s article in the New Scientist. This is the final paragraph which restates what she would have the reader believe,

Pao’s departure from Reddit illuminates the inextricable relationship between the persistent lack of diversity in science, tech and engineering, and a self-fulfilling and consequential enabling of online harassment of women and minorities.

The statement is false. Pao’s departure from Reddit has no relationship whatsoever with gender balance in STEM subjects. Moreover, the claim that there is any relationship between women-in-STEM and the phenomenon of on-line trolling is, at best, improbable, and, in any case, has no relevance to the Ellen Pao saga. It has no relevance because Pao never was a “woman in tech” and the on-line trolling played no essential role in her departure. Chemaly’s article is propaganda, not reporting.

So why is the feminist lobby so busy penning press articles presenting Pao as a victim of nasty misogynists? The reason, of course, is that the feminist lobby approved of – and were possibly behind – the censorship which Reddit were attempting to implement. This is an ideology which believes in silencing dissent, and nowhere is dissent from the dominant feminist narrative so prevalent as on Reddit. And that is why the feminists are so cross – this is a battle they started but lost – and they are not accustomed to that.