In a classic New Yorker cartoon, a short, round minister stands atop a tall, thin cathedral lectern surrounded by the soaring, narrow columns of the church. One churchgoer whispers to another “The problem is that the reverend doesn’t harmonize with the edifice.” Was Ellen Pao’s departure from Reddit really the result of a philosophical conflict the organization or its members? Or is the real problem a wayward brand running out of control?
Ellen Pao’s resignation from Reddit has been chalked up to many things. A malicious user revolt fomented by an ill-planned firing of a much-loved moderator. A conflict with the board regarding user growth expectations. Misogyny.
To provide a quick summary, an online chat with the Reverend Jesse Jackson devolved into what The Atlantic called “a mess of incendiary and offensive questions, incoherent answers, and a highly contentious argument over race relations.” While Reddit denies the connection, the moderator overseeing this was quickly ousted, which led to a fiery user uprising highlighted by sexist, racist vitriol against Pao. A few days later, Pao resigned.
Given Pao’s issues with Kleiner-Perkins, misogyny seems the most convenient reason for Pao’s problems. It’s also the most misleading. While the outbursts made by some members of the overwhelmingly-male site were offensive and misogynistic, their sensationalism overwhelm the simpler story: Reddit is a brand out of control.
Brand management today involves several factors, not the least of which is how you choose to bring the brand to life. With one of Reddit’s key brand aspects being smart, free and open discourse, it has become a lively forum for aggregating opinion… but with a clear downside. As noted by Marley Jay at Inc.com, “Reddit is known for an almost-anything goes style, but leadership said in May that it was unhappy with harassment on its site and survey data showed its users were also upset about the behavior.”
Here’s the issue: in its ambition to encourage free speech, Reddit has allowed the community to define the brand to the degree that it has been hijacked by a minority of its members. So the real problem is poor brand management. If the proper proactive brand management standards had been in place, most of the Reddit’s reactive problems could have been avoided. But what could Reddit have done… and what can it do in the future?
Establish clear standards and guidelines.
Social media is a fitful territory to travel, often characterized as the Wild West. But even the Wild West learned you had to establish rules.
What’s amazing today – in light of such things as online harassment, bullying, et al – is that social media arbiters don’t seem to understand that freedom of speech also allows setting the rules for civil discourse. One doesn’t exclude the other. To use a crude analogy, while we should all feel free to walk down the street, we should NOT feel free to shit in it.
In our opinion, without guidelines, social media is just media, words lacking the framework and discipline required for productive social conversation. In fact, it seems that Reddit agrees with this, saying “Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform.” They want to support this with a real content policy and better moderation tools.
The problem is, they moved in this direction bass-ackwards. Rather than starting with firing the moderator, it would have been more productive to establish standards first, in conjunction with the majority of the community that supports better discourse, then phase out the objectionable areas. Any parent knows that you explain what is expected as proper behavior first, then dole out the punishment. If you don’t, you get a pissed-off kid who has no idea what is going on… which is precisely what happened.
There’s a great line in an old Goldie Hawn movie when her character becomes frustrated by a father who tries to get his daughter to behave by reasoning with her versus simply telling her what to do. After five minutes, she asks “Who’s the grownup around here?” The same goes in the Reddit case: someone needs to take real responsibility for ensuring the proper standards are met and – if you don’t comply – hit the road. Already Reddit is seeing an exodus of some of the trolls to sites like Voat, which – in hindsight – we suspect will be seen as good thing.
Value and acknowledge ALL your assets properly.
The life’s blood of Reddit is the many unpaid moderators (“subredditors”) who ensure conversations stay on course. In Reddit’s case, these people haven’t been valued properly, with Pao acknowledging “We have apologized and made promises to you… over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them.” Reddit has hit the point of no return with this group: this time around, they will have to walk the talk. Once the standards are established, the moderators and the community will need to be communicated with and provided the proper tools to succeed. This will require some heavy lifting on Reddit’s part; it’s no simple process. But if they do it right – and empower everyone appropriately – Reddit can come out even stronger than before.
Be transparent, including answering the simple question “Why are we doing this?”
In the end, it seems that Reddit’s biggest problems are related to poor proactive planning and lack of transparency. But if they literally plan the work with their members, then clearly explain the path they are taking, they will win.
A brand is a living thing. Like a child, it changes as it grows up and can take many paths. It can fall prey to bad influences and bad experiences that can lead to a wayward route. But that can be corrected with a firm hand, a sensible and sensitive approach and a roadmap to keep it on course. Pao was a good choice to help it down its path by identifying the problem areas. As Reddit itself said, “She brought focus to chaos.” But the company now needs an experienced team that knows what it takes to grow a brand.