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Reddit board member Sam Altman calls treatment of Ellen Pao 'sickening'

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Interim CEO Ellen Pao is out at Reddit, and while the departure has reportedly been characterized as amicable, the weeks leading up to this moment have been anything but that. Pao has been the subject of vitriol from an angry coalition of Reddit users who have relentlessly mocked and denigrated her, often using sexist, vicious language, over disagreements about the company's recent decisions. In a statement made on Reddit, board member Sam Altman addressed this streak of obnoxious behavior, calling Pao's treatment "sickening."

"As a closing note, it was sickening to see some of the things Redditors wrote about Ellen," Altman said. "The reduction in compassion that happens when we're all behind computer screens is not good for the world. People are still people even if there is internet between you."

"People are still people even if there is internet between you."

Altman challenged Reddit's hostile users further and suggested the site's future could be compromised if it continues to host such aggressive and demeaning behavior. "If the Reddit community cannot balance authenticity and compassion, it may be a great website but it will never be a great community," Altman said. For weeks, Reddit users have used extreme insults against Pao, comparing her to tyrants. Several attempts were made to associate her name with the Nazi flag in search engines.

Much of the hateful behavior directed toward Pao has been in response to Reddit's attempt to clean up its community, even though its actions tend to be far milder than those taken by social networks in similar positions. Pao became the subject of intense criticism after Reddit decided to ban several of its communities, including a community called "Fat People Hate," after receiving many complaints that members of those communities were using them as a base to harass others outside of Reddit.

It's telling that Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who is heavily involved in all of Reddit's operations, did not receive any measure of vitriol close to what Pao received. The difference in treatment of the company's executives is especially significant because of the difference in their response to criticism; Pao's response was purely deferential and apologetic, while Ohanian was sarcastic at times.

"I have a family, and I have feelings."

In a goodbye letter posted to Reddit, Pao echoed Altman's comments, writing that in her eight months as Reddit's CEO she has seen the good, bad, and ugly. "I just want to remind everyone that I am just another human," Pao wrote. "I have a family, and I have feelings. Everyone attacked on Reddit is just another person like you or me."

"It undercuts the authenticity of Reddit and shakes our faith in humanity," Pao wrote.

Ironically, critics who launched sexist attacks on Pao were upset that she fired a woman named Victoria Taylor, citing Pao's gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins as a source of hypocrisy. To rectify the grievance, Pao's critics may have successfully driven another woman out of her job.