Reddit has been having a rough couple of weeks, and things show no signs of letting up. Two weeks ago its moderators went into revolt after the firing of Victoria Taylor, a popular staffer who helped run the site's Ask Me Anything section. Around 1AM today, the news broke that its chief engineer, Bethanye Blount, was stepping down. She told our sister site, Recode, that in her opinion Reddit could not "deliver on promises being made to the community" and that former CEO Ellen Pao, who resigned last week, was basically set up to fail, or in Blount's words, pushed off a "glass cliff."
At the heart of this internal strife is a struggle for control over AMA, Reddit's most valuable section. AMA has hosted Q&A sessions with luminaries from the worlds of science, sports, and entertainment. When you have a platform that sitting US presidents want to be a part of, it makes sense to focus on it.
"[Alexis] is not taking control of AMA."
Back in May, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian took the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt to announce the launch of a new video division. Two former Verge staffers, Stephen Greenwood and Jordan Oplinger, would be in charge. All three had worked on our web series, Small Empires. The group would create films to highlight stories from Reddit, and its first focus would be the AMA. At the Code Conference a few weeks later, Pao said that the video division belonged to Ohanian and that he would be responsible for creating its content.
The Verge reached out to Reddit last night with questions about the changes. "[Ohanian] is not taking control of AMA," said spokeswoman Ashley Dawkins by email. "Alexis only personally involved himself to the extent that he can help clean up the mess made when we poorly announced the transition."
"It was my decision to change how we work with AMAs."
In a comment on Reddit, however, Ohanian stated, "It was my decision to change how we work with AMAs, and the transition was my failure, and I hope we can keep moving forward from that lesson." This conflicts with the idea that he came in only after the firing of Taylor. Many in the Reddit community interpreted his statement as an admission that it was his decision, not Pao's, to fire Taylor.
Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong has endorsed this narrative. He left a post on the site accusing Ohanian of firing Taylor and throwing Pao under the bus. "When the hate-train started up against Pao, Alexis should have been out front and center saying very clearly ‘Ellen Pao did not make this decision, I did,’" wrote Wong. "Instead, he just sat back and let her take the heat. That's a stunning lack of leadership and an incredibly shitty thing to do."
Ohanian and new CEO Steve Huffman, along with a Reddit spokeswoman contacted for this story, have all issued profuse public apologies on Reddit. The essence of their apology is that the transition at AMA and communication around the firing of Taylor were handled poorly.
Trying to turn celebrities into regular Reddit users
What remains unexplained is why exactly Taylor was fired and why Pao was allowed to take the fall. According to Dawkins, the company is "phasing out Reddit's role in-between interesting people and the Reddit audience so we can help these remarkable folks become active Redditors." Essentially, Reddit wants the celebrities who do AMAs to become active members of the site. "We’re hiring a talent relations liaison, and in the interim, our director of outreach and creative projects manager are picking up the slack," she explained by email. She also emphasized that Ohanian would not be taking control of day to day AMA activity and that video was an optional complement to each Q&A session.
Many in the community have wondered if the changes at AMA are a precursor at attempts to monetize the site's most well-known section. Reddit has taken on venture capital funding and is trying to find ways to generate more revenue from its enormous user base and even larger web audience. The most lucrative medium for online advertising today is video.
Reddit mods concerned about pay-to-play AMAs
The moderators in charge of AMA share this speculation. When declaring they would no longer work with Reddit's internal team, they expressed discomfort with the idea of monetizing their section and stated that it was "essential to ensure that money is not changing hands at any point in the procedure which is necessary for /r/IAmA to remain equal and egalitarian."
So where does that leave us? Something in the transition around AMA precipitated the firing of Taylor, and subsequently the departure of Reddit's CEO and chief engineer. It's now left to Ohanian and Huffman to try and mend relations with the site's volunteer moderators and move forward with the tricky task of turning an unruly community into a viable business.