If the chaos at Reddit has done one good thing, it's shaken out some relatively candid opinions from its current and former executives. Ellen Pao, who stepped down as CEO of the company last week, has now written an editorial for The Washington Post, explaining the problems with moderating any internet community. As for the solutions? Whether you want communities to preserve absolute free speech or police the trolls, Pao suggests you probably won't be satisfied.
As Pao bluntly puts it, "the trolls are winning" online. "The foundations of the internet were laid on free expression, but the founders just did not understand how effective their creation would be for the coordination and amplification of harassing behavior," she writes. "Or that young people would come to see this bullying as the norm — as something to emulate in an effort to one-up each other." Pao herself has been the subject of unusually intense hatred from Redditors, including messages that board member Sam Altman called "sickening." She's since said that other Redditors' messages of support have helped balance the threats and insults.
"The trolls are winning."
Now that she's no longer in charge of Reddit, Pao seems a little more open about the nearly intractable problems it (and other communities) faces, especially when they're expected to make money. "Expecting internet platforms to eliminate hate and harassment is likely to disappoint," writes Pao. Automated systems and mistakes will erode trust, even if they rarely screw up. "No one has figured out the best place to draw the line between bad and ugly — or whether that line can support a viable business model." In short, the hands-off approach will let trolls run rampant. But the hands-on approach will either shut down meaningful discussion or let horrible things slip through. There's no winning, unless you're a troll yourself. All Reddit can do is muddle through.
New Reddit CEO Steve Huffman will be taking questions on new policy guidelines today, so it's possible we'll see Pao's arguments tested very soon.