Reddit’s leadership failures and what we can learn from them

I first got on to Reddit mainly because my friends were on it and I wanted a new way to relate to them. Some of my friends are really attached to this social networking site where users submit links to content from around the web or simply post their own thoughts. Users up- and down-vote content and that is how its popularity and visibility is gauged. Beyond a few subreddits that I check from time-to-time, I haven’t gotten sucked into the website very much. It’s fun, but it’s hard for me to relate to people virtually, I’d rather do it face-to-face.

With that said, something happened last week that surprised me. I visited a subreddit that I occasion, and it was set to private. I wasn’t sure why. As I looked around the front page, I noticed that there was major fallout between Reddit’s users, the volunteer moderators that run the individual subreddits, and the site’s leadership. In what is apparently just more evidence of Reddit’s management’s inability to communicate with its volunteers and users, one of Reddit’s key staff people, Victoria Taylor, was fired. Victoria is an important person in the Reddit world. Arguably, Reddit owes much of its popularity to its AMA subreddit. An AMA is an “Ask Me Anything,” wherin users can ask celebrities, politicians, and other people anything they wish. Victoria helped facilitate those threads that have thousands of replies, and also sometimes assisted the celebrity in typing up his or her replies. She also verified that, in fact, it was the person in question replying and not some autobot or a fake name. When management fired Victoria, it was nearly impossible for r/AMA to function. That subreddit along with many, many others, went black for twenty-four hours. That is, they were set to private. (That explains why I was blocked out of my favorite subreddit.)

Seemingly to do damage control, Ellen Pao, Reddit’s CEO started explaining her story to news outlets and eventually

Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao

offered a limp, and self-deprecating apology, to its community members. Apparently, her apology didn’t work. Users felt taken advantage of, misunderstood, and continued to distribute a petition for Pao’s ousting. The moderators of r/AMA went to the New York Times with to explain their rage. The petition got over 200,000 signatures and by Friday of last week, Pao had resigned.

I don’t think most of you care about Reddit politics. But, with its community of users, hundreds of volunteers running the subreddits, and a minimal staff, I couldn’t help but compare Reddit to the church. I learned a few things from my brief observance.

We need a covenant rooted in love and dialogue, not a series of rules. Reddit has “reddiquette,” a list of simply rules by which users abide. The theory goes: harmony should ensue, if the right rules are in place. But the rule of law just isn’t enough to save us. Not even Reddit. Though the rules are well thought out, to me, there needs to be dialogue and relationships that communicate these norms. Ellen’s apology contained a list of rules that would supposedly keep this kind of thing from happening! But we’re all addicted to sin and conflict will happen. Rules can’t govern that addiction and subsequent conflict. An alternative to a rule-based world? A covenant of love, one where we agree to serve Jesus and love one another, giving from what we have.

An overfunctioning staff person is a sign of trouble; a team of leaders is better. I don’t know why Victoria was fired. But I do know that having someone in your system that, if removed, causes that kind of upheaval, is a problem. Leadership is a team effort. No sole person should have the authority to fire someone, nor should a single person carry the kind of power that implodes one’s system if said person is removed. We need to empower others, not consolidate power. For Christians who pray, and who receive our true power from Jesus and the Holy Spirit, we have this kind empowerment modeled to us. We can mimic it in our daily life too.

If major changes are coming, have a narrative. One of the biggest problems Reddit users are having is that there is no story behind Victoria’s firing. All we have is rumors. When Ellen finally reached out to users to apologize, she beat herself up and confessed her bad communication. I felt sorry for her. But I didn’t think it was great for her to focus on herself and the rules she was making to solve her problems. She needs to relate to her users like they are real people (a tall order for an online forum) and explain the narrative. Cryptically firing someone without a narrative is a great way to develop distrust, and Reddit leadership now has earned the distrust of their users in spades. One friend told me, the apology isn’t enough because we don’t know why Victoria was fired. Leaders, and Christian leaders, need to master story telling, just like Jesus. The story compels them and creates buy in.

Similarly, if a big change is coming, be prepared to talk something into it. The rumor is that Victoria opposed the monetization of the website. It’s hard to know if that’s true. Whether or not one disagrees with it, if a major philosophical change is coming, one that will disrupt the system, you can expect howls of protest. Leaders need to expect that, and start communicating. That’s a way to ease anxiety as homeostasis is disrupted. The more “behind closed doors” the decision is, especially when it affects millions of people, is, the more likely the fallout will be unmanageable. Reddit tried and failed at damage control. Leaders need a plan of action when big changes are coming, and need to be prepared to dialogue. In the case of Reddit, when leadership failed to do it, the same old guys returned to power (Steve Huffman, a founder, is now CEO).

Honesty, I think Ellen abjectly failed. But I do not envy her position. I think she was trying to make changes that would Reddit more sustainable for the future. However, I wish she would have spoken more, empowered others more, coming up with a narrative, and not relied on impersonal rules to lead her community. I am thankful Circle of Hope has a covenant, a leadership team, and is rooted a Spirit-driven, prayerful dialogue at its heart.

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