Less than a week after resigning "by mutual agreement" from her post as Interim CEO of the popular Internet forum network Reddit, Ellen Pao has penned a thoughtful opinion article in the Washington Post.
Optimism shines through the writing, which highlights harassment faced by Pao alongside support she's received. Eventually, Pao's hope is that "the humans" can win over "the trolls" — even with screens in between all of us. Though, in Pao's words, she has "just endured one of the largest trolling attacks in history," she has also "been blessed with the most astonishing human responses to that attack."
The Internet started as a bastion for free expression. It encouraged broad engagement and a diversity of ideas. Over time, however, that openness has enabled the harassment of people for their views, experiences, appearances or demographic backgrounds. Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet. But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.
The numbers, which Pao invokes, are a staggering piece of evidence in themselves.
Fully 40 percent of online users have experienced bullying, harassment and intimidation, according to Pew Research. Some 70 percent of users between age 18 and 24 say they’ve been the target of harassers. Not surprisingly, women and minorities have it worst. We were naive in our initial expectations for the Internet, an early Internet pioneer told me recently. We focused on the huge opportunity for positive interaction and information sharing. We did not understand how people could use it to harm others.
Pao is also quick to point out the ways that bullying operates to elevate bullies, with their behavior rewarded by bystanders. Pao and Reddit are no strangers to this politics of harassment, and she implicates herself and the site in her writing.
Reddit is the Internet, and it exhibits all the good, the bad and the ugly of the Internet. It has been fighting this harassment in the trenches. In February, we committed to removing revenge porn from our site, and others followed our lead. In May, the company banned harassment of individuals from the site. Last month, we took down sections of the site that drew repeat harassers. Then, after making these policy changes to prevent and ban harassment, I, along with several colleagues, was targeted with harassing messages, attempts to post my private information online and death threats. These were attempts to demean, shame and scare us into silence.
Particularly difficult, Pao explains, is keeping sites free of harassment when they become large. As she writes, "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."
What Pao also points to, though, is a countervailing force to trolling — basically what some might call intervention.
As the trolls on Reddit grew louder and more harassing in recent weeks, another group of users became more vocal. First a few sent positive messages. Then a few more. Soon, I was receiving hundreds of messages a day, and at one point thousands. These messages were thoughtful, well-written and heartfelt, in stark contrast to the trolling messages, which were usually made up of little more than four-letter words. Many shared their own stories of harassment and thanked us for our stance.
The writers of these messages often said they could not imagine the hate I was experiencing. Most apologized for the trolls’ behavior. And some apologized for standing on the sidelines. “I didn’t do anything, and that is why I am sorry,” one user wrote. “I stayed indifferent. I didn’t attack nor defend. I am sorry for my inaction. You are a human. And no one needs to be treated like you were.” Some apologized for their own trollish behavior and promised they had reformed.
In the battle for the Internet, the power of humanity to overcome hate gives me hope. I’m rooting for the humans over the trolls. I know we can win.
Although critics of Reddit have come to increasingly suspect that she was a sort of fall guy for the site as it makes big changes, Pao is beyond speculation and is clearly taking the high road. To that point, Gawker wondered whether she was "set up," especially as it becomes clear Pao had little or nothing to do with the unpopular firing of a Reddit employee. Further, the company continues to talk harassment under returning CEO Steve Huffman, who today posted a lengthy Ask Me Anything suggesting that the site will be banning “anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people” a path Pao herself seems to have championed at Reddit and certainly recommends in her writing.
Pao has, the Verge reports, spent time recently just hanging out on Reddit. Perhaps her voice on the site and her clarity of thought when it comes to harassment and support will, in its humanity, win the day.