After tackling revenge porn on the site, its former CEO was subjected to vicious abuse and forced to resign. Can the internet ever get over its misogyny?
by Lindy West
December 22, 2015
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Ellen Pao was at the heart of two of 2015’s biggest feminist news stories. Photograph: Mark Mahaney
Ellen Pao was at the heart of two of 2015’s biggest feminist news stories: her discrimination lawsuit against former employer Kleiner Perkins; and her resignation from content-sharing site Reddit, after weathering what she later called “one of the largest trolling attacks in history” – death and rape threats, racist abuse, libel, her home address publicised online – from Reddit users unhappy with Pao’s efforts to crack down on hate speech and revenge porn.
Pao could have lain low in both jobs. Instead, she became a gamechanging force in 2015, taking on racism and sexism in very public ways that actually made an ideological dent. She made the day-to-day internet, the executive offices of Silicon Valley finance and the broad swath of life in between incrementally more hospitable for women. I sat down with Pao in San Francisco to talk about the toxic underbelly of the internet, how we can fix it and what might be next after her well-earned time off.
How did the harassment affect you?
It’s interesting – I was talking to somebody the other day who was saying, “How many times do people have to share their horrific experiences of harassment for people to believe that it happens?” And so here I am, sharing this terrible time in my life and people care because it’s interesting and it’s horrific, but then nothing really happens. Like, how many times does this have to happen and, again, mostly to women? It was at the point where we had security for our building, I had security for my home and I had a lot of fear that something would happen to me or my family.
How can the internet be a better place for women?
If you talk to people who built communities early on, such as the folks from Second Life, the view is that it’s really hard to change a community later, to fix it. So, if you allow some bad behaviour because you don’t have the resources, if you don’t prioritise it, it makes it hard to go back because the bad behaviour scales as your system and your community scale. You need 10 times as many people and it has become 10 times more sophisticated, and it’s groups of people working to troll your whole system.
Do you think trolls attack you because they think it’s a game and they don’t think of you as a human being – or because they genuinely enjoy inflicting pain?
I have no idea. I don’t understand them! It’s just not something that I would ever do. Why would you want to hurt a stranger? It makes no sense to me. So I just don’t know. It’s just a baffling part of the human psyche that I don’t feel competent in trying to unravel. And, to be honest, I just don’t care to spend the time doing that. There’s no answer.
Do you think the fight against discrimination is going to become a part of your professional life?
It’s very hard to spend 100% of your time on it because it’s 150% of your emotional energy. I’ve found it’s a part of who I am and there are things that I was able to do at Reddit as CEO that weren’t about fighting discrimination per se, but just creating a fair environment. Like, let’s make sure that our pay is fair across the whole company, and that helps everybody across the board – not just women and minorities, but also men who can’t negotiate, or managers who are bad negotiators whose teams aren’t happy because they’re not being paid the same amount. That’s something that I think I want to carry forward in everything that I do, but I don’t see it as: “I’m going to go out and talk and write and have that be my whole career.”
Why do you think people see your working towards basic fairness as an attack on them?
I think there’s a lot of fear in change. For some people, it is: “The system has worked for me, so what’s wrong with it? There can’t be anything wrong with it.” There’s an aspiration that people have that they are fair and unbiased and meritocratic, and when you start pointing out these differences, there’s this huge gap between who they aspire to be and who they really are and what they’re doing. It’s extremely uncomfortable, fear-inducing and disappointing to them. So I think they can’t acknowledge that gap. They have to push to make sure that the people criticising it are the problem.
After your experience, do you still feel as if Reddit is a net gain for the world? Do you feel positively about the community as a whole?
There are so many good things that come out of Reddit, and I want to say that I think it’s the most awesome product in the universe, but it’s not. It’s like the [rest of the] internet, where there are these really dark pockets. My hope is that that team is able to clear out a lot of the toxicity and make it into a more positive place and a better experience for everyone. And that it teaches people about a better internet and a better way to interact with people both online and in real life. But that’s a hard ask.
What do you see as the future of the internet?
I don’t know. There’s a future that I want for it, and that’s the one I focus on. [It would be] more like the early internet, when it was really just about sharing information and people were helpful to each other, and it was really just an awesome place to roam around.
What is the biggest problem facing the American tech industry?
I think the biggest issues with discrimination in the US tech industry are the lack of women and the lack of minorities in the workplace, which generate a problem with how they are treated.
How do you get through to people who aren’t convinced there is a problem?
I think it’s going to take people telling their stories to get there, and people sharing data. Because it’s not something that’s going to be easy to convince people, and it’s going to take calling people out. Like: “Hey, do you realise that you just asked that woman to go get coffee for us? And is there a reason why you picked her?” Or: “Did you realise that you gave everybody credit for the project except for the African-American guy who spent all of his time on it for the past three weeks?” It’s not something that’s a light switch that we can turn on for everybody in the same way, but just having people feel comfortable talking about it and the research that universities are doing to show that this is happening in performance reviews, this is happening in hiring, this is happening in promotions. I think the younger generation is going to grow up with a different set of baseline facts.
What’s next for you?
I want to work at a company, probably a startup with friends. I haven’t really thought about it that much, but I do want to get back to doing stuff and building things and making a difference that way.