“Ellen Pao is evil”: An inquiry into the collective discourse of Reddit backlash

Reddit is a social platform that acts as an aggregator for news (Bergstrom, 2011) and user-generated content that is subjected to the popular vote in order to gain acceptance by the community of redditors. With over nine thousand communities available on the platform (from DYI, funny pics to showerthoughts and photoshopbattles), Reddit has been at the forefront of intense debate about the freedom of speech on the Internet. One of the most recent episodes of crisis are related to Ellen Pao mandate as the head of the company. This episode had implications for both Pao and the Reddit community. Pao’s ‘vendetta’ with her former employer sparked a debate about gender discrimination, with a particular focus on women in high tech industry. However, Pao’s policies that banned certain communities on Reddit backlashed against her and her lawsuit.

This research paper has two main objectives. Firstly, it investigates the dissension between the online community and hierarchical power as represented by the governance structures of Reddit, and how this dissension relates to the topic of freedom of speech and gender discrimination and the tools used by the community to protect what they believe in. Secondly, it looks at the explicitness of the online media in portraying Pao as an ‘evil’ character that uses Reddit to put in practice her personal agenda. The online activism of the Reddit communities is a response to the change induced in the functioning of the community by moderators (censorship).

In order to achieve these objectives, the research makes use of text and concept mining techniques. The text corpora are extracted from various subreddits that contain narratives about Pao and her change agenda, as well as Twitter feeds clustered around news releases and YouTube parodies that are used as a mean of raising publicity for the community cause. The study seeks a better understanding of online communities, as well as delineate the type of online activism that is used in the case of the Reddit community backlash. Moreover, the study brings into the discussion the ethicality of unmoderated discussions and the particularities of the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ as understood by internauts.

Bergstrom, K. (2011) “Don’t feed the troll”: Shutting down debate about community expectations on Reddit.com, First Monday, vol. 16, no. 8, http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3498/3029