How Reddit Caused An Uproar With Unpaid Volunteers
Nasir Pasha & Matt Staub

How Reddit Caused An Uproar With Unpaid Volunteers [e206]

Nasir and Matt discuss the recently firing of a popular Reddit employee that caused an uproar and questioned the status of Reddit’s unpaid volunteers.


NASIR: All right. Welcome to our podcast where we cover business in the news and add our legal twist to that news. My name’s Nasir Pasha.
MATT: And I’m Matt Staub.
I thought, for this episode, I would let you ask me anything.
NASIR: Oh, okay, AMA for Matthew Staub.
MATT: Yeah, AMA.
NASIR: When was your first pizza job? Oh, wait, we’ve heard that story fifty times.
MATT: Those of you not familiar with reddit, the reason I said the Ask Me Anything is there was some news – another thing people are going crazy about – last week…
NASIR: End of last week so, when this episode comes out, two weeks ago, I suppose.
MATT: Yeah. Basically, one of the employees who I believe was in-charge of the Ask Me Anything sub-reddit which is a forum – people go on there and they ask, “Ask me anything,” and then the people on reddit can ask them questions and they’ll answer them, that’s what that is.
NASIR: It’s one of the most popular subreddits. You know, some people may not be aware what reddit is so, just really quick, first, if you haven’t gone there, go ahead and go there. It’s – pretty popular site, really interesting, you can kind of get lost into the different subreddits because they basically have a different subreddit for every topic that you can think of. And so, one of the most popular ones is a subreddit called IAMA and you’ll have many celebrities or different people that have certain specialties or in certain industries that will go on there for a couple of hours and basically answer a bunch of questions that you would ask. Very fascinating, actually.
MATT: Yeah, so the person that was responsible for managing the Ask Me Anything, they recently got fired and they thought it was possibly over this AMA that went awry with Jesse Jackson which I haven’t really read into that and saw what was so bad but that’s what people believe was the case of the termination but Ellen Pao, CEO of reddit and other say, “No, that’s definitely not the case,” and it kind of sparked not only a backlash with the people that visited reddit but the people that are managing a lot of these bigger subreddits did a thing where they made them go dark, causing even more of an outcry I guess from all the people involved.
NASIR: Yeah. Basically, it was like a period of nine hours where all these pretty popular reddits went dark. I missed it because, when I went on, it was like everyone was talking about how it went dark so I wasn’t really affected. But, apparently, what they mean is they make the subreddit private so that, unless you are permitted through the moderator, you can’t access it. The number of subreddits that actually went dark was such that it basically ended up being mostly the user population that couldn’t access the site.
MATT: Yeah, it’s obviously not good for reddit and, while it was only temporary, I mean, it was much bigger news after the fact than during, I think, from the broader population. But, for the people that are really into reddit, then they were probably outraged during that time. So, this person was an employee, I believe.
NASIR: Yeah.
MATT: But it brings up the question – you know, I’m sure there’s going to be claims, some sort of wrongful termination, et cetera – but it brings up the idea of these other people that are moderating or these people that are moderating all these different subreddits – like you said, there’s probably thousands of them, right? At least hundreds.
NASIR: Definitely hundreds. I would definitely say thousands, if not tens of thousands.
MATT: Yeah. These people are volunteers – because you need moderators or else things get out of hand – maybe not for the obscure ones but for the ones that enough people go to, they have these people volunteering to essentially be the administrator of these different subreddits and it begs the question of, well, these people are providing services for reddit, shouldn’t they be paid even though they may have agreed they were volunteers? Which is a pretty interesting legal question but, in a situation where the CEO might have made the wrong call and everyone got upset at her, this could be brought to the forefront now.
NASIR: Yeah, and I think when people start talking about, “Okay, should volunteers be paid or do they have a legal right to get paid?” everyone’s kind of like, “Well, that’s obvious. Why would they be entitled to anything?” But, in actuality, the legal analysis is not as easy as that, I should say. A bad example of such a legal argument is when – and we covered this, it was almost a year and a half ago or so or a year ago, I can’t recall, I think it was in 2013, if I recall – some year and a half where Yelp reviewers filed a class action to be able to basically get paid as employees for their volunteering to leave reviews. This seems awfully sill and I think that ended up being dismissed. Somehow, they lost. I can’t remember what the nature of it is. But what is the definition of a volunteer versus of an employee? And when you have a volunteer that’s actually is volunteering for a non-profit organization, it’s much clearer. It’s pretty easy to maintain that status.
MATT: Yeah.
NASIR: But, when they’re volunteering to a for-profit and doing things that employee may do then it’s like, “Okay, what’s going on here?” especially, if that particular volunteer receives some kind of benefit from it, even if it’s not tangible or if it’s like something small – like, “Oh, here’s a free t-shirt,” or something to that effect – it can even get even worse for you and the possibility of that person being classified as an employee.
MATT: Yeah. I mean, I’m not as familiar with reddit as you are. I mean, it is a for-profit business. I just don’t know how much of a profit they’re making.
NASIR: It’s one of the most popular sites on the internet and they do have advertising. I don’t know how much they make but I would assume they’re doing pretty well.
MATT: Yeah. I mean, advertising, like we discussed before on Monday’s episode, there’s a value behind, if there’s any personal data that’s logged in there, you know, it’s something that could add some value as well. They might not necessarily be profiting off of it but they do classify themselves as for-profit so it does make a much harder determination of these people that are volunteering their time whether they should be getting paid for it. I mean, I don’t know the relationship. I don’t know if it works kind of both ways in that reddit seeks out people to be moderators based on their time they spend on the site and other things or if people literally volunteer themselves – a more unilateral thing and say, “Hey, I want to be a moderator on this subreddit.”
NASIR: This whole reaction is a little weird if you think about it. I mean, I understand it but, at the same time, I also understand reddit’s or the CEO’s position. It’s like, “Okay, we’re terminating an employee. Why should we have to communicate to all the moderators why we’re terminating them? They’re not employees. They’re not part of our company. They just moderate some subreddit on our website. What’s the big deal?” Because these moderators are complaining, “Oh, why didn’t you communicate to us when you were going to terminate them?” as if they had some obligation to do so. This whole reaction was kind of overblown and I think it just kind of snowballed from there because people like controversy and so forth. I mean, I paid attention to it and I was like, “Yeah, the moderators are right. What’s up with that?” and I didn’t even know really what I was advocating for but the reality is reddit’s biggest mistake and biggest risk is that its subreddits are run by moderators – by just people like individuals that are volunteering – and, if there’s this contention that they should be paid or, if this is a business, what’s their role and what’s their involvement in all this, that can really be a vulnerable place for the site. This applies to other websites that value groupsourcing of their data in a sense that there’s a lot of sites and a lot of start-ups that involve other people doing things on a voluntary basis to make the community work – whether it’s social media, whether it is reviewing sites, or whether it’s forums.
MATT: I’m glad you used the word “community” because that’s another discussion topic as well about, “Is this just a community or is it a business?” I don’t think a community is going to get $50 million round of financing from some VCs and I think it’s pretty clear this is a business. Like I said, I don’t know how much money they’re actually making or what the financial stake is but it’s more than just a forum. I mean, they have employees. Here’s the problem, and I don’t know about the CEO, but it seems like a lot of the other people involved are kind of viewing this as more of a community and it’s a forum online, like a loose set of rules, when this needs to be considered a business and needs to be run like a business and, if there are employees, they need to be handled the right way. I don’t know about the legitimacy of how the person was terminated but, if that’s the decision they wanted to make, then she did it the right way, I guess. That’s just how business works.
NASIR: What’s also interesting is that this Ellen Pao just lost a gender discrimination lawsuit against… I think it was either a VC firm or was it another company, right? Something to that effect.
MATT: A previous one, yeah.
NASIR: She just lost some gender discrimination lawsuit and, you know, we’ve talked about this discrimination, wrongful termination kind of lawsuits and typically what happens and what’s related to those kinds of terminations is because the employee feels somehow that whatever reason they’re being fired for is not legitimate and somehow it’s not communicated with them and very rarely is it because the employee’s just crazy and irrational. Oftentimes, it’s mismanagement of the employer who’s terminating. You know, I always say it doesn’t matter if your employee is just horrible or they don’t believe that they’re a bad employee – it’s not an excuse. As an employer, you have to be able to communicate to your employee so that you can defend yourself if they come back and say that it was wrongful termination for some other reason – whether it’s some kind of disability or some other discriminatory basis – whether it’s race, sex, et cetera. And so, it is a little ironic that her, as a CEO, terminates one of her employees and somehow it wasn’t handled well. You would think that, in her previous experience, she would have handled such a termination a little bit more delicately which, by the way, I don’t know what she did wrong and why she had an obligation to communicate to the moderators nor do we actually know why the individual employee was fired. I don’t think that’s been…
MATT: Yeah. Well, that’s what I was going to say – funny how she didn’t handle this well. I mean, we don’t even really know. She could have handled it just fine and maybe everyone just really liked that person that got terminated. You know, that’s just going to happen. Like I said, it’s a business. I mean, that’s how it works.
NASIR: Yeah, you’re right, and people are blaming her for not handling the termination well. Reality is, she just didn’t handle the PR part of it well and that’s a much different thing, you know. It’s like firing a favorite in the office. Okay, maybe between you and the employee, that’s fine. But you’ve got to understand how the morale is going to be the day after and handling that’s a different strategy.
MATT: Yeah. I mean, you’re right on that and that’s the big thing. If anything, well, we’ll find out if she didn’t handle the termination well or correctly because there will be a lawsuit, and even if there is a lawsuit, it could still be that she handled it well and is just trying to get some money. But, yeah, the PR side of it which, like you said, if someone having gone through a huge gender discrimination suit probably should have thought a little bit more about it but, I mean, that’s how it works.
NASIR: I was thinking, we were talking about it, whether we covered this gender discrimination lawsuit when it happened because the name sounded familiar but apparently not. I don’t think we’ve covered it.
MATT: I still think we did. I think we might have covered this lawsuit, the previous one.
NASIR: Maybe tangentially or something.
MATT: Yeah, that’s what I was going on. You stole my word, too.
NASIR: Tangentially?
MATT: Yeah.
NASIR: I don’t know how to spell that though. That’s my only problem. I would need to spellcheck on that.
MATT: Yeah, that’s why spellcheck exists – got to get close.
NASIR: I’ll give you $5.00 right now if you can spell tangentially without checking.
MATT: I know how to spell tangent so T-A-N-G-E-N-T-I-A-L-Y?
MATT: Two L’s?
NASIR: Two L’s, yeah, two L’s.
MATT: Argh! I almost said that.
NASIR: I think it helped a lot once you found out the root of the word which was “tangent” and then the rest should have been easy but you missed the second L. All right. Well, you know, thanks for joining us on our second episode of Legally Sound and Smart Spelling.
MATT: One last thing on that, the double L thing, the last time I was in a spelling bee, I spelled a word wrong and it had two L’s and I only said one so it must be my thing.
NASIR: Anyway, all right, thanks for joining us.
MATT: Yeah, keep it sound and keep it smart.
NASIR: By the way, I think you owe me $5.00.


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