The Medium is the Message
- Marshall McLuhan
Ellen Pao has been relieved of her duties at Reddit.
Reading between the lines, she's been ousted because not only did many subreddits (subject specific sites within Reddit, basically) "go black" in protest of her firing the Director of Communications, /u/chooter - but there was a massive exodus to voat.co, and an actual weekend where people refused to even sign in to Reddit as a symbolic boycott. It worked, in a sense - she delivered her resignation "by mutual consent" (which means she was fired but allowed to retain some dignity in the process).
And of course, there was fallout. The New York Times practically shouted from the rooftops that it was because of the "glass cliff" and the Ugly White Online Male cyberbullying squad in action. Again. What they failed to mention is that Pao is not really the problem and has never been. In fact, Pao deserves some sympathy. The feminist activist subreddits "ShitRedditSays" and "SubredditDrama" were aghast. "SubredditCancer" was overjoyed. Many, though, very very cynically said this means nothing.
And it doesn't.
Reddit has a core problem. When it was initially conceived, it was a platform for free speech. As long as you didn't publish kiddie porn or anything else illegal, their take was it was fair game. They tolerated a lot of awful, awful content that was highly objectionable - including outright hate subreddits like the abysmal /r/coontown (which is actually worse than its name would suggest). Their argument back in the day was that it was a common carrier, and if you didn't like it, you didn't have to look at it.
To give you an idea of their original commitment, one of the original big names of the system, Aaron Swartz, was a hacktivist who ended up committing suicide rather than spending decades in jail for - in a roundabout way - taking public domain documents and moving them out from behind a paywall. He objected to the idea that you'd have to pay eight cents per page for information that was by definition public domain and publicly financed. However, to do so he made his way into Harvard and MIT and used a laptop wired into a switch to copy the data. That's technically an illegal wiretap. He was looking at 50+ years in jail, as opposed to the usual 15 or so you get for killing someone.
But many websites, like many companies - have an initial stage where they are awesome and the New Kid on the Block, and the whole thing jumps the shark when accountants arrive and the kinds of managers who worry about policies and procedures come in and rein in the people who created the system in the first place. The early adopters and the cool kids take off to do something else cool, and are replaced with paper pushers.
And so it was with Reddit.
Here was a cool website that people contributed to, and the memes were dank. But then Conde Nast bought Reddit. NOT TO WORRY, they were going to be under the Conde Nast umbrella, but still their own company. This was supposed to communicate "we're not going to fix what isn't broken" but what it really meant was: "we're going to dictate the policy, but not look like we're dictating the policy".
What we're really seeing with the Internet is something that has horrified many a company. Software shops went from being another silo and hierarchy in an organization to being a flattened meritocracy, and the medium of the Web allowed for far more direct communication.
Case in point was the trial of Karla Homolka. The TL:DR of this was that in the 1990s up in Canada a couple who liked to capture, torture, rape and kill women were caught, and while he was rotting away in a cell she pled out with minimal jail time under the "tears, I'm just a weak little girl, he made me" defense. Walked out with a short sentence having "turned states' evidence". She almost did it with no jail time.
Then they found the videotapes.
Oops. Double Jeopardy.
So what happened was typical procedure - the judge in question sought and got a total publication ban, which meant that magazines were censored before coming into the country and any reading material was seized at the border. Nobody, under the direct order of a judge, could read about the trial in Canada. But the Internet meant people could happily go read news articles even though the TV was blacked out, magazines were seized and censored and newspapers and such printed IN the country never mentioned it. The judge threw a temper tantrum once it got out his white wash didn't work. He was a JUDGE and you're supposed to OBEY THE JUDGE and BRING ME THESE INTERNET PEOPLE RIGHT NOW SO I CAN PUT THEM IN JAIL
And then people asked yet again how they could make the Internet so that the Internet would work like publishing or TV where you could censor. But the Internet was designed to be usable in a battle situation: decentrailzed and without central control - so that if the Russians ever did invade they couldn't take command of The Main Computer and halt all traffic. What was a Good Idea in terms of keeping the system open was a Bad Idea when judges and law makers demanded to control it. Sort of like the Kings in the Middle Ages who demanded that Alchemists create a universal solvent, an acid that would eat through ANYTHING - so that they could put it in bottles and throw it at the enemy.
It wasn't just legal folks who saw this as a huge headache.
It changed people's expectations of how news worked and people interacted. Bill Cosby was able to get away with rape by basically strong-arming an archaic media model. "You don't want to compromise your integrity... so I want this scuttled." One post to Facebook - something he could neither dictate to, control, or sue - and the cat was out of the bag. Likewise, companies who "needed a website" typically ceded that to Marketing, whose only knowledge was how to dictate policy to other people. Of course things go through Legal. And then we put out a press release and schmooze with the journalists and get eyeballs and RoI and all that nonsense.
Ask anyone who's been in the level of hell of having to work for a large corporate marketing department - "here's the Photoshop of what amounts to a Print Ad - this is how we want it to look on all browsers, every color exact, every element pixel perfect." When told that browsers are different and not designed that way, companies got a LOT of money, first through ActiveX and Flash and further ideas - to say "well then never mind the Web, just buy OUR PRODUCT and have it host this little TV screen that broadcasts how you want." Notwithstanding that Flash has issues, it wasn't solving the right problem.
When McLuhan said "the medium is the message" he was making a powerful statement about technology's real impact being what it allows people to do, rather than its own stated purpose. He had very, very specific meanings for "medium" and "message" that do not map to the dictionary definition. To short circuit a very long drawn out argument that actually took a book to fully explain, the "message" of the printing press was that it democratized print. Not that you could have a book, but that the books were cheap enough to allow for a larger pool of literate people. That since printing a book was a small matter of typeset once, print thousands of times, you could print something like The 1000 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, which is something that the prior method of book printing - namely having educated monks take a copy and write it out again, would simply NOT do. On boh sides of the equation, the Church's power was diminished - with a literate pool of people, you didn't need a priest to read something for you (who might decide NOT to because it went against the faith) and didn't need a priest to write it out for you (who might decide not to). The MESSAGE of the printing press was not the book - but to take power away from the Church.
Another revealing example: the "message" of the electric light bulb is that you can perform surgical techniques that would be impossible with candle light or light from burning wood - you could never create microchips in a "dirty" environment lit even with a gas flame.
Tellingly, the first websites tried to be brochures you could click on. They were, after all, originally designed to present scientific or academic information and allow you to link terms and words to other documents. And for most companies, the web site was just a print ad that never looked right, a FAQ was a press release ("Q: My God! Why are products from XYZ corporation so awesome? A: We're glad you asked, we at XYZ are totally about the customer" said nobody, ever, etc.) and you gave out an email address with which you could be "pushed" an email that had "do not reply" from the sender's email address: "just read and consume". Flash was brought in grudgingly to make the pictures dance and boingy sound effects. But for all intents and purposes corporations and individuals made web sites that were about as functional as those crib toys with spinners and flicky things and mirrors.
And they liked it that way.
No mistake that Conde Nast bought Reddit. Their model involves basically page views. Here's a page of content. Here's BUY SOMETHING! BUY SOMETHING! BUY SOMETHING! BUY SOMETHING! Now another page of content. BUY SOMETHING! BUY SOMETHING! BUY SOMETHING! BUY SOMETHING! Here's a page of (continued on page 227) BUY SOMETHING! BUY SOMETHING! STINKY PIECE OF CARD WITH ANOTHER OVERPOWERING COLOGNE! BUY IT! BUY SOMETHING! etc. Many people, amusingly, are now reading magazines on the Web simply because even with the pop up ads, they're a better reading experience. I don't get a contact headache from 30 different kinds of cologne, four cards falling out, and an inability to find the Table of Contents to find that article they advertised on the cover but good luck finding it in the first 20 pages of ads, etc. from the web version of the article.
So really, what was coming to a head was the people's insistence on two-way communication, and Conde Nast simply wanting to extend their existing model in to where their customers had fled to. Like that All in the Family where Archie Bunker kept rejecting the medication he was to be given, so she kept putting it in different food. He wouldn't take the medicine, so she put it in the sandwich he wouldn't eat. Instead he went for a beer, so she poured it into that, etc. Likewise, the marketing department keeps trying to force the technology into their model. One-way communication. Control.
It wasn't really Pao who fired Victoria, /u/chooter, the Director of Communications - it was most definitely the system. What Conde Nast wanted was "Video AMAs". You see, the AMA format had far further reach than anything else people had tried - Arnold Schwarzenegger offering genuine advice directly to a fan man-to-man in a shared forum was somehow able to get further "penetration" than him showing up on Conan and having a flashy back up band register his entrance before the usual "you're looking good! So tell us about your new project!". What didn't get good "penetration" was Woody Harrelson showing up in the same format and refusing to answer any questions or participate in anything that wasn't him talking about his new movie, which caused the entire site to go against him en masse and is a meme to this day. "Getting back to Rampart..." Disgusted with his non-participation, the site started joking and then not joking about him date raping an underage girl, which caused Harrelson to storm out annoyed that his talk show experience didn't work out like the usual talk show experience, not having understood "Ask Me Anything" meant "Ask Me Anything", not "sell and shill your new product".
Some people "got it", though. The web is about two-way, level communication, not unidirectional or top-down stuff. Snoop Dogg participated in a Secret Santa and gave some lucky unsuspecting Redditor an enormous amount of expensive swag (various products he sells), causing her to gush excitedly to hundreds of thousands of people about how overjoyed she was to get matched with him and all the cool stuff she got. Taking pictures of it and shilling it for him, he got TONS of goodwill from the whole affair, advertising you literally can't buy. Snoop is no idiot, and he became an investor.
But not everyone is as savvy as Arnold Schwarzenegger or Snoop Dogg, and few celebrities want to deviate outside the comfort zone of their carefully designed image. So Conde Nast decided it would be absolutely wonderful to change the AMA format - from one where the celebrity logs in and people log in and they dialog in real time, to where you submit your questions and the "top 5" or so get answered by having a panellist ask the celebrity, on camera. And then you get to watch the "movie" of it! That's like - the same thing, only better, right? Right?
/u/chooter did her job by saying no, it's not the same thing, it'll go down like a lead balloon, it's a terrible idea, it will lead to the AMA thing turning into just another talk show segment, and they're not Conan. But they have all these eyeballs! Yes, but they have all those eyeballs because it ISN'T a talk show segment. And for the record, if you change the format, they'll just leave. People are there because they really
/u/chooter was fired for telling them what they didn't want to hear.
And that made the mods so angry that they shut down those eyeball gathering subreddits. No, they weren't working tirelessly to be thrown into the dark and shit on every now and then. When they signed on it was to create communities, not to zig and zag when told to - because, and this is a casual reminder, they're not employees, they're volunteers who built the place up for them.
And they noted with interest that the choice of what to ban and what not to ban didn't make any sense, until you looked at dollar signs. /r/fatpeoplehate had to go because young women (with lots of disposable income and who like buying things) were having their feelings hurt. Black women, who have comparatively little disposable income didn't matter. Nor did blacks in general, which is why a literal hate subreddit attacking them as "coons" was allowed to stay. The whole thing is a clear, clear case of pandering for dollars. Market research, categorizing customers.
So of course, Pao was shown the door and thrown under the bus. Which was the endgame. Of course it was - that's why they picked her. She liked to misuse the oppression card - she sued her previous employer for things they didn't do and defended her churlish behavior with "as a woman..." which was sure to anger the white liberatarians who make up the bulk of Reddit. She showed contempt and incompetence and when the shit hit the fan she didn't first go to the user base, she went to the press. Pre-emptively fired a shot about all this being the glass cliff and the ugly taint of white male hatred hating women and minorities, again... before settling down as just another Reddit user, who's now getting a lot of sympathy votes and karma now that she's just another regular user. As opposed to the fired /u/chooter who hasn't been seen again and was possibly made to sign something under duress of not getting her last check and severance not to say anything on the site or anywhere else about the site.
Meanwhile, there's a new CEO. No, he hasn't gone ahead and rescinded all the new tools and searches and proposed changes that the previous CEO was thrown under the bus for putting in place. That was never the plan. Associate the unpopular changes with an unpopular person, blame the unpopular person, but strangely enough don't make any changes. Hmmmm. Welcome to the new boss, same as the old boss.
And just like the Iron Throne on Game of Thrones, whoever it is who assumes that mantle has a completely thankless job. No, it was never about Pao being a woman, or Chinese, or feminist, or any of that rot. What it's about is the death throes of a giant media corporation trying to get its claws into the life raft people took fleeing Old Media. And turn New Media into Old Media. We need centralized control. We need censorship. We need a hugbox. We need for there to only be communication we approve under the guise of that freedom.
It's going to get uglier, before it gets better. This is far from over.