When a website fires an employee, it’s usually not a big deal to people who visit that site. But Reddit is not just any site, and the sudden dismissal of an employee might just shut down the site completely.
The employee in question is Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s director of communications. By itself, what happened is extremely odd; Taylor was responsible for Reddit’s biggest AMAs, and coordinated everything from bringing in the celebrities to actually transcribing answers. She was one of the site’s most visible employees, and it’s not clear whether she was fired or if she quit over the site’s proposed direction with its AMAs.
Either way, she’s gone, and the AMA subreddit found itself without its driving force. So, it went private both to protest the move and to figure out how it’ll operate going forward. Most of the major subreddits went private in solidarity and protest of other decisions Reddit’s made in the past, mostly involving communications problems with the staff… and as a result, the site’s pretty barren at the moment.
Reddit is facing the problem every website that builds itself on free labor eventually faces: If you don’t pay somebody to work for you, they don’t owe you anything. Managing the biggest subreddits and keeping them clean of trolls and idiots is practically a full time job, and the site’s moderators are almost all volunteers. As the site grew and started making money, something was eventually going to give way; Taylor’s departure appears to be, if not the last straw, definitely a major warning.
Will Reddit come back? Most likely. For all its pretensions to democracy, and the site’s tendency to pass the buck when its users do something awful, Reddit is a dictatorship like any other website. If worst comes to worst, it can just remove the ability to take subreddits private, which will resolve the problem. Like I said, the moderators are volunteers: Reddit can always find new volunteers.
How would that affect the site’s userbase and culture? Probably poorly. But sooner or later, Reddit’s going to have to either start paying its employees, or just own up to its pretensions of democracy being precisely that.