So is Internet outrage choosing CEOs now?

Companies are letting the outraged masses drive CEOs out. This is a very bad idea.

Reddit CEO Ellen Pao steps down after Internet outrage
Credit: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

For the second time in a year, a CEO has been run out of a company not for poor job performance, being unqualified or failing to execute on a vision, but because the Internet rabble didn't like them.

The first case, of course, was Brenden Eich, driven out as CEO of Mozilla not for anything having to do with leadership issues or technical competence, but for daring to have a different political opinion than was acceptable in the Valley.

BACKGROUND: Reddit chief Ellen Pao resigns amid vitriol, protests

Now it's Ellen Pao, driven out of Reddit by the torch-and-pitchfork crowd for firing a popular employee. Mind you, we don't know why that employee was fired. It could be that she truly deserved it. And her replacement, former CEO Steve Huffman, still hasn't re-hired the terminated person despite Slashdot declaring his "triumphant return."

The employee in question was Reddit’s communications director Victoria Taylor, who offered support for many of the site's unpaid moderators and also coordinator of the site’s popular "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) posts, where celebrities and scientists alike allow the Reddit crowd to ask, well, anything.

Most AMAs go great. A schedule on the site shows you who are coming to do AMAs weeks in advance. Some, though, go very bad. A recent one with Jesse Jackson went very, very badly. Another one with Woody Harrelson also went off the rails.

The thing is, we don't know why Taylor was fired, and probably won't due to California labor laws. You have to assume Pao had a reason. But also, the Reddit community handled it very badly.

In contrast, look at how the EverQuest MMO community handled a similar situation. Sony sold its online gaming arm, Sony Online Entertainment, to a venture firm which reconstituted them under the name Daybreak Games. And the first thing Daybreak did was start laying off staff, which gave EQ players like me a really negative first impression.

Among those laid off was designer Chris "Dzarn" Black, who had been with the game since it launched in 1999 and was loved by the community for his efforts at outreach and helping make changes.

Gamers were upset at all the layoffs, but particularly Black. Did they demand the firing of SOE/Daybreak CEO John Smedly? No, although I think he should have been fired a decade ago. They launched a drive to get Black back with the company, including a petition and cancelled accounts in protest.

Guess what? It worked. Black is back at work on the game. EQ players got someone their job back. Redditors failed to do that and cost a second person their job.

The Internet rabble is becoming more and more uncontrollable because the default setting is outrage. People erupt in furious anger over the littlest of things, and over everything. As it is, I regularly get hate mail over a minor error, but people treat it like I insulted their mother.

A few weeks back, a highly respected scientist named Sir Tim Hunt was driven from his job for supposed sexist comments. Well, you know the old Mark Twain saying about how a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on? That was the case.

He was out within two days of the supposed comments coming to light, when later it was discovered that not only were his comments taken out of context, it was done deliberately so by a person with a history of lying about practically everything. By the time the truth came out, Hunt, a Nobel Prize winner, had lost virtually every position he held in the scientific world.

Then there was "Shirtgate," where a scientist involved in landing a spacecraft on a comet was excoriated for wearing a tacky and all together inappropriate shirt for work. Once again the Internet Outrage Machine went into overdrive and drove the man to a near breakdown.

Numerous websites have closed their reader comments sections because they are so unruly. Now the torch-and-pitchfork crowd is claiming CEOs. What's next? There are/were CEOs that should have been run out for performance – Ballmer being one of them, IBM's Ginni Rommety another – but continue to reign in error. Under Rommety, IBM's sales have dropped every single quarter for the last three years. She keeps her job. Pao fires someone who for all we know deserved it, and she's out of a job.

Some people need to grow a spine. It's disappointing that Pao quit. Perhaps she wasn't up for a fight after losing her discrimination lawsuit, I don't know. But I am getting a little disturbed at seeing so many outstanding professionals having their careers ruined by the ignorant, emotion-driven rabble.

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