- archived recording
(SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” Big tech is undergoing a huge cultural shift right now. Workers at Google are unionizing. Leaders at companies like Coinbase and Basecamp have clamped down on political and social discussions at the workplace. And reports are out that Bill Gates, the biggest nerd in tech, pursued affairs with female employees.
But the cracks in the culture have been there for decades. I saw them, and so did my guest today, Ellen Pao. She was one of tech’s earliest whistleblowers. Nearly a decade ago, she sued the prominent venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins for gender discrimination. She worked there for seven years, saw successful deals, and was still passed over for senior partner. It was the trial heard around Silicon Valley.
Though Pao didn’t win, the case brought attention to the white male dominated industry and just how much the firm and the Valley operated as an exclusive boys’ club. The experience also refocused Pao’s career. In 2014, she became CEO of Reddit for a brief period during which she banned revenge porn on the platform. Now she’s an angel investor and CEO of Project Include, a non-profit she co-founded to improve diversity and inclusion in the industry. Good luck with that. In any case, I wanted Pao’s take on where Silicon Valley is today and how far the culture has come — or rather, has not.
So you were an early voice in talking about work culture in Silicon Valley because of the many things your trial was, it was about culture at work and how it operates and how power operates. So I want to get your thoughts first on Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder has come under scrutiny in the midst of his divorce.
It’s been reported that his wife or soon to be ex-wife, Melinda, was uncomfortable with his relationship with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, though Bill’s spokesperson has said that the meetings were only about philanthropy. It’s also been reported that he made advances on female employees at Microsoft and the Gates Foundation. He resigned from his Microsoft board seat. Of course, his spokesperson disputes that the resignation has had anything to do with these allegations. What do you think his actions say about power and culture in tech?
I think it’s impressive that nobody has said anything until now, right? He got kicked out a year ago. I mean, who’s going to out the richest man in the world? For a long time, he’s been the richest man in the world. And then he reformed his kind of monopolistic ways by starting this Gates Foundation with Melinda. And that really made it hard for people to attack him. He came to Kleiner at a CEO conference. And we were talking about his relationship with his wife. And he said, well, I met her back when it was OK to date people at the office. So he knew better. He knew it wasn’t OK. He knew it wasn’t allowed, but he did it anyway.
Yeah, what’s interesting is that I think a lot of his feelings was that. That’s actually stuck in his mind. Well, I met my wife at work, and that worked out fine. I mean, it didn’t right now, obviously. So he thought of work as that kind of not just workplace, but also a social place or a place for dating — a dating pool, essentially.
Yeah, and she seemed like she was fine with it. So in his mind, other people are probably fine with it, too.
How do you look at how the board acted? Because on one hand, they actually acted, which doesn’t usually happen at all. On the other hand, it was kind of quietly shuttled off with dignity, essentially.
Yeah, I mean, they hit it. It’s hard to report these things. And so whoever reported on him really stepped up. And I think they were probably worried that she would go and talk to the press, right? I wish they had outed him, right? I mean, how do you get change? You have to hold people accountable. And you have to let people know that the rules apply to everyone. And that would have been a huge statement from Microsoft.
Yeah, he stepped down from the board in 2020. I mean, he got to step down. And it was like thank you for all your service. It made little sense because he was busy doing other things, including working on climate change. How would you have seen it done, where that it would be better? Just say, this is what happened here and we got this letter and explained everything and been forthright about it?
Yeah, I thought that original — do you remember several years ago Julie Ann Horvath?
Horvath is an engineer who revealed sexism at GitHub, just for people who don’t know the history of it.
Yeah, they had a very thoughtful letter about — I mean, it all fell apart later because it was clear it was kind of a PR thing. But I thought it was handled well. To Microsoft’s credit, it sounds like they let them stay working there, and they didn’t say anything negative about them.
Or didn’t go after them as you got gone after, essentially. But when you saw this, did you see like, ugh, this is 10 years later. This just continues to be an issue that doesn’t ever — even post MeToo, which sort of shook up everybody in Silicon Valley and everywhere across the country. How do you assess that?
Well, I think that he wouldn’t have been pushed out if it hadn’t been for MeToo, right? We’ve heard of so many CEOs who’ve done so many terrible things who are still out there. So many VCs, and they’re all coming back it’s the fact that people are realizing, this is actually wrong. But it is so slow, and it is so reluctant, right? You look at this, and it’s not leadership in any sense of the word. It’s like they let him resign, and they gave him a nice send-off. And they gave him a good story around it.
Would you see them doing something now and talking about it more proactively?
I can’t see that coming out of Microsoft. If they put all this effort to package it like this, why would they unpackage it? It would be a smart, and it would be a thoughtful thing to do. It would be good for the culture of the company to say, you know what? We made a mistake. We hid this information. But we should have done this, and this is what we should have said. And this is what we’re going to do in the future.
But now he doesn’t have the power he did at Microsoft. He’s not the CEO. He’s not on the board. Why not do that? It might be something.
But isn’t it all relationship driven? He put all those people on the board. He made them all a bunch of money. And he still got tons of money to help people do things, so.
So it’s just give him a break, that kind of thing, this idea of just let’s let him go.
Yeah, it’s like I owe him. I owe him, and I’m not going to take him down because he helped me out.
So this is this idea of this boy’s club that we have talked about a lot, that has protected this kind of behavior. Big tech has long been a particular boys’ club. Why do you think that is?
I think it started that way, and it stayed that way for so long. And there’s a set of people who don’t know anything else. And they’re probably like, so what he asked people out? He said that they didn’t have to go out with him. He did it the right way. They just don’t see anything as being wrong because that’s all they know. And that’s all they talked to. And they are in their little bubble. And there’s no other voice in that bubble to share a different experience or to share a different perspective. Yeah, the whole thing is weird.
Right, so you were one of the first whistleblowers when it came to discriminatory work culture in the Valley. In 2012, you filed suit against Kleiner Perkins, one of Silicon Valley’s most well-known venture capital firms. It was not a sexual harassment suit, it was a gender discrimination and retaliation suit. You’d been there for seven years. You were an investing partner at the time. 10 years later — I mean, I just — I can’t believe it’s 10 years. How do you look at it now, thinking about the experience and why you sued?
Well, a big part of it was I knew I was right. So there was just a round of promotions at Kleiner where almost all the men got promoted, none of the women got promoted. So it was clear to me that it was not a me thing. It was a firm wide problem. And it was just really blatant. Because it was just on every metric that Kleiner cared about, the women were doing better. And I had actually heard from another woman at Kleiner that she had talked to other women at other VC firms. And it was kind of these problems were rampant.
And if Kleiner can get away with that, everybody follows them. At that time, yeah, they were one of the top two or three VC firms. So the whole thing just seemed really unfair. And I thought, you know, I’m in a position where I have money. It’s OK for me to take a risk. So I just thought if it’s not me, then who’s going to do it?
And I talked to some people who had sued investment banks. They didn’t regret it. They recommended against it. And I can see why. And I do the same now. I didn’t understand it at the time. But it is so hard. It is so unpleasant. People didn’t want to hire me. People didn’t want to talk to me. A lot of the press was really negative. I was the first person to call out venture capital for gender discrimination. And people didn’t believe me. You’re taking an industry on. And that is an industry that has a lot of power. It has a lot of wealth. And it has a lot of influence. And then also, your friends, some of them turn out not to be friends.
Yeah, but ultimately, the jury ruled in the favor of Kleiner Perkins, not you. In fact, you were ordered to pay the $276,000 to offset their legal fees. Kleiner dropped that when you decided to drop your appeal. You also came under a lot of scrutiny for challenging one of the most powerful VCs. When you look at that, was it worth it? You’re talking about, well, someone had to do it. But when you look at it a decade hence, was it worth it to you, do you think?
There’s a part of me where I feel like, well, it was inevitable. At some point, somebody would have had to say something. But no, but Kleiner had been around since 1972. And nobody has said anything. So it was just such an insular boys’ club. And you could feel it. And you could see it. And it was never going to change if somebody didn’t speak up. So I think things have changed a little bit.
There was a professor who actually testified against me from Harvard Business School. And he just released a research report that showed that I think it’s the number of woman partners in VC firms went up by 50% since the trial. And he attributed that increase to the trial. And also, I think a big part of it is, so many people had similar experiences. And people started talking about them. And that made a huge difference in just people’s mental health, I think.
Yeah, it was interesting. I’ll never forget I was with a pretty high ranking executive sitting backstage at an event. And she was reading our coverage because we had a lot of it. And she kept saying as she was reading some of the testimony, that’s me. And what was fascinating about the reaction we got from all of our coverage was that all the women understood it. All the men who hadn’t done anything, hadn’t paid attention, were sort of surprised. I think the ones who behaved badly understood what was happening.
But the ones who were sort of like, what? Did that happen? It just was a series of those kind of little mini revelations for relatively ignorant men and women who knew exactly what they were talking about. So I think that was, to me, the most interesting part of watching the entire thing roll out.
Also, it was interesting to see the journalists change. I think the woman did understand it. A couple of women journalists told me that they had had similar experiences. And you could see the men were skeptical. But over the course of the three-week trial, I think partly was talking to the women who were reporting on it, and it was partly hearing the feedback from their coverage. They learned a lot.
How do you see how much race was playing as the way Kleiner Perkins was trying to portray it? I was struck by it at the time. I remember all the words used for you were all sort of tropes on Asian people. And they kept citing a performance rule that said you play it close to your vest. I remember a PR person saying you were crafty to me. And I was like, what? Do you think that played a role in that or not?
At the time, there were clear things. I put together a set of slides as a joke one holiday party because people couldn’t tell the Asian employees apart. So I did a whole Asian people 101 at Kleiner Perkins. Ellen wears glasses. Elaine does not. That’s how you tell them apart. And just, people could not tell us apart, right? And they called us the wrong names. There was a desire for one of the partners to hire a tiger mom, so they wanted an Asian woman who was going to be really committed to work, like not going to complain and they’re willing to do the grunt work. So there was an element of that. And it was gendered, too, because the Asian men didn’t have as many problems around that.
Yeah, so you mentioned that the percentage of female VCs did go up after your trial. But nothing has really changed in terms of female founders. Between 2015 and 2019, the number of female founders who got VC funding only increased by around 2%, which seems due to the increased number of female VCs. How do you think about that?
I think we have a system that is racist and sexist. And it’s not that easy to change. And you can throw some people into it. But unless you actually change the structure, it’s not going to change. So I wish LPs were more demanding. I wish they said, hey, I want to see your numbers. I want to see your diversity metrics. And I want to see real diversity metrics.
Don’t tell me how many companies had a founder who was a woman or a founder who’s left. What percentage of your founders, what percentage of your CEO’s, what percentage of equity is going to them? What number of dollars? Let’s look at, is this really part of what you’re doing or not? But LPs, I think for a lot of them, they’re just happy to get into these funds. And they don’t care.
So and the thinking hasn’t changed in demanding that. There’s been noise around the edges of it, but not actual — numbers don’t change whatsoever. Have you felt they have? Is there some promising element of structural change from your perspective?
I was so excited to see Harlem Capital raise $150 million in a relatively reasonable amount of time. It’s founded by Black investors. And it’s probably the biggest fund with Black-only partners. So that’s encouraging. Five, 10 years ago, you’d be able to raise $5 or $10, maybe $15 million. But yeah, but I still see a lot funds, when you look at their team pages, they throw some people in who are junior. They throw some people in who are admins. They throw some people in from functional roles. And if you take all those people out, it’s very white. It’s very male. I think the numbers are still that — is it 72% of firms are still all white? And 70% are still all male.
Mm-hmm. So your case also was echoed in one of the most recent discrimination cases in Silicon Valley, a lawsuit against Pinterest, the former CEO, Francoise Brougher, alleging the culture of secrecy among male executives, where she was excluded from decision making in meetings. Francoise is a very well-known Google executive. Before that, too, she also said she was fired for speaking out about a hostile work environment. Pinterest CEO Ben Silverman eventually settled the suit for $22.5 million. What does the price tag say to you about the scrutiny over sexism and discrimination now versus 2015 when your own trial took place?
I think people don’t understand the numbers. Those are big numbers. But you think about how much equity she had and how much that equity is worth today, the options that she gave up. And I think they renegotiated her salary after she started if I have the facts right. So it seems really low. The dollars in these industries are outrageous. If everybody else is getting it, we should get our share, too.
When you’re saying she had options, as an executive, you get large options. She had the highest ranking position, I think, under Ben allegedly and apparently not. But it is a different number that she got so much when you didn’t even get a ruling in your favor. So was it just PR, trying to stave off more cases?
I think it’s that, but also, I think the attitudes have changed where when I sued, people didn’t believe in tech was a meritocracy, supposedly. And people didn’t believed that women were mistreated. There was an article in The New York Times saying, well, how come I’ve never heard of this? If this is how people are treated, we would have known about it earlier. There was more skepticism then. And I think now, more people have spoken up. More people have shared their experiences. It’s more known that tech is actually a pretty sexist industry. And people believed her.
Right, right, 100%. The company also was accused by two Black former employees of racist comments, underpayment, and retaliation. They didn’t receive millions, by the way. But it seemed to put the pressure on Pinterest, along with Brougher’s settlement. Ben Silverman announced new targets for young women and people of color. Do you see this as a signal that tech companies are actually having to reckon with workplace cultural complaints that they could sort of brush aside before?
I see it as this ongoing kowtowing to public pressure, right? So it’s not that their attitudes have changed. And I don’t know if it’s because they’re public companies so they want to have a good relationship with the markets, and they want to have a good reputation, or if it’s just thin skinness and this desire to —
I want it to stop.
Yeah. Yeah, my mom was asking me the other day, what’s going on here? And I don’t have a good answer for her, so let’s just make it stop. That was actually one of the reasons why we got rid of unauthorized nude photos from Reddit because families and friends were asking employees, how can you allow these stolen nude photos on Reddit? And they were having a hard time answering. And that changed the whole attitude towards this whole free speech, free for all.
Employees at Google formed a union earlier this year. We’ve seen workers at companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon speak up and pressure the CEO’s to drop bids for defense projects. There seems, though, to be a desire of CEO’s to clamp down on the growing power.
And Basecamp is a prominent example. It’s seen as the company work culture in tech. But recently, the company announced it would ban social and political discussions at work, calling them, quote, “a major distraction.” It also said it would disband the diversity council and stop 360 reviews. How do you look at all this? Because these were the kind of things you talked about. We’re going to put these things in place in order to create diversity and inclusion.
So I think of them as being very different. I think, one, the workers unionizing, it’s going to happen. Whether they like it or not, this new generation of worker is not going to sit around and let them — they’re not going to go and work for them if they don’t feel like it’s a fair environment. They’re not going to sit for it. So I think they’re going to have to deal with it. And they can put it off as long as they want to. But they are going to have to face the fact that they’ve taken all the money off the top, and they’ve treated people really shoddily. And that’s how they became centa billionaires, right?
For Basecamp, I feel a little bit like the guy tried and gave up too soon, right? He just got frustrated. And he didn’t know what to do. And instead of stepping back and getting some help, he just kind of threw a torch on it and tried to make it all go away. And —
The guys you were talking about, there’s two of them, actually, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. And I’m not sure which one of these, sort of interchangeable sometimes. But the changes at Basecamp initially were spurred in part by a list of customer names that some employees kept that were funny, but eventually made others uncomfortable because of the inclusion of Asian or African names.
This led to an internal discussion about Basecamp’s record on diversity and how it should approach those issues. Some employers have said it felt like the founders were worried about this level of input. But they did this. They had a reaction. To me, they’ve given people all these voices.
And it’s actually throughout Silicon Valley. You give people all these voices, you do nothing about diversity, and then you’re like, you know what? You actually can’t talk anymore after giving them tool after tool of meme generators, or hey, come meet the CEO and insult them about the food or whatever. They give them enormous amounts of speaking. And then, your speech, I don’t like so much anymore. That’s what it felt like, that they shifted attitudes.
Once it got harder, right? The meme, who cares? The meme was dumb. It’s fine. Everybody thinks it’s kind of funny. But all of a sudden, you’re starting to talk about harder issues. And there isn’t an easy solution. And we’ve moved into a place where there is a lot of conflict. The way of interacting now is very negative. And it’s not about getting to common ground.
So now you have all these people who are trying to do that in the workplace. And it’s not that manageable unless you build a culture where you have boundaries. And when we get to hard topics, there are ways that we talk about them, right? There are ways that we resolve conflicts. And people haven’t figured that out. And I think they came to a place where they said that their values were inclusion. And people said, hey, this behavior is not inclusive. And they didn’t know what to do about it.
And what happened was 20 of its 57 employees said they plan to resign, which was around a third of the company. It was a very small company. But it played out really publicly. What do you think this power tug of war between employees and management says about the moment we’re in? And why did such a small company attract so much attention, do you think? What does it represent?
Well, I think Jason and David are very public about, as you said, their management styles. They’re on Twitter. And they have large followings that are fairly influential. And to have this happen to them of all people, I think there’s some people who said, good, right? It’s a model that they want to follow. And it’s great to see two people who have been perceived as inclusive and great leaders decide to just shut it all down.
I think that goes back to that group of people who are in that boys’ club. And here’s somebody who’s publicly saying what they believe and what they’ve all been patting each other on the back for, but haven’t been able to do it. And I think there was a lot of— there was some positive response that was public to the earlier iteration of this at Coinbase, where Brian Armstrong, the Coinbase CEO, said, OK, we’re not going to talk about politics anymore. And I think he was the first. They had 5% of their people leave. But I mean, they are sitting on money.
Yeah, Coinbase. So the Basecamp founders misjudged — misread that situation, right? Some of these people have been there 10, 15 years and hadn’t seen an exit, so.
But do you think — one of the things I was struck by is how many CEOs kind of liked watching it, them saying it? Because a lot of them are like, well, I don’t want to listen to them. That’s what I — ugh, god, they talk. What do you think is at the heart of that idea of that they want to just clamp down on noisy employees?
I think it’s what they’re being noisy about, right? If you’re a noisy employee talking about Bitcoin, nobody cares. You’re talking about going to Mars, nobody cares. But when you start talking about these issues related to race, to gender, to identity, it’s an area where the CEO, as a white man, usually, isn’t an expert on. And they like being the expert. They like knowing more. They like having the founder stories that nobody was around for. They like being respected and idolized. And when you are not good at that one topic —
And it’s a social minefield.
And it’s a minefield, and you have that thin skin and that giant ego, you do want to shut it down.
Now one of the things I wanted to talk about Project Include a little bit. Basecamp played out virtually. The company was already 100% remote. Even before the pandemic, they had a little bit of in-person stuff. Does it change when there’s in-person stuff? Do you think it would have gone down differently if it was an in-person situation?
It’s hard because it depends on the company culture. There are some companies where they’ve been able to build tight connections remotely because they’ve really been intentional about it. I do think that being remote, if you haven’t done it right, can allow for more misunderstandings. It can allow for less connection.
And there’s a professor at Stanford, Leanne Williams, who is an expert on psychiatry. And she said the stress from the pandemic has really damaged our brains in a way that makes it hard for us to have good executive functioning skills. And our brain is a muscle that needs to rest and it needs to recover. And one of the things that helps it recover is interpersonal connections.
And so when you’re working remotely and you haven’t had a lot of intentional structure around these connections that are less transactional and more social, and you’re in a pandemic so you don’t get that social connection outside of work, I think it does make things harder. One of the things that we saw in our research is 85% of people are feeling more anxiety since COVID. And that’s across the board, from leadership level down to most junior worker level.
Mm-hmm. As you mentioned, your advocacy group Project Include did a recent study of tech workers and found that more than one in four respondents had experienced more harassment based on gender, race, ethnicity, while working remotely. Why is that?
It’s a combination of things. It’s people are feeling anxiety. They feel a lot of stress. There’s increased work expectations. They feel like they have more pressure to work longer hours. They’re not getting downtime. And they’d have no separation between work and home life. So there’s a lot of stress and pressure. And I think that’s causing people to be more hostile and to harass more.
I also think that there is more one-on-one interaction that is hidden, right? So if you’re in an office in person, you can’t just scream at somebody because other people will hear you. And somebody will come in and say, hey, that’s really not appropriate. But if you’re on the phone or if you’re in a Zoom, you can scream all you want because nobody else is there. And that’s allowed for more of this hostility and this abuse.
We’ll be back in a minute. If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on Sway episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with current Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Ellen Pao after the break.
After you left Kleiner Perkins, you became the first female CEO of Reddit in 2014, and you quickly focused on content moderation. You added a policy banning revenge porn and nonconsensual nude photos. You banned five subreddits for violating Reddit’s rules around harassment, which really ticked off some users who cried about their free speech being violated. Can you talk about the backlash you received at the time and how it relates to current discussions about content moderation? I’ve often find, Ellen, you’re often right and early and then pay the price for it and then don’t get the credit when it starts to change.
Oh, you’re the only person who believes that, I think.
OK, you’re just a pain in the ass, Ellen. Go ahead.
Yeah, I think that it was such a weird time. It was so intense because this was the same time the trial was happening. So we got rid of these five subreddits. And people were so mad. And then also, it was a way to interact on the site. If you could say mean things about me, if you could put together a really good pornographic Photoshop of me, you would get voted to the front page. They had all sorts of really racist memes. They had sexist memes. They had racist, sexist memes. Like, all of it.
And it was constant. It was all over the site. And I was dumb. I said no, we’re not going to take it down. I don’t want to be the person who was weak and took it all down. But that just meant there was more and more of it. And it got to a point where it was just kind of completely out of control. And it was ruining the site for everyone, except for a few people who are having some fun.
So how do you view your actions to ban subreddits now when watching that happen? Because it did get out of control. And it took over and it sort of allowed them to hide behind a free speech shield, I guess.
But it’s all down. They got sick of it. There’s only so much you can do if people aren’t responding. So I think it’s unpleasant and it’s painful. And I had 24 by 7 security. And my family was threatened. And some of the employees got doxed. And so it’s hard. It’s not nothing. But you can solve the problem. Otherwise, you’re just constantly dealing with it. People are constantly testing that border to see where can I go. And if this is allowed, then how much worse can I do? And that just doesn’t end. And we saw that with Trump on Twitter, right?
When you look at that, again, early pioneer in this — and I always joke about the planes are covered with the bodies of pioneers. When this happened, people really reacted badly to you doing this. How do you look at that going backwards? Because now, that’s what’s been done on Reddit.
I would disagree with that. That’s what they say has been done. But if you look at the site, it’s a mess. It is a total mess. It’s still a mess. But it is what is optically the right thing to say. Right, so now everybody’s saying, OK, we need to take a stand against it. But if you look at Facebook, they haven’t really done a great job. Twitter, I really feel like they’re trying, but it’s hard because they let it go for so long. I think YouTube is still pretty much a mess. They’re saying no harassment. Whether they do a good job of dealing with it and whether they deal with it in a timely manner and actually prevent it is a different issue.
Right. So it’s window dressing is what you’re saying. Because last summer, you called out Reddit’s current CEO, Steve Huffman, saying that the platform, quote, “nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long.” You also pointed out that he hadn’t banned the subreddit, the Donald, which they did eventually at the start of the year.
When it was dead, when they had already moved off, right? So it was more lipstick.
Too little too late, essentially. Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook all took some steps to ban Donald Trump. As you said, I think Twitter was more aggressive. YouTube and Facebook, I would say, do not get even a participation trophy here. Do you see it as a sign of change when it comes to moderation? Or is it just window dressing, as you just essentially said?
I think it’s mostly window dressing. Jack Dorsey had this whole public square. I’m like, people aren’t stabbing you in the public square. They’re not throwing feces at your face in the public square. It’s a civilized environment. And that is not what’s happening on social media. And nobody can hear each other’s ideas through all the yelling and screaming.
Mm-hmm, and so you think that — has anything changed from your perspective? Or you just think that it’s just that it’s — is it too far gone? Or they don’t want to do anything about it? Or it’s too hard? Or which of the many things?
It’s not that hard. I think that’s a big red herring, right? We got rid of all of that. We had under 100 employees. We had maybe five people working on it. It was not that hard. And we were still one of the bigger sites and, what, more active users. So it’s not that hard if you’re OK being wrong some of the time and fixing it later.
So what about the accusations that you were against free speech? How do you answer that?
Yeah, it was very frustrating because it’s never been about free speech. These sites have always taken down spam. They’ve always taken down terrorism. And also, it’s not an honest argument, right? A lot of it is just like, oh, this is a rallying cry, and I can get a bunch of people to support me and make a big fuss.
So Facebook’s ban, for example, was temporary on former President Trump. Do you think Facebook will permanently ban Trump?
I think it depends on how powerful Trump is. I think it only depends on if he has enough of a user base that’s going to drive traffic and dollars, then it’s going to be a harder decision for them.
Mm-hmm, so it’s not based on the right thing or breaking of rules.
No, it’s optics. It’s going to be, well, are people going to be really pissed off at us, but we’ll make a ton of money? Or are people not going to be that pissed off? We’re not going to make that much money, but they don’t care anyway, so we’ll just put them back on because maybe he’ll grow. Maybe we can use our engine to make him back into that huge force that drove so much traffic. I don’t think it’s a values-based decision for them.
What about at Twitter? They have assured me he will never get back on there.
Well, good for them. I’ve been really impressed by Jack bringing on board Dantley Davis and Nick Caldwell and other folks who I think were not in 100% in agreement of the things that Twitter has done. I don’t know that it’s actually them that are making the changes, but I have a suspicion that it is. And I think that’s going to make a difference.
What if he becomes Republican presidential nominee in 2024? Should he still be banned?
It depends on what you want. Do you want to be at a place where people throw shit at each other? Or do you want to be the place where people have real conversations, and you have rules and people follow the rules so that you can actually come to agreement or learn something or have insightful tweets? I hope that they want the latter, but I don’t think Facebook cares. I think Facebook wants to drive traffic.
I understand the point, oh, you need to give this leader a voice. He has so many other outlets. And I think that the standard should be held even more for people who are so public and are so visible.
Yeah, they’re malevolent.
They’re malevolent. And also, people follow them. Like, hey, this guy has however many million followers. And look at what he does. I’m going to do the same thing so I can get that many followers, right? This is my example and role model of success.
Well, that’s why you’re seeing all these mini Trumps, whether it’s Marjorie Taylor Greene talking about the Holocaust or —
— or any of them. But so a bigger discussion is how to regulate social media platforms and hold them accountable to damaging content on their sites. There is Section 230. There’s all kinds of protections for these companies. What do you think should be done? Where do you see an answer?
I am not a big fan of regulation in this area. I don’t think people will get it right. But when you get to the point where you’re having people get killed, then yeah, I think the government does need to step in because it’s clear that the platforms are doing a bad job.
Mm-hmm, so what is the legislation? If you could wave your wand and say one piece of legislation, what would it be? Regulation, legislation, anything.
I think you have to protect your users from harm, right? You need to prevent harassment.
So liability of some sort.
Yeah, you can’t be protected if you should have known, and you didn’t do anything about it. And maybe that will just make people default to OK, I’m going to take it down until somebody can review it. And when I see that it’s wrong, I’ll put it back up again.
So I’m going to ask, in your opinion, what are the best and worst companies right now when it comes to content moderation? I’m going to go through just a few.
1 is bad and 5 is good. Reddit.
It’s like a 2.
I think they talk a good game, but they’re not actually putting the work into it. And that makes it worse. And they have some of the worst users on the internet.
I’d say 3 and 1/2. They started from a really bad place, but they’re making some progress. And I think they’re really being thoughtful about it. And they’re willing to experiment. And I think the most important thing is that they’re willing to take the heat for failing, which gives them the ability to actually try hard, risky, new things, which are going to be the things that solve problems, not incremental changes.
I will give my score to them. I’m giving them 4.
Oh, good for you.
I’m going to give Reddit a 3. OK, YouTube.
Oh, god, it’s always I’m so nervous whenever I see kids on YouTube using it. I’m just like, ooh.
So that would be a 1, I think.
Yeah, I would give them a 2. I don’t think they’re worse than Reddit.
OK. All right, Facebook.
I kind of want to give them a 1 because I think they have bad intention. I think YouTube, I don’t think Susan is happy that there’s crap on YouTube. I don’t think Mark cares. I don’t think Sheryl cares. I don’t think any of the board members care. They know, and they’re just like, how long do you think it’s going to take for this to blow over?
Yeah, when is Kara going to shut up? I give them a 0. I give them a negative number. I think they’re doing it on purpose at this point. They know about it. I can’t tell you how many discussions I’ve had with them over 10 years.
And now they’re taking it to Instagram. They’ve taken it to WhatsApp. And yeah, it’s going to have bad impact on the kids.
OK, you’re giving them a 1. I’m giving them a 0. TikTok?
I just don’t know. I don’t want to go on it because I’m really worried that it’s going to get really bad. So I guess I would be neutral then, 3.
Yeah, OK, I think that we don’t a lot about TikTok yet. All right, a lot of these problems you’re seeing in tech — content moderation, boys’ clubs, workplace culture — could be moderated if there was more action from those who control the purse and the cap tables. You were a VC. You still do investments, correct?
I do, yes, angel investments. Very early.
Yeah, so what responsibility do venture capitalist investors have when it comes to exercising their board seat powers and weighing in on these issues?
I think they have so much responsibility, but none of them is willing to use it, right? I’m stunned. I mean, I’ve heard from a couple of VC friends that the boards are most nervous that a company’s going to get hit with a harassment claim that makes them look bad and that they’re going to have to answer to their friends and family, how did you let this happen? And that’s the biggest concern. They don’t care so much about pay parity or diversity of the teams or any of that. They just want to make sure that there’s no big harassment charge that’s embarrassing.
Yeah, they’re real profiles in courage, I’ve found over the years.
Yeah, I don’t have that much hope for them. I don’t see that changing. I don’t —
Yeah, it’s not really in the interest of VCs to step in. I think it’s not in their interest to do anything or have an opinion about anything. And the most successful are some of the most malevolent. I think the incentive is really to help jack up values for the next round of funding any way they can to invest until their startup is big enough to squeeze out its competitors.
Stanford professor Steve Blank said the first time you see a venture capital prosecuted for failing to uphold their duty as a board member, you’re going to see Silicon Valley transform overnight. All it takes is one VC doing the perp walk, and everyone gets the message. You’re responsible. You have a legal duty if you do things that are bad for society, you’d be called to account. Do you agree with him?
Oh, I think it’s so right. I just don’t think it’s going to happen.
But it would be fascinating. Nobody would want a board seat. And right now, that’s the currency, right? I’m on this board. I have credit for this company being successful. But nobody is going to want that if they can’t escape liability.
But you don’t think it’s going to happen, perp walks for anybody?
No, they’ve protected themselves very well. And also, it goes back. It’s a boys’ club. And if I’m an entrepreneur and I want to be invested, and again, I can’t send my board member to jail, right? This is how the harassment was so rampant from VCs hitting on female entrepreneurs. And nobody said anything for a very, very long time. Because I mean, if you want to be in a startup, if you want to be in tech, this is the system. These are the people who have all the power. And they’re very willing to wield it and to crush people for no reason.
Yeah, I think not saying anything is what a lot of very good people do. They say nothing and go along. When you think about the stuff you’ve done, do you find something you regret doing, having done?
I mean, there are times where I wish I had had more room at Reddit to do more, right? So maybe I should have fired people faster because it was this big culture of inertia. And I thought that I could push people through it. And actually, it’s quite hard. You need to just revamp the team. But that didn’t feel good. And I thought they would change. I think if I could have stayed longer or worked faster to get rid of that content faster because we got rid of revenge porn and unauthorized nude photos, stolen photos. And all the platforms followed us, right? If I could have done more of that and just cleaned up more of the internet, that would have felt better.
It’s a big internet, Ellen.
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Heba Elorbany, Matt Kwong, and Daphne Chen; edited by Nayeema Raza and Paula Szuchman; with original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Erick Gomez; and fact checking by Ben Phelan and Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristen Lin, and Liriel Higa.
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