Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder of the social news aggregation website Reddit. Shortly after graduating from UVA, he and classmate Steve Huffman founded the company with startup capital from Y Combinator, and in 2006 it was bought by Condé Nast. Ohanian stayed on for three more years until he retired to pursue a Kiva fellowship in Armenia. In 2009 he founded Breadpig, an "uncorporation" that creates and sells "geeky products" and donates all its non-sustainable profits to charity.
Alexis Ohanian: Hi, I’m Alexis Ohanian, the co-Founder of reddit.
Question: How did the idea for Reddit initially come up?
Alexis Ohanian: Steve Huffman and I came up during our Spring Break, senior year at UVA. We came up to Cambridge, Massachusetts to hear a talk by a guy named Paul Graham. The talk was called, “How to Start a Start-up.”
We came up there on a train, a very long train ride, mind you, to hear him talk and then chat with him afterward. We had had this start-up idea we had wanted to do for months. We incorporated a company, we were ready to pitch and we just wanted to hear Paul’s opinion on it. And I caught up with him after the talk and I said, “Mr. Graham,” or Dr. Graham, “It totally would be worth the cost of buying you a drink to get your opinion on this start-up. We came all the way up from Virginia and we wanted to hear.” And he interrupts me and he’s like, “You came all the way up from Virginia to hear this?” I guess, I don’t know if he just didn’t think Virginia was capable of having mass transport, at least capable of getting us so far as Boston, but we convinced him for whatever reason to come have drinks with us, and we actually got coffee that evening.
He liked the idea, he liked it a lot and it wasn’t long thereafter that he announced Y Combinator. So it kind of made sense for us to apply then to Y Combinator, the seed stage venture firm. And we applied; we were called in for interviews. We thought we gave a pretty solid interview, but ultimately we were rejected, which sucked. We ended up spending that night drinking a lot of Coronas and then going home back to Virginia the next morning, hung over, on a very long train ride.
And somewhere in Connecticut, he called my cell, Paul did. I picked up and he said, “Listen, we like you guys, we don’t like the idea. If you come back now, let’s try to come up with something and as long as you don’t do that idea, we’ll let you in Y Combinator. And we’d been telling ourselves, “Oh, you know what, we don’t need him. We don’t need him; we’re going to prove him wrong.” But as soon as Paul called back, both Steve and I just leapt. I think Steve actually literally leapt at the opportunity. He jumped over me to find out when the next stop was.
And we headed back up. And during that discussion Paul basically said, “Listen guys, you wanted to do a mobile food ordering thing.” I won’t go into that, but I’ve written about it if you want to Google it. Hope someone does it, mind you, “but you should think of something in a browser. Think of a web app and think of something that solves a problem that you all have.” And we were basically just bored a lot of the time, whether it was starting our day. And we wanted somewhere to go to find what Paul had encapsulated really well as the front page of the web. And we really liked that idea and it was something that Paul had crystallized in those few words that really summed up what we wanted to work on.
And at the time, Paul had turned us on to this site called Delicious, which is a social bookmarking site, Joshua Schachter started it. And it basically means that you can store your bookmarks instead of on your browser, on the internet. So whether you’re at work or at home, you can find your same favorite websites to revisit. And a byproduct of this, of having people bookmark all their favorite stuff and post it to the web was this Delicious/Popular page, which showed in fairly real time what the most popular bookmarks were.
And this hit an interesting note because it showed what people were interested in saving for later. Good reference material, but it never actually really conveyed what was new and interesting of the moment; it never captured the more ephemeral things that are really what is new, what is news. And we wanted to do that with reddit. And so we thought, ‘all right, here something that Joshua has hit on sort of inadvertently. Let’s really try and focus on finding a way for people to discover and submit and discuss, eventually, the most interesting links of the day.
Question: Who were the early users of Reddit?
Alexis Ohanian: We were very, very lucky being in the first round of Y Combinator because that alone generated a lot of interest. A lot of readers of Paul Graham were just excited to see what was going to come up. And we were the first ones to launch. And with that, we got a fair amount of attention just being the first YC startup. But most importantly, we got a lot of attention from Paul’s readers. He would write about us in his blog, he would mention us during talks. And he would say very nice things that were totally true. He really did spend a lot of time on reddit back then.
And so having that kind of endorsement and having Paul Graham’s readership coming to your site and contributing to it and building the foundation of the community was just a really invaluable way to start Reddit. Otherwise, you know, you’re really just sort of stuck on whoever you can brow beat into using your site. And we banked plenty of our friends and family to use it and a few did; Morgan, Conner, You both Rock. And they were regular users. I have to give them their shout out.
But for the most part, a lot of those early users were actually Steve and me with aliases. We had silly user names that we just generated in order to make it look like there was a diversity of users on the site. I don’t feel too bad about this because we didn’t have commenting back then, so it wasn’t like I was responding to my own comments saying, “Brilliant comment, Alexis.”
But we knew that for a new user, for let’s say one of these Paul Graham readers, who sawreddit in his essay, for them to come to Reddit and not find anything new and interesting, for them to find a list full of links all submitted by spez, or all submitted by nothing, it was going to be a fairly disheartening experience, and so we needed to use a little bit of, I hate to say it, but I mean deception, frankly, that showed that there was more activity on the site than there actually was.
Fortunately though, about a month or so into reddit, we both had this moment where we spent the whole day, you know, using reddit just like anyone else. We would vote on stories and that was it. We didn’t submit anything. And at the end of that day we looked at each other and we realized, holy shit – this might actually work. Maybe we haven’t been wasting our time. This site is actually alive. And that was a really, really crucial moment for us. It was before we took any Angel funding. You know, we were still – in fact, for the entire duration of our setup we were pretty much living on pizza. But we were still at a very nascent stage in reddit. And that was the first bit of validation we had gotten and it felt great and it kind of kept growing from there.
Wow. Okay, there was this whole area of personal stuff going on that I won’t even touch on. The business – the startup side of things were harrowing. And I mean I don’t want to over dramatize this. I know there’s a popular Facebook movie coming out that over dramatizes startup life, so I don’t want to add to that. But Steve literally did sleep with his laptop for a number of months, mostly because the site was still written in List back, back then and it was less than ideal, at least in certain circumstances. And so there was no shortage of stuff that was going wrong in any given moment, not just on the technical side. I mean things just break all the time and things just happen and startup life is adapting to it and dealing with it.
But on the, on the sort of non-technical side of things, every opportunity, and remember, this is pre-Twitter, so I’ve just dated myself. But every opportunity to see someone talking about reddit, whether it was on a blog -- still remember the first blog that ever wrote about us, I think it was called “The Changing Way,” it was a dude’s Word Press Blog. And I still remember the look of it because he had a photo of those really distinctive orange flags that they put up all over Central Park a few years back. Anyway. He was the first person to ever write about reddit. And both Steve and I commented on that site and said, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. You know, please keep the feedback coming.” And that was great. It was like, for once, someone other than us and our moms cared about our website.
Question: Was there a moment where Reddit stopped feeling “small” to you?
Alexis Ohanian: Well, yes and no. The weird thing about reddit is that, for a community its size – now I’m no longer at reddit, but the public traffic numbers that they put out are, I think with the site about eight million unique visitors a month, or every 30 days, which is a fairly big site. What’s a real mind job is I think most of our users don’t realize that, or they think the site feels a lot smaller because it is for a site that big, I would be willing to put them up against any other community on the internet for being one of the most tight-knit, or most strongest communities; especially for one of that scale.
And so the site has never really – it’s certainly grown and it’s matured and it feels very different than it did when we started it five years ago, but in a lot of ways it still feels small. And from our side of things, you know, we’re sort of the janitors of reddit. We keep the site running, we keep everyone having a good time; we keep the bathrooms clean, for the most part. And try to make the site an enjoyable experience. But we’ve always stayed a remarkably small team.
Even now, I guess if you include contractors that are six or seven people working on reddit, but when we got acquired there were basically three and then in the years since, we’ve added three more developer hires full time, and a community manger. But the site is still remarkably small. And the ratio of developers to users, I think is one of the best. Craig’s List still probably beats it, but this is still one of the best on the web. So it still feels very small. We never developed enough of a corporate hierarchy for it to feel like a real company. It’s always been a group of us working in an often stuffy, but once we got to ****, slightly nicer and larger and prettier office. But all working together. And obviously I’m thankful we got out of that apartment in Summerville where there were four of us crammed on a sloped floor so that we actually had to tape the wheels of our rolling computer chairs so we wouldn’t be sliding into each other.
But it’s come a long way and yet still the site feels very small. I’m still friends with everyone who is there. And it’s still an incredible thought to see just how much it has grown.
Question: Is there a “typical” Redditor?
Alexis Ohanian: Back in the day, I would say they reflected – okay, they were similar to like geeks like me and Steve. I mean, frankly, like I said, we were submitting most of the content early on. And you know, we are readers of Paul Graham and so I can open that more broadly and be a little bit less narcissistic and say it was – those early users of reddit were Paul Graham fans. People interested in technology, people who were interested – the early adopters in trying out new things. And also people who were just interested in having a fairly broad world view and understanding and knowing what was going on and being on top of that and being the taste maker for all their friends.
Since, I feel like it’s expanded a bit. But reddit still remains fairly, geeky is not the right word, but the sort of people who use reddit are also the sort of people who others go to for their recommendations. Whether it’s what movie they should see or what computer they should buy or what **** of Lenix they should be installing. It is always remains, I feel, there something about the site that draws the kind of person who is, even if they’re not submitting. The majority of the users just visit the site to find out what’s interesting. But it draws a kind of person who is genuinely curious about being in the know. And wants to, if not share it, whether it’s through email or IM or however they want to do it – on their Facebook wall, to at least be a part of some experience that is happening that is a little bit bigger than what’s going on in each of our own little individual worlds.
I do wish the site had a better ratio of men to women, it’s still a fairly male – and this is based on survey data, but it’s still a fairly male-heavy site. I’m always thrilled whenever I meet female redditors and I mean, I‘ve seen very anecdotally from meet ups since – since we started doing basically inviting redditors out for free drinks that the ratio has actually gotten much, much better. And that’s always a nice thing. But for the most part it’s still a fairly geeky audience. I guess there’s eight million geeks who want to visit the site every month, which is encouraging. We need to breed more people.
Question: Does Reddit have data on its userbase’s ethnic breakdown? What about other demographic info?
Alexis Ohanian: We don’t. We don’t know ethnic breakdown. The demographic data that I have is from campaigns that we ran mostly for the benefit of advertisers, but we also, I’m pretty sure we shared those publicly. There’s no reason why we wouldn’t have. And so we had a significant sample size, so I feel pretty good about this sort of data. Most redditors are at least college educated. A number of them have post, or rather graduate degrees. A number of them are in the IT tech world. I guess that’s the bubble they choose to fill in on the form. I’m trying to think of other interesting stuff.
Fairly U.S. based, but actually, I believe it’s 60/40; 60% U.S., 40% abroad, which is exciting. Mostly in English-speaking countries, UK, Canada, Australia, but seeing 40% representation is great because, I don’t know, when I’ve got my soap box out and when I’m thinking, I don’t know, most idealistically about reddit, I’d like to think that it can be a truly global community. Obviously there are lots of people who just don’t have access to the internet in a way that it is much more prevalent in the developed world. But just having a more global perspective I think is exciting and it benefits the whole community.
Question: When have you been most proud of Reddit as a community?
Alexis Ohanian: I am consistently impressed by reddit. I’d say on a near weekly basis, by little things. Whether it’s – I absolutely love seeing the Photoshop jobs that people do. Not of silly cats, but of redditors who are like, “I have this photo of like my mom. This is the last photo I took with her, she was in the hospital. Can any of you clean this photo up? Can you get rid of the tubes; can you get rid of the oxygen canister?” And to see in comments, redditors who I’m sure are professional or at least amateurs with professional ability coming back within minutes with improved photo shots and improving photos. Doing that sort of thing for a total stranger, for a virtual stranger on the internet, that kind of online spontaneous altruism happens weekly on reddit and I adore that.
The most significant one, or the easiest one to quantify was the fundraiser that reddit organized for Direct Relief, Not for Profit, working with disaster relief in Haiti after the earthquake. And that was a scenario where the reddit community, on its own accord was bubbling up stories about the most effective way to give money. It turns out that while it’s easy to text a number to the Red Cross or to **** Haiti, those may not be the most efficient organizations to give money to. Whether it’s because they have outstanding debt, obligations their using the money to pay off, or what have you, I think that this is something that also intrigues me from more of a future of philanthropy perspective because I think there are plenty of geeks. And this is my – whether it’s my experience with this reddit fundraiser or my experience with the ****, there are plenty of geeks who want to give. But the most important thing really comes down to accountability, and that’s a great opportunity for a lot of ‘not for profits’ because the internet makes it so much easier to be accountable in a way that was just difficult, or just a pain in the ass just 15 or 20 years ago.
And so to go back to Direct Relief, we got in touch with some folks there and their social media guy happened to not only be a redditor, but someone I went to college with, or Steve and I both went to college with. And so we had some basic questions. Can you all provide us with photos of a lot of the medical supplies that are going in? Can you guarantee that 100% of every dollar a redditor gives goes to medical stuff, or whatever supplies that you need at the moment? And can you also do an interview? Let reddit organize an ‘ask me anything’ interview. This is a famous reddit thing that goes on, fascinating interviews, and have actual Direct Relief workers and volunteers answer the questions. They said, “yes,” to all of them and we said great. So I threw up a quick blog post, chose a silly geeky number based on pi, 31,400, to fundraisers. The goal, reddit cleared it in a couple of hours. And so I figured all right, let’s double it. There was an interesting math joke in there that Chris told me about 2pi, but we doubled it and they broke that in another few hours. And the final number was actually a mark set by redditor who wanted – who came up with this idea to surpass the amount of money that Redditors gave to one another in what was, I think, the Guinness World Record, Largest Secret Santa Contest. So they chose this number. And they figured, if we can give this much to one another in Secret Santa projects, we can at least give this much to Direct Relief because they’ve been so good to us in terms of how they’re using the money effectively and candidly.
And so reddit in total, and you can go check this out, raised over $180,000 for Haiti. And to see something like that happen where obviously a lot of people are interested, but to see it actually come into action and to come into play was just wonderful. And we – the good folks at Digg, actually Jay and Kevin, very kindly jumped onto this kind of competition we wanted to create to see who could fundraise, you know, to use this silly Digg vs. reddit competition, or what have you, rivalry to actually try and fundraise as much money as possible for Direct Relief. So it was just a great experience all in all and it was an example of the reddit community, even with all of its scale, showing its ability to actually do stuff, and in this case to do really, really good stuff. And the internet – it never ceases to amaze me. And this was probably though, one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen.
Question: Are there times where you’re disappointed with people’s behavior on site?
Alexis Ohanian: Yes. Well this is the trouble with the internet, and this is the great thing. This is one of the great virtues, but also the sort of trouble with it is that we realized when we created reddit that this was our baby, like Steve and I, really loved and adored this site, but ultimately all the value on the site, the real reason people come to reddit is not – has nothing to do with Steve or me. Maybe a little bit to do with Steve’s algorithm, but it has to do with the community. And what one realizes there is that we are not in control of the community, in any way, shape or form. We have no power over it and so we’ve lost this total control. And the benefit of is we get these fantastic things to happen spontaneously, these giant movements. And we get other things where it’s just a little frustrating to see people organizing to use the power that they have, which is a fairly genuine power, and just to do silly asinine things.
The – let me think of a recent example. Hopefully you can edit this down as I pause to think of a recent example. Oh, what did reddit do? Oh, okay, right, so more broadly.
There was an appalling, appalling video shot, I’m not even gonna guess where. I don’t think it was in the U.S. because I don’t think they were speaking English, but – maybe ****. Okay. So there was a video posted to the internet of a young girl tossing puppies into a river. This made the rounds on 4chan, this made the rounds on reddit; I’m sure this made the rounds everywhere else. It was an appalling video. And it was just this young girl just sort of callously chucking puppies into a river. Awful, awful, awful stuff. And it’s very easy to get angry about that and for lots of very good reasons it seems redditors and the internet in general has a very soft spot for animals. But that aside, there are reasonable ways to deal with that sort of thing and then there are unreasonable ones. And actually our Community Manager, Eric, wrote a really good post about this kind of mob mentality and chastising it for doing things – for doing things in an inappropriate way in that there are ways that the anonymous masses of the internet can do really great and interesting stuff and go through good channels, like the authorities. Like law and order does have a place. And when it comes to sort of terrorizing virtually someone – as despicable as that girl was for doing that, that does not seem just. And it seems there are better ways for her to get justice than to terrorize her online or to find out and reveal all kinds of personal info.
So Eric wrote a much better piece than I’m explaining right now, but I’m sure if you Google it, you’ll find it. His username is Hueypriest. But there is though that reality, you know, even me saying this into a camera now broadcast at some point over the intertubes will have no impact, frankly, because we don’t. And I don’t delude myself into thinking I have that kind of control or that anyone really does because this is just the magic of the internet. Its just in my own little opinion piece, my editorial here, it’s just not cool. And I mean it’s certainly awful, awful, awful to think let alone see someone doing that to some puppies. But there are just ways to do things and that is not appropriate.
Question: Do you read Digg?
Alexis Ohanian: I do not. I could have made a really bad joke right here, but I’m not going to. If I were a snarky Reddit user though, I would say, hypothetically, that that would just be like reading Reddit’s Front Page a day later. But I’m not going to go there.
Sorry, that’s for you Reddit, you’re welcome. There you go.
Question: What do you think about the role of “snark,” or sarcasm, on Reddit?
Alexis Ohanian: I like it. I like sarcasm. I like snark. I feel like I am ripping off Conan here. But I know at some point he said something that I really agreed with. Actually there are lots of points which he said things that I agree with, but in particular he said that he was really – he really hated cynicism and that he didn’t want people to be cynical or at least, I mean, be you. Don’t get me wrong. But that and I think in a similar way, while I love snark and I love sarcasm, these are certainly different flavors of a more broader kind of cynicism. And so it’s fun and it’s entertaining on reddit and what not, but I’d like, I don’t know, I am a much more hopeful person. And I get a lot more out of the other side of it. I get a lot more out of the – the touchy feely stuff that happens on reddit. And while I love the snark and it makes me laugh, I am happy that there is this wonderful balance that plays out on reddit. Or you can get both. I enjoy having my cake and eating it too, especially if it’s not a lie, and chocolate.
Question: Are you aware of Reddit Gone Wild, the section of the site where users post pictures of themselves naked?
Alexis Ohanian: I actually – I met the redditor at our San Francisco meet up who made it, or at least he claims to have started it. And I don’t know how many people would claim to have started reddit Gone Wild and be lying.
I don’t spend a lot of time on it. I mean, except when I’m posted photos of myself. It’s, mean it’s another – it is another example, like I am a – the ‘Ask me Anything’ reddit of a user created reddit that the six of us would have never, ever, ever come up with. And I think had we come up with it, it probably would have failed miserably because it didn’t have that – it didn’t feel organic because it wouldn’t have been. It would have been one of us **** going, “hey, we created this reddit where you can post photos of yourself partial or fully nude.” And that would have been **** for all kinds of reasons. But because a redditor did it on his own volition, it actually turned out to be extremely, extremely popular. I am probably not allowed to say anything else about that reddit now, so let’s move on to the next question.
Question: Do you keep up with what’s going on in other web communities like Digg and MetaFilter?
Alexis Ohanian: Yes. I mean, in a lot of ways – so we always try to be very good at reddit about knowing about competition, but not caring. And in the broadest sense, our competition has always been – excuse me. Our competition has always been anything that is wasting your time when you’re bored at work. In a broad sense. We want people to come to reddit to find out what’s new and interesting online, but we realize they usually do this when they should be working or perhaps when they start or when they end their day. And that’s always been the goal. And so anything else that can distract you away, even if it’s Farmville and planting carrots is considered something that we need to be more interesting than.
But you know, it’s an interesting – it is a nifty kind of brotherhood of all these communities because, yeah MetaFilter has its own very, very distinctive community, Digg, the same case. Fark, I’ve gotten pretty chummy with Drew over the years and that is a community that still blows me away because in internet years – internet years, well they’ve been around for a decade, a decade plus I think at this point. And that’s just mind-blowing to think of a website being around and a community being around for that long. And so at this point, Fark has now seen, not quite a generation, but they’ve seen multiple cycles of colleges, say, start and end and we’ve just begun that cycle where we had Freshman who were starting reddit who have now since graduated and sort of entered the workforce. But Fark has seen this for a lot longer and it’s been – it is fun seeing all these different sections of the internet, all these different communities.
Reddit is really the only one that I know well. I can’t really speak to the others. I mean, I will definitely stand by my statement that and that phrase, the community of Reddit’s size; it has one of the strongest communities. It seems ridiculous, but for a site with that much traffic, the sense of community I think is stronger than anywhere else I’ve seen. And that’s really demonstrated in all the stuff that they end up doing. I think to some extent, all of these communities are fairly geeky, in term of some more qualitative things, but these are folks that for one reason or another want to spend a lot of time hanging out, either chatting with folks about what’s new and interesting online, or just discovering for themselves what the latest interesting thing is. So, we’re all sort of cut from the same cloth of losers who spend way too much time in front of a computer. Now, I’m kidding. Actually I have my laptop open, you can’t see it, but I’m still looking at it.
Question: Why is Reddit so hard to monetize? Is it hard to sell ads on Reddit?
Alexis Ohanian: I think there’s a lot of education that comes with a site like Reddit. And it is also – it is a different sell. So not only do you have to go to the agency and say, “okay, here’s how this site Reddit works.” And when they ask a question like, “Well what happens if some user votes up a story that says, ‘this brand is lame.’ And you have to say, “Well the smartest thing they can do is have someone reading reddit or who is willing to be notified when this happens and gets in on the comments and says, -- they create the user name that’s like BrandXRepresentative, and then they get into the comments and don’t – you know, they don’t stoop to like trollish flame war levels, but they actually have a discussion. And what’s so frustrating is so many small companies, I’m talking one or two you know small business – one or two person small businesses have done this so incredibly well on Reddit. I mean, soap companies, hot sauce companies, random software, hosting companies have done this brilliantly, brilliantly. And the only reason they – I mean, their benefit to dollar ratio is phenomenal, and the only reason they can get away with this and the only reason they can do this so effectively is because they actually use Reddit. Like they actually understand the community, they are participants in it.
And it really frustrates me whenever some social media guru gets on stage or tries to convince some company that they need to be hired when, even in the – especially in the large companies, there must be someone there who is spending a good part of their day actually in the Reddit community, make her your social media guru. That’s it. Just tell her, listen, you’re getting some new responsibility now, here are the things you’re allowed to say, here are the things you’re not allowed to say. Anytime our company comes up, have a discussion. Say it and give them the freedom and I’m sure that’s scary as all hell for some every publicly traded company, and I don’t know jack about running one of those. But it’s been great watching smaller businesses have a field day because they are – businesses are being saved on Reddit because people come onto that site with candor and there are business people just like some suited or publicly traded company. They are working for a for-profit company, but they’re doing it as Redditors. And the difference that makes is just phenomenal.
And so even though we try to work really, really hard to work with these advertisers and some of the much better than others and been willing to go that extra level to do a bit of leg work on their end or have a bit of more openness on their end. And I think it’s paid off tremendously.
Question: What was it like working with Condé Nast?
Alexis Ohanian: Okay. So for the three years that I was there and that Steve was there, we had a ludicrous amount of autonomy. And I mean, we would come in for quarterly meetings and we would present a couple of slides that showed traffic and that showed, fortunately, that went up and it showed what we were going to work on, what we did work on and what we will work on. And that was it. We’d have some discussion and then we’d go back to California. And that was wonderful. That was really, really splendid. I think we, you know, we made an agreement and the reason why it was such a palatable acquisition for us was because he had heard so many horror stories. You can’t walk two feet in the Bay Area or at Silicon Valley or in any startup community rather – any startup community and not hear about a horror story about some acquirer crushing the souls of the company the bought. And this oftentimes happens at tech companies.
So imagine what we were thinking when a publisher, like **** wanted to acquire us. We thought, well what do they know about tech? you know, they have no idea about how deal with, you know, engineers how to deal with all of that stuff, but to their credit they said, “Listen, you guys are doing something well, that’s why we want to buy you. So logically, we’ll let you continue doing what you’re doing under the auspices of our company now. You’ll get health insurance; you’ll get a salary, which was nice. And you’ll actually operate as you did before except you know, you’ll have a nice office instead of your crappy living room. And we said, “Okay. That seems like a good deal.” And for the most part, absolutely lived up to it; absolutely lived up to it. And I think – I can assure you, Steve would; not have stuck around for three years if that weren’t the case, and he did. And I did too.
So, what I think – when I think things got tricky though is when – when it came to actually monetizing Reddit. That is something they’ve still not been able to figure out. The team has come up with some great stuff in the way of self-serve sponsored headlines, Reddit Gold, different other ways to bring in revenue and merchandise, but it is a tricky proposition, but also a really frustrating one because Reddit has a fantastic audience. One with 300 million page views a month. I mean, it’s absurd how much traffic Reddit has. And so it’s just a matter of finding a way to say, “all right, we have 300 million impressions of a very, very like connected, like very thoughtful, very just impressive audience, how do we advertise to them in a way that isn’t screwing them as a user and at the same time providing enough value to an advertiser to want to do it.
And I think it can be done, but we’re still working on that.
Question: Do you think marijuana should be legalized?
Alexis Ohanian: For me, it’s mostly as a not-that-frequent marijuana smoker, it is more – it is more than just such – it is more a Condémnation of the war on drugs and the epic, epic failure that it has been. And I would love to see legalization just, not just because I know the California budget could use a little bit of revenue these days, and I’m sure once the more states realize the tremendous funding source it will be, that will ultimately be what sways their opinion. But it’s also just really frustrating to see all these side effect of prohibition, which is really what it is. It is prohibition and if you remember your U.S. history, of course, that didn’t work out too well for booze. Actually it worked out really well for organized crime, and shocker – organized crime is doing really well by the fact that marijuana is currently illegal.
And so for all those reasons, I would love to see it – love, love, love, to see it legalized. But I’ll probably talk about those in the video. So act surprised when you hear me say the exact same things again.
Question: Why do you think the Internet loves marijuana?
Alexis Ohanian: Because they’re all stoners. I’d like to think that Reddit is a really good site to read when you’re high. I mean, I have no experience doing that. I think, okay I think in particular, so we say the internet, and when we talk about the internet we’re talking about the internet that sends like Justin Beaver to North Korea. Like we’re talking about a special part of the internet, the really active one. The people who visit Reddit, who visit Digg, who visits Fark, who may even visit 4chan, these are very active internet folks. And I think for the most part, they are fairly – they are either left of center, or Libertarian. And a lot of those really, really active users tend to fall into one of those two camps politically, at least in my own sort of scientific observations. And it turns out, both of those groups are really for legalization and I think that’s just sort of the perfect storm of why they love weed. And again because, if you’re going to be high and in front of a computer, what better place to go than the brows Reddit and add a lot of pages to our account. Although the session times on places like marijuana Reddit and Trees Reddit do tend to be a little higher than other spots on the site. I don’t know why.
Question: What happened between Reddit and Condé Nast with respect to the Proposition 19 ads?
Alexis Ohanian: This was unfortunately an example where it could have been a total non-issue. It could have – that ad would have run as, if Team Reddit were concerned, I am sure that ad would have just run just like all the other very political ads that come up whether it’s through Google Ad Sense or rather Adwords or whether other sponsored headlines get submitted. Unfortunately though, **** folks got involved and that was the word. What they published was what they were told that was the company directive. And given – I think given the nature of Reddit, given the fact that users have total control of the posts or whatever they want about **** about, Reddit about us and we don’t censor it, that is a very different beast from every other traditional publication that they work with where editors have control.
You know, the New Yorker is going to have articles in their front page that the editor deems worthy of having on the front page and that works for them. That works very well for sites like TheNewYorker.com. But for Reddit, it is a very, very different scenario. And so when it comes to things like whether or not you’re going to take money for an ad, one has to be prepared for the backlash should one say no because it just means that that person has a very easy channel, Reddit.com/R/Trees to find an audience that’s receptive to his message, which is they won’t let us run this ad about legalizing pot and find a voice. And we don’t – I can’t say we any more. Reddit did not ban that story. Reddit did not censor that story. That story was on the front page and Reddit responded with, I think, I felt like total candor about the situation and ultimately ended up running the ads for free, which seems like a pretty good deal in the end.
Question: What’s the single best predictor of whether or not a story does well on Reddit?
Alexis Ohanian: Whether it has bacon in the headline. Now, so there are – Reddit memes, which are a lot of them are just appropriated from other places like 4chan, but there are – they are internet means as seen more broadly, that you can touch upon that. It can help. And I know there’s sure some Redditor has created a Reddit headline generator that may actually statistically take into account the most popular words in popular Reddit headlines, but there are plenty of jokes that one can make about that, but I think the most important thing – and this goes back to actually being a Redditor when you’re trying to advertise to the site or promote to the site, is to actually craft stuff that is timely. So whether you are submitting a link or you’re creating an ad, it really helps to actually know the community. And if you can make a reference to a top comment from a day earlier, or a top story from a week earlier, or a name from three months ago you’re going to go a lot further with that headline.
There are cheesier things you can do like starting every headline with “Hey Reddit” so it feels a little bit more personal, but that gets – that’s not a guaranteed play. Most, most, most importantly though, you can just find great content, that’s number one. Crappy content will not do well on Reddit. Find great content and give it an appropriate headline. That is kind of – that is human and is hopefully tailored to the Reddit community that you are submitting it to. And then if you really want to hustle, probably submit around 10, 11, 12, you want to get it before noon Eastern because our traffic looks like you’d expect it where it grows throughout the work day and then tapers off as people get ready or starting leaving to go to work. So around lunch is Reddit’s peak traffic time. FYI. I think the highest traffic days are Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. If feel like it kind of tapers off towards the end of the week and then into the weekend.
Question: What has it been like trying to prevent cheating in a voting-based system like Reddit?
Alexis Ohanian: Well fortunately I haven’t seen many of them. I’ve seen some of them, but I actually have plausible deniability here because I do very, very little in the way of anti-cheating. The guys have – although Reddit is Open Source, we’ve black boxed most of the anti-cheating stuff. And what’s nice for us is a lot – I mean there have been cheaters from early on. And that was great validation. We had people willing to cheat Reddit. We knew it was important enough to merit cheating, but now it’s obviously gone on to be more of a nuisance and that’s something we take it very, very, very seriously. And fortunately most cheaters are fairly dumb in the way that they do it and so we’ve developed a pretty effective, fairly simple system for dealing with those. But then there are the other slightly trickier ones where we have to take into account the fact that all Redditors are equal. And I’m not going to get all Orwell on you. It’s not that some are more equal than others, it’s that some are the proverbial drunk pushed into voting machine, told to pull a lever. And I think that we can all agree that in a fair and free election, that vote does not seem equal to someone’s vote who is doing it deliberately, who is not, let’s say being paid to go into a booth and pull a lever for Johnson, or whomever.
And what’s nice is on the internet, one actually has a fairly good idea of who is, so to speak, the drunk being bribed to vote or pull on a certain lever. And we really want – we are very cognizant of the very efficient, very large-scale systems to try to cheat sites like Reddit because it’s a very valuable thing to do. People make their livings trying to do it. And we take great pride in knowing that, even – just mostly as a byproduct of Steve’s hotness algorithm, it’s a difficult challenge on Reddit. And we want to make it all the harder because we don’t want someone who is genuinely voting for a genuinely good content to be displaced by someone else who is the, again, “the drunk in the voting booth being paid to pull a lever.” So that’s one of the big challenges we deal with, but it is like a Cold War in terms of arming up back and forth because there’s always some new trick that we pull in that eventually gets figured out and we have to escalate, and so on and so forth. Hopefully it won’t result in nuclear annihilation.
Question: Why does keeping track of a user’s “karma” matter on a site like Reddit?
Alexis Ohanian: So that – so Karma is something we obviously stole from Hinduism, well okay, Slashdot. We appropriated it from Slashdot, which presumably appropriated it from I guess Hinduism. That said, we don’t make any guarantees about you achieving nirvana no matter your karma score is. Sorry, don’t have that kind of power.
Early on, it was absolutely crucial for stimulating users to submit. And in particular, getting those power users engaged with the site and checking up regularly on the stats page, which is currently not up anymore, but to see where they ranked and to see where they’ve fallen and to see where they were going because that was a huge motivations source. And I think we all seek validation in somewhat, shape or form. And for those of us who play video games, Steve and me included, it seemed like a real obvious way. A leader board, I mean this was something in every arcade consoles **** zero, at least as far as I know. And having that kind of leader board, that kind of karma measuring contest met, certainly early on, a new user could come on the site and immediately get how it worked and then have something to vi for, have something to work toward. And it was really, really helpful. And one of the ways that illustrated that was we would know the site was down or the stats page was down or even maybe not even calculating stuff as quickly as it should because we’d get emails from frantic power users who would say, “My score hasn’t updated in a day. What’s wrong?” or “The stats page is down. What’s wrong?” And that was a fantastic sign because it meant, okay we’re already relying on our users to do all the real work at the site, let us find some way to reward them because we’re not actually like, we’re not paying them, let’s find a way to reward them through that positive reinforcement of an increasing score.
And I think that – it’s changed a lot since the site has grown because it’s not, we’ve got Comment Karma so there’s an incentive. We didn’t have commenting back then so there’s an incentive to do good commenting. But the site’s much bigger now and the top karma users have hundreds of thousands of karma points. And so now if you’re a new user to think that you’ll ever top **** for instance, one of our top users, it seems absurd. But fortunately, the system still seems to work. And I think that is pretty much based on the algorithm that Steve had created to let a lot of these good comments bubble up as they did well, to let those threads get more attention and let the crappy ones fall down. And the same goes for the stories.
And so even though those scores have now been relegated to the little score next to the submission or the comment, and then your user page, it’s still something people care about and it’s always a small minority of the site that’s doing all this work, but whatever it takes to motivate them and encourage them, you know, we want to do it.
Question: What is Breadpig?
Alexis Ohanian: I finally boiled this down into something that I’m pretty happy with in terms of an elevator pitch. So I basically wanted to create a Newman’s own for nerds. So, Paul Newman started this company called Newman’s Own a while back to create salad dressing because he thought all salad dressing sucked and he wanted to make a salad dressing that was good. And then all of a sudden, it was popular and he had a business, and he didn’t really want a business per se because he was Paul Newman, you know. He didn’t need the money and he thought, let me donate this money. And for all these years now, Paul Newman’s Own has grown to far more products and donates all the profits.
And the idea of social enterprise has always been really intriguing to me just **** has written some fantastic books on the subject and I do really believe that it is a fantastic way to leverage all of the power of capitalism, all the good stuff while minimizing all of the shittier stuff. And so I just got excited at the fact of like creating geeky things that people would want to buy, which is a great form of validation in this free market system. People want to trade their hard-earned money for the geeky stuff -- okay, that’s a good sign.
But then actually turn that into something useful and something good. And so we’ve done things like shirts and weird secular holiday greeting cards, but our biggest hit at first was actually a magnetic poetry with Lol Speak, so it’s like magnetic poetry except it’s got that icon-ask cheeseburger words on it, the pigeon English. And Lol Magnets have been a wile success. And then we followed that up by publishing the xkcd Book, a fantastic web comic. And we made a pretty easy proposition to Randall, which was we know you’re getting lots of traditional publishers who want to make your book; we will take your offer and invert the terms. So instead of you getting shafted, you will actually get a majority of the profits. And it gets even better, this is going to look just like any other book they could have made you because it turns out it’s not that hard to find a printer that prints every book at Barnes and Noble, but the profits that Bradbury makes from it, we will donate it to Room to Read, a fantastic organization who’s been working with us to help promote literacy in the developing world. Because, and this is the really important part, by giving this money to help promote literacy, we are creating more literate people and then expanding the market share potential xkcd Book buyers. And this is really all just a plan to grow our market and so we can keep doing this. We did that same thing with Lol Magnets and that we helped out the SFSPCA where dogs and cats get adopted. Well that means more dog and cat owners and presumably more people to buy our magnets.
So it’s a virtuous cycle we like to say. And yeah, it was sort of a part-time thing while, for the last two years. And I am thrilled to say, we’ve helped generate over $150,000 for not-for-profits and actually just hired Christina, who is joining the team and was the co-founder of Rafflecon, and we’re actually going to go visit that first xkcd school in Lau in a few weeks. So it’s been going really, really well and it’s been a lot of fun and I’m hoping, hoping that Breadpig will continue to grow and continue to steal ideas from Paul Newman and other famous movie stars.