Alexis Ohanian
Co-founder, Reddit

Faking (Then Making) It: Reddit’s First Year

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In Reddit’s early days, the site’s co-founders submitted content under a variety of fake identities in order to make it look like there were more users than there actually were.

Alexis Ohanian

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.


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 saw the reddit 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.  

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