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: 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, Erik, 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 Erik 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.
According to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian the most active users tend to be left-of-center or libertarian, and both those groups advocate for the legalization of marijuana.