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: 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.
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.