Faking (Then Making) It: Reddit’s First Year
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.
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.
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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.
- The 'Monkeydactly', or Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, was a species of pterosaur, a group of flying reptiles that were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
- In a recent study, a team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning to analyze the anatomy of the newly discovered species, finding that it was the first known species to develop opposable thumbs.
- As highly specialized dinosaurs, pterosaurs boasted unusual anatomy that gave them special advantages as aerial predators in the Mesozoic Era.
A newly discovered flying dinosaur nicknamed "Monkeydactyl" is the oldest known creature that evolved opposable thumbs, according to new research published in Current Biology.
The 160-million-year-old reptile is officially named Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. Discovered in China, the dinosaur was a darwinopteran pterosaur, a subgroup of pterosaurs, which first appeared 215 million years ago during the Triassic Period. Pterosaurs, like the pterodactyl, were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
But unlike other pterosaurs, the Monkeydactyl was the only species in its group known to have opposable thumbs. It's a rare adaptation for non-mammals: The only extant examples are chameleons and some species of tree frogs. (Most birds have at least one opposable digit, though that digit is usually classified as a hallux, not a pollex, which means "thumb" in Latin.)
To analyze the anatomy of K. antipollicatus, an international team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning, which generates images of the inside of the body.
"The fingers of 'Monkeydactyl' are tiny and partly embedded in the slab," study co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a press release. "Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models, and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones."
"This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn't known for having an opposed thumb."
As a tree-dwelling reptile, the Monkeydactyl probably evolved opposable thumbs so it could grasp tree branches, which would have helped it hang, avoid falls, and obtain food. This arboreal (tree-dwelling) locomotion would help the Monkeydactyl adapt to its home ecosystem, the subtropical forests of the Tiaojishan Formation in China during the Jurassic Period.
The researchers noted that the forests of the Tiaojishan Formation were likely warm and humid, thriving with "a rich and complex" diversity of tree-dwelling animals. But while the forests were home to multiple pterosaur species, the Monkeydactyl was likely the only one that was arboreal, spending most of its time in the treetops, while other pterosaurs occupied different levels of the forest.
K. antipollicatus and its phylogenetic position. (A and B) Holotype specimen BPMC 0042 (A) and a schematic skeletal drawing (B). Scale bars, 50 mm.Credit: Zhou et al.
This process — in which competing species manage to coexist by using the environment in different ways — is called "niche partitioning."
"Tiaojishan palaeoforest is home to many organisms, including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs," study author Xuanyu Zhou said in the press release. "Our results show that K. antipollicatus has occupied a different niche from Darwinopterus and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs."
In general, pterosaurs are a prime example of how animals can evolve remarkably specialized adaptations. As pioneers of vertebrate flight, pterosaurs had strong and lightweight skeletons that ranged widely in size, with some boasting wingspans of more than 30 feet. The largest pterosaurs weighed more than 650 pounds and had jaws twice the length of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Unlike birds, which jump into the air using only their hind limbs, pterosaurs used their exceptionally strong hind limbs and forelimbs to push off the ground and gain enough launch power for flight. That these massive dinosaurs managed to fly, and did so successfully for about 80 million years, has long fascinated and puzzled scientists.The recent discovery shows that pterosaurs developed even more remarkable adaptations than previously thought, suggesting there's still more to learn about the "monsters of the Mesozoic skies."