How Reddit Uses Its Powers for Awesome
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.
Reddit’s co-founders were impressed—and deeply proud—when good intentions online started translating into real-world results.
What do we see from watching birds move across the country?
- A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
- The birds who migrate to the tropics fair better than the birds who winter in the U.S.
- Conservationists can arguably use these numbers to encourage the development of better habitats in the U.S., especially if temperatures begin to vary in the south.
The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?
While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.
"In the spring," the lead author Adriaan Dokter noted, "3.5 billion birds cross back into the U.S. from points south, and 2.6 billion birds return to Canada across the northern U.S. border."
In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?
Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."
The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.
What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.
Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.