I recently had the chance to talk with Alexis Ohanian, who co-founded Reddit in 2005 as a way for users to share and discuss just about anything going on anywhere around the world.
Ohanian is also the bestselling author of Without Their Permission, a partner at Y Combinator and a founder of Breadpig. He has been dubbed by admirers as the “Mayor of the Internet,” a reference to his leading the charge in open internet activism.
In addition, Ohanian, among others, rallied against lobbyists who pushed for piracy reform that he believed would threaten innovation.
1. In 2015, you delivered an inspiring but profanity laced speech to your former high school that got you kicked out of the building by the principal.
What was the main message you were hoping to get across to the students? And in general, what do you want to pass along to the next generation?
I’m always pushing this next generation to take full advantage of the opportunities we’ve been given, especially while they’re still young and relatively free of responsibility.
The internet enables more people than ever before to do what they’re passionate about — and potentially make a living from it. I don’t want any of these kids looking back on high school as the best time in their lives. It’s all just getting started.
2. You have become an “open internet activist” by speaking out against Congressional acts that would have potentially infringed on innovation, the free-flow of ideas as well as the freedom of speech.
Why is this such a personal and important fight for you? What do you see as the future of the internet, in terms of freedom of speech and ideas?
Defeating SOPA and PIPA (and fighting for net neutrality) feel like moral obligations for me, because of all the success I’ve had thanks to the open internet — I want to make sure that opportunity continues for everyone.
We have a worldwide, borderless network that gets broader and deeper every minute, so let’s not destroy that. If you wanted to change the world in the industrial age, you needed to open a factory — in the internet age you only need to open a laptop.
3. You were named as one of the most influential activists of 2012 and Forbes dubbed you the “Mayor of the Internet.”
Do you continue to speak out on issues, and if so what? What is it you ultimately want to accomplish as an activist?
I don’t have as much time for this as I would like now that I’m back at Reddit, but we had a big push to get Title II passed, with a Reddit-wide phoneathon I hosted, and the internet once again did what the pundits said would be impossible.
The fight will never end, but we’ll keep working to defend and spread the open internet.
4. In your book, Without Their Permission, you write about how the internet is a powerful tool that can and should be harnessed for good.
It seems like a difficult task, especially for the entrepreneur who is struggling to grow his or her business in a fiercely competitive online world while also maintaining ideals and hopefully change the world for the better. How do you suggest balancing all that?
Making something people love — even if it’s a business, is still making the world suck less. Creating great jobs, producing things people want, and fulfilling one’s own purpose is absolutely harnessing the net for good.
5. Can you give me the highlights on how you and co-founder Steve Huffman turned Reddit into such a successful social news networking service?
You got all the best parts in my book, but the most crucial thing we got right was building Reddit as a platform for communities.
We didn’t imagine there’d be hundreds of thousands of diverse communities like there are today, but we know that’s how we’d have to grow.
6. How has Reddit evolved or changed over the years? What do you see as the future of Reddit and other social news sites like it?
Evolution has been a priority for the company since Steve and I returned last summer. There’s no website quite like Reddit, which is why it’s managed to grow in spite of not changing very much in the last six years since we left.
That said, we’re working hard to improve the product and make the experience better for everyone from our most devoted users to the most casual.
I’ve been so floored by how much code the team has shipped in the last few months alone — easily more than Reddit did in the last year before we came back.
7. Do you ever worry about the fickle nature of social media? How will Reddit continue to remain relevant in this ever-competitive arena?
Everyday is a new challenge, because there’s always more competition for people’s attention, but we’re lucky because now that 1/4 of a billion people are using Reddit every month, it’s become engrained in the lives of so many.
Hopefully many more to come as we ship mobile web and native mobile improvements (have you tried the native iOS + Android apps we finally launched?)
8. Some have criticized your platform for being ugly. Do you foresee any changes in this department?
I’m not apologizing for picking Verdana. Take a look at the native mobile and mobile web experiences for Reddit and you’ll find some modern, fast (!!!) and beautiful ways to consume all the great Reddit content you’ve come to know and love. We’re always working to improve the user experience.
9. What have you been up to lately? Any new projects or ventures on the horizon?
I’ve just been heads down. I’m excited for NFL season to get started soon — does that count?