I recently had the chance to talk with Alexis Ohanian, who cofounded 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 the “Mayor of the Internet” because of his leadership in securing an open internet. Ohanian 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? More broadly, 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,” speaking out against congressional acts that would have infringed on innovation and the free flow of ideas. 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, feels like a moral obligation 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 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?
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 that the internet is a powerful tool that can and should be harnessed for good. How do you balance business concerns with maintaining your ideals?
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) How did you and cofounder Steve Huffman turn Reddit into such a successful social networking service?
The most crucial thing we got right was building Reddit as a platform for communities.
We didn’t imagine there would be hundreds of thousands of diverse communities like there are today, but we knew that’s how we’d have to grow. Whether you’re into makeup or ramen, there’s a home for you on Reddit.
6) How has Reddit evolved over the years? What do you see as the future of Reddit and other social news sites?
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 competitive arena?
Every day is a new challenge, because there’s always more competition for people’s attention. But we’re lucky, because now that a quarter of a billion people are using Reddit every month, it’s become engrained in the lives of so many.
Hopefully there are many more users to come as we ship mobile web and native mobile improvements. Have you tried the native iOS and 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?