Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian: ‘We need more conversations’
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Alexis Ohanian embodies the triumphant tech titan. He’s the guy who travelled 500 miles to blind pitch an investor with his start-up idea. He’s the guy who built a company with his college roommate, and sold it within two years for between $10m and $20m. He’s the nerdy kid who worked at a computer warehouse store as a teenager, and then grew up to marry Serena Williams, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time.
It is the stuff of Silicon Valley myth: that with inventiveness and audacity, you can have it all. But what happens when your creation, the thing that made you rich, is also known as a breeding ground for hate?
I’m sitting at a tiny tin table on the front sidewalk of Ruby’s, a hip, healthy Australian café in Manhattan, with the 36-year-old founder of America’s sixth most popular website, Reddit. Ohanian wants to talk about Initialized Capital, the venture firm he co-founded, which focuses on early stage seed funding and mentoring, and has $500m under management. He wants to talk about some of the companies in its 200-plus portfolio that have missions he believes in. He wants to talk about the importance of shared parental leave, which he recently wrote an op-ed advocating in The New York Times. But I want to talk about Reddit.
Ohanian and I are trying to get comfortable in two rickety chairs. It’s sunny, and I am sweating, and he is not. He’s in a quintessential tech bro uniform: black polo, black jeans and Atoms, a venture-backed shoe that comes in quarter sizes. He has a black circular power button tattoo on his forearm. He is sharing survival tips for living in transit (“Hydrate!”) and immediately reads as relaxed and likeable.
“I’m just remembering I should call my dad,” he says. “I try to call him every Sunday and I missed him this week.”
Ohanian has a busy agenda: be a good trendspotter, investor, husband, father, son. I am here to learn what drives it. Is this a man with a guilty conscience?
To understand Ohanian you must understand Reddit, a discussion-based social platform that hosts thousands of self-moderated communities. Valued at $3bn, its approximately 330m monthly active users geek out on topics that range from sneakers to skincare to Pokémon. In the group r/explainlikeimfive, 17m members discuss questions such as, “How is world population calculated?” and “Why do crackers have holes in them?” In r/nostupidquestions, one redditor posits, “My girlfriend is concerned that we’ve never fought. Is this a problem?” The site was fashioned in the freewheeling spirit some believe the internet was designed for: an uncensored and messy reflection of humanity in all its variety. The best of Reddit is achingly uplifting, surprisingly helpful, or useless and brilliant in equal measure.
But Reddit has also been charged with being an incubator of the alt-right, a platform for revenge porn and a place where conspiracies run riot. Meanwhile, over the past 15 years, Reddit’s social media peers became unmoored giants that have shifted shape to profit from our data. In this environment, public trust is running low. Ohanian, a seemingly altruistic man, must be grappling with this. Did his platform help to spawn the rise in hate crimes across America?
First, though, we need to eat. Ohanian knows his order well before the waitress arrives: a flat white and a meatless Impossible Burger with fries. This burger is trending. Made with something called soy leghemoglobin, it supposedly looks, tastes and bleeds like beef. It’s why he chose Ruby’s. Feeling cornered but curious — and ready to hate it — I order one too, with a cold brew iced coffee.
Ohanian and I have a common interest: cultural identity. We are both half-Armenian. We realise that we were both sent as children to Camp Nubar, an Armenian camp in upstate New York, to discover our heritage. Neither of us felt Armenian enough to fit in. “I remember these big tables and campers, with food in the middle, family style,” recalls Ohanian. “Mountains of buttery aromatic pilaf, and a ton of conversations around the table, all in Armenian . . . which I didn’t speak!”
I imagine Ohanian as a pre-teen: a bit chubby, a bit dorky (and self-defined as such in his memoir), an outsider who feels Armenian but not enough to pass the test. When he gets old enough to build something, taller, slimmer, more socially capable, he makes Reddit: a place where no one feels left out.
In 2005, right after graduating from college, Ohanian and his co-founder Steve Huffman began developing Reddit as “the front page of the internet”. At this point, YouTube had just posted its first viral video, Facebook had just expanded to high school students, and MySpace, Livejournal and AOL ruled. Communities built rapidly on Reddit, and Condé Nast acquired the site in 2006. Ohanian tells me the story of leaving Reddit, five years after founding it, as a young multi-millionaire. Instead of jetting off to Fiji he bought a flight to Armenia, rented a small apartment in downtown Yerevan, set up a Kiva branch and spent four months giving microfinance loans to Armenian entrepreneurs.
Our food arrives and I eye what does indeed look like a regular burger. Ohanian takes a bite of his. “Oh, man,” he says. “So full disclosure, I did invest in this . . . ”
Yes, I know, I say.
I cut the thing in half — no blood, but still a surprisingly meat-like substance, smothered in lettuce, onions, pickles and mayonnaise.
It tastes like a burger, I say.
“Right?” he says, settling into his agenda. “For two decades, if someone offered you a veggie burger, you knew what you were getting. It was going to taste terrible. And I love love love love love beef. I was dared to try it, and I couldn’t tell the difference.”
He pops a French fry in his mouth. “What I appreciate is they said look, we’re making this for meat eaters,” he says. “If you want progress, that’s the move. And the environmental cost of this is a fraction of that big old cow. It felt to me like a real lift from everything I’ve heard until then.”
As I push a pickle back in my burger, I turn to Reddit. While Ohanian was in Armenia, his creation was succumbing to trolls. He calls the five years after he and Huffman left the company its “dark ages”.
This was the era in which subreddits such as “/incel”, short for “involuntary celibates”, were born and thrived. Incel is a subculture of mostly white men who self-identify as unable to find sexual partners. It is considered a hate group, with a record of violence against women.
Yishan Wong, an early PayPal employee brought in as chief executive of Reddit in 2012, had a hands-off approach to offensive content. A company statement he published shortly before his departure in 2014 described their philosophy as: “each individual is responsible for his or her moral actions”.
Wong was succeeded by Ellen Pao, already well known in Silicon Valley for speaking out against gendered hiring practices, and for filing an early gender discrimination suit against a former employer. But her efforts to tackle Reddit’s culture led to a backlash among users and she resigned after less than a year, warning that “the trolls are winning”. The founders decided to come back full time to fix Reddit, Ohanian as chairman, Huffmann as chief executive.
Upon returning, Ohanian says they instated an “anti-evil” team. The company built software that uses machine learning to anticipate how trolls shift offensive keywords.
As someone who spent three years responsible for reader comments at the FT, I am keenly aware of the conflicts inherent in running an on-site community. I believe in the internet’s ability to connect people and allow them to speak back to power. But recent events, from Cambridge Analytica to Russian election interference, have laid bare how susceptible people can be to manipulation. I get it, I tell him. We make tough choices daily about which conversations we enable on our site. These tech giants do the same, on an unimaginable scale. But I’m not convinced of how seriously you all take that responsibility.
How do you feel being the face of a platform that . . . ?
“Well, former,” he says. “I’m all Initialized now.”
OK, but you’re still on the board, I say. And can you ever escape your creation?
“Yes, fair. OK, give me your question.”
What is your responsibility? I ask. What is Reddit’s? Where is the line?
“I feel like I bring this up almost every board meeting, and have been for the last few years,” he says. “I’m proud of a lot of progress that the team made at Reddit. I think there’s still overwhelming good that these platforms create that by nature never makes headlines. But one of the best advantages to Reddit’s dark ages was that it created awareness in 2014 of the level of responsibility we need to have.”
He says Reddit was lucky to face these issues earlier than its contemporaries, citing Mark Zuckerberg’s Washington Post op-ed in March requesting more regulation around internet speech as an example of a new cultural shift. I ask whether these grand gestures, such as Facebook’s recent pivot to privacy, are just reactions to falling share prices.
“Long term, yes. Some of that is true. I want to believe, though, that there are other people at the board and executive level saying that we have a responsibility, and we can be better.”
Ohanian has abandoned his final fries. “I actually think this all comes back to being Armenian,” he says. We are both descendants of genocide survivors. “I was both proud and heartbroken when I found my first Armenian Genocide denier post on Reddit. I was proud in the sense that, wow, we’re truly a global platform. And then heartbroken, because goddamnit, we’re truly a global platform and there are lots of people who believe this awful state-sponsored thing.”
And you can’t delete it, I say.
“And we didn’t,” he says. “I think we have to ultimately have more conversations and not less. That’s the optimistic, idealistic and pragmatic part of it. Just convincing people to eat less meat [won’t work]. To actually get the change you want, we need more conversations with the people who want a delicious burger.”
It’s not an easy problem. As I listen to Ohanian talk through his compromise, I eye the remnants of my own faux burger. Cold and sauceless, it suddenly looks a bit gross.
“I’m not trying to trivialise this issue,” he continues, “but how do we make sure that conversation happens in a constructive way? Sometimes upsetting, and that’s OK, but still a place where people can come share, not be harassed, feel safe enough. I don’t think we ever find that balance.”
The waitress arrives with the bill. I shift topic to Serena Williams.
We all live in contradictions, with various levels of comfort. One of Ohanian’s clearest lies in his marriage to one of the world’s most visible women of colour, a woman who has faced relentless, infuriating prejudice throughout her career. He is celebrated for championing her, speaking up publicly against sexism, racism and toxic masculinity, and working toward an equal gender breakdown among partners at Initialized.
I ask whether he and Serena ever talk about that conflict, between his advocacy for social change and his creation of a platform that gives her trolls and critics space to radicalise. “It hasn’t come up,” he says. As he searches for an answer, I realise he either doesn’t see these things as incongruous, or he just doesn’t think it’s that deep.
“We’ll talk broadly about . . . ” he stops. “I mean all of . . . ” He reframes again. “The sad reality is, you don’t have to look very far on a news article, Instagram post or Twitter post to find these comments about her. And so we talk broadly about it because it’s clearly something that she has been able to somehow process and put out of mind. But her idea of consuming content on the internet is the exact opposite of mine. She has zero interest. There’s the athlete thing where you don’t want to read any press about you, but she does not consume any press or any social media. She’s just there to produce content and then walk away.”
He and Serena have a two-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr, who has her own Instagram and Twitter accounts, which they run. It also seems likely — he doesn’t confirm — that he runs social accounts for her doll, Qai Qai, posed in various dramatic predicaments. Together, Ohanian’s daughter and her doll have more than 760,000 followers. I ask whether he’s comfortable with how his life has changed, and with so much of his life in public. He insists that it hasn’t changed much.
But your wedding is on HBO, I tell him. Your child’s birth is on HBO.
“Yes, OK, it’s definitely different,” he says and smiles. He seems to like it. “I used to get pitched at restaurants and walking down streets. People were like, hey, can I tell you about my start-up? Now people will just be like, I love your wife!”
As we start a six-block walk to Ohanian’s next meeting, I am suddenly conscious of his height, which is six foot five. Our stroll becomes borderline aerobic. He redirects my intrusive personal questions into a conversation about shared parental leave. Ohanian took 16 weeks of paid paternity leave when his daughter was born, in accordance with a company-wide policy at Reddit. “I think half the battle is actually getting people to take advantage of it,” he says.
We end up in the conference room of a large warehouse office. Curious to understand Ohanian’s role as a VC, I sit in on a meeting between him and the founder of healthtech company Ro. Ro has one site for men with issues such as erectile dysfunction and hair loss, and another for menopausal women. He explains that these are unsexy, hugely ignored markets: adults with embarrassing non-critical medical needs, navigating entrenched stigmas.
I ask the founders how Ohanian helps them. “This is going to embarrass Alexis,” says its chief executive, 27-year-old Zach Reitano. “But when we talk about the ideal version of a guy, we actually use him as the model. Because there are very specific examples! Professionally ambitious. Stands up for causes that he believes in. Isn’t scared at all to be vulnerable. Also, his wife makes more money than him and he’s proud of it.”
Imagine: that nervous kid at Armenian camp, shish kebab on his plate, now the face of modern masculinity. Ohanian laughs, looking pleased. “It’s true!” he says. “Very true.”
Lilah Raptopoulos is the FT’s US head of audience engagement and co-host of Culture Call
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