Founding a site from your tiny apartment in 2005 and watching it grow to 2 billion page views per month would give most people an utter sense of completion, but not Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. He talks exclusively to Gizmodo about the future of the platform, why it won’t go the way of the Digg dinosaur and the state of the free and open internet.
Alexis Ohanian is busy. When you email him to confirm an interview, you get an automatic reply saying that he’s head down on his book and might not be able to reply straight away. He’s probably busy writing it as you read this, if he’s not working on a venture, donating his time to charitable causes or founding another incredible start-up. Despite all his exploits, he still has time to sit on the newly spun-off board of Reddit — the social news site he created in 2005 that has now become the de facto front page of the internet.
You may not have heard of Alexis before, but you’ve definitely seen his work. Whether it’s through a link shared on a social network or a story pointing to it on this site, you’ve certainly seen references to Reddit even if you haven’t used it actively. He co-founded it in 2005 with his friend and college roommate Steve Huffman and it was acquired by Condé Nast around a year later for an undisclosed sum.
Since Reddit, Alexis has gone on to do amazing online charity work, founding the “uncorporation” known as Breadpig that sold geeky stuff and gave the proceeds to charity and working as a venture funding guy for micro-finance site Kiva. In 2010 he helped launch an online travel search engine known as Hipmunk, all the while being an evangelist, investor and advisor for technology start-ups.
Like I said, Alexis is a busy guy.
The Future Of Reddit
I spoke to Alexis via Skype where he was kind enough to take half an hour out of his day to talk all things internet. (BTW: if you have to have an important conversation, don’t have it on Skype. Use Google Plus instead.)
While Alexis officially left Reddit in a full-time capacity in 2010, the man still contributes at a board level as an advisor now that Condé Nast has spun the site off as a subsidiary.
“I never left the mailing lists and when I got back to the States I was still trying to be helpful in an informal advisory role and as the months continued to go on, I knew that I wanted to keep helping because Reddit has always been a very big part of my life, and I had the opportunity now…a year ago almost…as Reddit was being spun off as an independent company…as Reddit Incorporated again [I joined] the board of that new company,” he tells me.
It’s not a full time role, though. That would get in the way of all the other stuff he has on. But on a daily basis, he sees the emails that bounce around between members of the team that run the front page of the internet.
Reading those emails everyday puts a smile on Alexis’ dial, simply because he notices that the current gatekeepers are making the same decisions he would have made with Steve if they still owned the site.
But that’s not enough, he tells us. Reddit still needs to evolve.
Hearing anyone say the word evolve should be fine; it means that a product or service is taking on the advice they have received previously from users and reviewers and incorporating it to make the user experience better. The problem with evolving online communities, however, is that you have to add new things in without driving away all the users that currently make your site special. A social network is only as good as its users, after all.
Just ask Digg founder Kevin Rose what an evolved design meant to attract new users did for the social network (hint: it was recently sold for a pittance), or ask Rob Malda, co-founder of Slashdot, about his biggest regrets with the site. They all stem back to not respecting the community during an evolutionary stage.
So when I heard that Reddit is trying to change stuff to better cater to new users, I started getting that sick feeling that we are nearing the end of a great thing.
Reddit works right now by having a front page dedicated to the best content currently being shared, discussed and viewed on the network. That content gets there by a mix of views and user votes, known as upvotes.
Beyond the front page, though, lays a teeming mass of niche communities known as sub-reddits. If there’s a topic you’re interested in, Alexis explains, there’s a sub-reddit for it.
“[Reddit’s success lies in that fact that] it is not one community. Steve and I…debated this a month into Reddit. The first iteration of the site did not have sub-reddits. It was one front page to be as simple as possible.”
Much like a blog, Alexis wanted to add tags so that users could quickly fill out categories on the site. For example, someone could submit a story about Syria, and tag it with “World News” and “Global Politics”. The idea to create distinct communities, or sub-reddits, was Steve’s idea, and Alexis freely admits that at the time, neither of them realised just how popular the idea for identifiable communities would be.
“I’m happy he won [that] debate,” Alexis says, enjoying the benefit of hindsight.
Sub-reddits are the key to Reddit’s success: where other sites are fighting to grow one community, Reddit organically grew itself hundreds, even thousands, of different communities.
But the success of the niche communities is a double-edged sword for Alexis and the team, because right now, Alexis tells us, that there needs to be a change in the user experience.
“We can do this better,” he starts off confidently.
“First and foremost, we want to be good to our users on Reddit, that’s why there are no annoying ads, that’s why we always make sure everything loads fast and that there’s a high density of information, but we need to do a better job onboarding new users.”
“Onboarding new users”? What does that even mean? Well, according to Alexis, it’s about greater accessibility for new users. Reddit’s ability to retain new users will depend on making it as simple to use as Twitter, Alexis explains.
“A new user comes to Reddit and realises that she can customise the front page, subscribe to sub-reddits much like they would subscribe and unsubscribe from new followers on Twitter. We have not…” he pauses, then continues: “a lot of this is on me for not articulating it well over the years, we need to make it clear that…there is a Reddit for you if you just like talking to Corgi owners, and you can also use Reddit if all you want to talk about is the New York Yankees. Twitter have actually done a great job of articulating this. Their platform can easily be used for fans of Kim Kardashian, or for people who just want to follow the tweets of the President of the United States. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they just operate [well] on the same platform.”
“We don’t articulate this well for users; for example, there are redditors who don’t even know that they can customise their frontpage by subscribing and unsubscribing from sub-reddits. We just haven’t done a good enough job exposing them.”
Alexis has sat in on conversations with senior staff who, he admits, are far better decision-makers than he is, and he’s confident that this change can be executed without jeopardising the trust or experience of existing users. As a matter of fact, the site experienced its greatest success when Alexis and Steve stepped back from the platform and let the team do their jobs. Each and every one of them lives and breathes Reddit, and they’re not about to screw up on the job, explains Alexis.
“The spirit of Reddit hasn’t changed since Steve and I founded it back in that little apartment in 2005,” he says.
Our interview spiralled off into a deep conversation about the effect of lobbyists on internet legislation and the state of the internet right now and we’ll cover those next week.
For now though, what do you think of Reddit’s accessibility changes? Is it going to piss off existing users or is the new audience going to offset the backlash?