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Interview With Alexis Ohanian
Interview With Alexis Ohanian
Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder of reddit, founder and swine-defender of Breadpig, publisher of the first xkcd book, and in my opinion, the Internet's ambassador to the real world. In this interview, Alexis tells why reddit works so well, shows a quick evolution of the reddit logo, and tells about his near-death experience in rural Laos.
Were you surprised by reddit's explosion in popularity these past couple years?
Nope, this was all part of the plan.
Well actually, it's been a real lesson in persistence. We made decisions in the early years that definitely hampered growth (e.g., keeping a level playing field by punishing cheaters and striving to build a site without power-users) but put reddit in a better long-term position as we handed over more and more control to our community.
I'd always hoped it would tip over at some point, I just didn't think it would happen so suddenly -- thanks in large part to digg's self-destruction.
Anyone with good content has a good chance of being seen on reddit. There is currently no other website with this superpower. Why is reddit the only social news website that works?
The algorithms that make it all work, which Steve built, do a fabulous job creating an equitable system. We've never had the problem of "power users," which certainly affected our growth in the short-term (charlatans go out of their way to promote how well they can game a site -> content producers get excited about easy traffic -> word spreads because everyone wants to join in the pageview-fest going on -> eventually the system breaks down).
In the long-term, we bet that by giving more control and tools to our users, they'd create a better product. Take a look at the vast network of reddits that now exist, the best of which are entirely user created and run, and you'll find gems of the web none of us on the team would've dreamed up.
/r/IAmA is my favorite example.
With a site like reddit, which is the greater challenge - preventing spam from clogging the tubes or preventing power users from overtaking the site?
Spammers. They suck. The trickier nuisance is when well-intentioned publishers 'spam' the system by submitting naively. In the best case, we can educate them, since it's not spam in the traditional sense - the content is actually decent or even good - just poorly submitted. Like when someone creates a new account and submits 20 links in an hour to their personal blog -- they're a part of the problem, but can be rehabilitated.
Back in the early days of reddit, I felt (as many did) an odd personal responsibility to help grow reddit by spreading the word, writing comments, and submitting cool news articles. Why do you think people are so loyal to the community?
Why did you stop? Jerk.
I think it had a lot to do with how much time we invested being a part of our community (a party host who makes sure everyone is having fun and getting as high/drunk as they desire) combined with how much we empowered them (building them entire rooms for parties of their own where they have control over everything from the decorations [CSS] to whether people are wearing pants [/r/GoneWild]). OK, I think I've tortured that metaphor enough.
Hehe - I still do tell people about reddit, but now that it's in the top 200 websites in the world, most people already know! A couple months ago, I actually had to resort to introducing my grandma to the site.
Do you feel like this new "model" based on community, interest, and fun will ever be adapted into traditional business or possibly even government?
This has the makings of being a great year for reddit as a business. Using this model as a government, well, not so much....
Do you think that perhaps, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a planet of creatures resembling reddit aliens with a popular social news website where the mascot is an adorable tiny human?
Honey roasted peanuts or lightly salted cashews?
That's a hard question... real nice "gotchya" journalism. That's your second strike, Burke. Another one and I'm walking out on this interview.
Doris Day or Audrey Hepburn?
Audrey Hepburn and I'm a little insulted you had to ask. But that pet deer is verboten.
Any guesses on how the Internet is going to evolve in 2011?
There'll be some new way for our entire generation to become even more self-absorbed. It will likely involve mobile. It should involve a badass mascot.
I was impressed with your performance in a recent SMBC Theater video. I imagine that Zach and his gang are fun to hang out with. Can you describe the experience?
They're absolute assholes. I'm still waiting to get paid for Time Traveling Geek.
Actually, you just reminded me to post some photos from the day we taped Shock Exchange. They're really a fabulous group of people and I'm shocked they're still letting me make cameos. I even lost my fondant virginity with them.
I also learned how Zach got his surname.
In your many travels around the world, have you discovered any delightful culinary concoctions that you didn't know existed?
Just eating out in New York teaches me about new culinary concoctions, but one of my favorites came in Armenia -- khinkali. It's technically a Georgian dish (don't get angry, Georgians, I later had it in Tbilisi, too).
These delicious dumplings are cousins of soup dumplings, with a slurp-tastic broth inside that means you have to carefully bite, suck, and chew each mouthful.
Excellent first-date food!
Do you play many games? If so, what types of games do you enjoy most?
Growing up, I played videogames in nearly all of my spare time. That, or I was building websites for my various FPS clans (Q2, HL, Q3). Then I invested months of my life in Everquest and WoW. I'm sorry to say I don't have much time for videogames these days -- there's just too much other stuff I'm excited about doing.
That said, I still love a quick few games of a first person shooter and I'm still trying to find the time to finish Bioshock. Sigh. No more MMOs for me, though, I just can't commit, but a number of my friends have tried to pull me back.
You seem to always have an impossible number of "irons in the fire." Do you have any tricks for managing your time? Perhaps you cloned yourself?
Funny you should mention that. I recently made a huge time management mistake and I've vowed to start a solid to-do list as a result. I've found the key for me is optimizing my 'in the zone' time. I can be absurdly productive on interesting work for hours at a time, but disrupting that - even for a few minutes - means it could be quite some time until I get back up to speed.
RescueTime (a YC company) helps me analyze where I'm spending my time, but the part of time management I need to work on involves taking time to actually step away from work.
Often times I am stressed out from taking on too many projects. I can never tell which ones to sacrifice because I feel even worse when I set a project aside. Is there a way to limit the number of projects you're working on without feeling bad about setting aside a great idea?
It took way too long to realize how little people care about failures. I've tried and failed tons of fun little projects and - shocker - no one cared. Since it was a failure, no one was around to see it crash & burn. It works out pretty nicely, actually, so I try to execute the simplest version of my most developed ideas and see what sticks.
Do you think X-ray vision would be more of a blessing or a curse?
It'd be a curse. I'd see stuff that wouldn't be fun and it'd spoil the surprise of stuff that'd otherwise excite me. I'll take the ability to fly, or hell, even the ability to shrink to the size of an ant.
I think it's safe to say the reddit alien is now a part of popular culture. Did you go through many different designs for a reddit mascot, or did the reddit alien come out quickly and naturally as it is now?
Only a couple. I doodled the very first version in pen on some paper during my senior year marketing class (sadly, I haven't been able to find it) and went home to reproduce it in my cracked copy of Paint Shop Pro 5. With some input from my friend Andy Pham, I had it finished after a few tweaks. I used the rejected versions in a logo series a while back:
first draft
second draft
third draft
It is not unusual for my intuition to contradict what is logical. Do you ever experience this phenomenon? If so, do you usually choose to go more with your gut feeling or with reason?
Definitely happens to me. I suppose it'd happen to any of us who aren't Vulcan. What I do depends on the situation. I wish I listened to reason more often, but my gut is really loud and hungry.
Do you feel as though the events in your life have pushed you down a single given path or that you just as easily could have chosen a completely different road? If your earthly experience has not been like a funnel, what other career path could you see yourself on?
Borges has a great short story relating to this that really resonates with me, "The Garden of Forking Paths." Perhaps I could've chosen a different road, but I didn't deliberately choose this road either. If I hadn't had Steve Huffman living across the hall from me my first year of college at UVA, I'd probably be an immigration lawyer. Though, I had a fateful trip to Waffle House (but who hasn't?) that pushed me away from studying the law, so I could also see myself as a ninja.
I worry that if I release a good functioning idea before it's well developed, someone with vastly more time and resources will take the idea, develop it further, and advertise it before I even have a chance to get it off the ground. Is there any validity to this fear? If not, what prevents unscrupulous people from doing this?
It happens, I'm sure, but not often enough for it to matter (Q17 ftw!). Seriously, just do it. Most people capable of out-executing you probably have no shortage of things they're working on anyway.
And now, for the hard hitting question. How do you reconcile your role in Breadpig as "swine defender" with reddit's great love of bacon?
Well, I don't actually eat much meat these days, which is unrelated to my increased involvement with breadpig. The underdog (underpig?) status of breadpig always appealed to me -- he really doesn't look like he's prepared to be the world's hero. Everyone always tells me how tasty he looks, like a flying ready-to-eat sandwich; I hope redditors can fight the urge.
And now, for the closer. What was the most interesting (SFW) thing that happened to you last year?
Christina Xu / Breadpig - Overturned bus in Laos
That SFW business makes this harder than I'd like...
It'd probably be visiting the xkcd school we funded in Laos. We had a rather long journey to get there, since it's built in very rural Laos. The overnight bus we took for the first leg of the trip stopped at some point in the middle of the night because a similar bus had flipped over, killing a number of the people aboard.
The following morning over breakfast, our host from Room to Read explained - quite nonchalantly I might add - that he'd originally bought us tickets on that bus, but at the last minute changed his mind and swapped them out for the bus we rode.
After hearing that, the rest of the day was pretty fabulous. Nothing like a brush with death to make one appreciate life. And it got even better when we finally reached the school, had lunch with the villagers who literally built it, and met its children and teachers.
©ALLOFTHEYEARS Steve Burke * home * rss