Published: Wednesday 19th of October 2016

I had met Alexis Ohanian briefly before, but I didn’t really know what to expect when I walked into Reddit’s understated offices for the first time. I had two goals: Understand exactly what was happening at Reddit these days and discuss what Alexis would be presenting during his keynote at CMX Summit West on November 2nd.

I settled in on a comfortable chair next to a desk I’m pretty sure my grandmother once owned. A book collection of Reddit AMAs sat on the coffee table in front of me. This probably should have been my first clue that Reddit – from the inside out – puts its members front and center.

Alexis and his co-founder, Steve Huffman, founded Reddit way back in 2005. The vision was simple: let the people determine what news and links should be popular. But they made one choice, almost casually, that set them apart from traditional media and other article-gathering sites on the web: they allowed users to create their own, focused communities within the site.

In the years since, Reddit has grown immensely. The site now has 240 million monthly active users. But just as important as their front-page activity has been the blossoming of these (sometimes very) niche communities within the site. There are now over 44 thousand active subreddits. Their focus on supporting these users and communities – along with their pseudonymity – is what Alexis believes has set them apart.

It wasn’t always sunshine and roses though.

Alexis and Steve sold the company to Conde Nast in 2009 and left the company for half a decade. Although the site continued to grow, so did the concerns about the actions of troublemakers, the relationship between the company and the moderators, and the vision for the future.

The Reddit team back in the day in 2005

The Reddit team back in 2005. From left: Christopher Slowe, Alexis Ohanian, Snoo, Steve Huffman.

After investing in numerous startups and fighting for net neutrality, Alexis returned to the company in 2014 in what people may have thought was just a public relations move. But in talking to him, it became clear he is back to make big moves.

Reddit today has a quarter of a billion monthly active users – but Alexis is aiming to quadruple that growth, improve their relationship with their moderators, and change the internet landscape.

Much like the Reddit offices, Alexis arrived well-dressed but also comfortable. A gray hoodie, ankle socks, and tennis shoes downplayed the classy button-up shirt he wore. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake, though I got the sense he probably would have been more comfortable with a fist bump. And as we sat down and started to talk, it became clear that this duality is key to Alexis and his leadership.

He has succeeded at building this massive, galvanizing thing because he is both someone who knows how to, say, sit down with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and someone who knows how to connect with people who are obsessed with cat bleps and understand where they all come from.

The interview that follows is largely unedited because all of it is relevant to those whose work revolves around gathering people. Alexis and I dive into topics that range from community growth to influencer strategy to ROI.

Evan Hamilton: Where do you see Reddit going in the next 5 years?

Alexis Ohanian: We want to have over a billion users all over the world, and we have a lot of work to do to get there.

In the last quarter, Reddit has shipped more than in the first few years of when Steve [Huffman] and I came back. And that’s really exciting because the product improvements help Reddit become more accessible and more powerful and more useful to more people. That’s how we grow.

Reddit is now at about a quarter of a billion monthly active users but almost all are English-speaking. That’s not intentional. We’d love to be worldwide, but there are a lot of fundamental products that we still want to get right for all the anglophones first. But that’s a lot of potential growth.

Why do you think there’s been such progress in this short time period?

I give a lot of credit to Steve. He really cut his teeth at Hipmunk. When we started Reddit, we were right out of college. We didn’t know a thing about web app development. We had built websites before, but we didn’t know about building teams. We didn’t know a lot of things.

Hipmunk was a five-or-so-year experience for Steve. He ran the technical team for a good half a decade and learned how to get really good at shipping product, especially in an industry that just sucks, where you have to earn every user.

So now he’s taking all those skills and all those experiences back home to a platform that just grew organically, and we never understood why.

When you get forged in an environment that is as harsh as travel search, then you get to bring all that discipline to a place like Reddit where it’s just naturally, organically and virally growing, exciting things happen.

And we’ve specifically doubled the headcount in the last year. So we have an executive team that we just didn’t have a year or so ago, and they’re doing all the amazing work.

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Reddit team members (plus a tasty watermelon) with Alexis on the far right.

What is your focus right now?

I am basically in support of all the external-facing teams in the company. So I’m serving as a kind of force-multiplier for sales, business development, community, policy, for anyone that interacts with the outside world.

A lot of that comes down to helping open doors, closing deals, finding ways for us to better understand how Reddit is perceived by all these external stakeholders and then improving those relationships.

On the community side, I’ve had the privilege of meeting probably more redditors all over the world face-to-face than anyone because, for the last decade, I’ve traveled the world and gone to hundreds of meetups with redditors. Their stories are very much baked into me and my perception of Reddit. I try to bring that to discussions we have here with our community team and across the company.

Over the last four or five months, we also brought in Philippe [Beaudette] from Wikipedia and Wikia to run the community team. He actually was the guy who was going through the Wikipedia blackout during SOPA/PIPPA while Reddit was going through the blackout. And in many ways the Wikipedia blackout was the thing that really set the world on fire. So Philippe’s been a fabulous addition. And now we have a foundation for an actual community team as well as a trust and safety team. Engineers and products folks here are rolling out a whole fleet of tools.

We also decimated spam. We have an Anti-Evil team, which is like our Seal Team 6 of brilliant engineers for solving hard problems that are caused by evildoers. We’re interacting with mods, getting their feedback, hearing them. Basically the stuff we did eleven years ago: talking to users.

Reddit is thriving and community is becoming a focus at many major companies. On the flip side, we see situations like NPR actually shutting down comments. What are your thoughts on that?

I think all the media sites are eventually going to go that way. That’s why it’s going to be more important than ever that there are platforms for people to have these discussions.

Looking at moderation and power – the only way that communities are successful is giving away power.

On Reddit, you have these mods that are doing amazing stuff and even creating things like AMAs. I think it was a random user, in fact, who started them. A user showed up on r/AskReddit and said ‘Hey, I’m a blah blah, ask me anything’ and everyone on r/AskReddit was like, ‘No, that’s not how this works. You ask Reddit a question. Go create your own subreddit.’ And he was like, ‘Okay,’ and r/IAmA got started. Totally organic. And so many of Reddit’s greatest and best-known things were generated from users.

How much power should you give up?

When we talk about the magic of Reddit, it’s largely because, as a product, we have created some pretty straightforward, basic tools and allowed for people to remix them and come up with clever uses of them.

Even the self-post on Reddit was a clever user. We only had link posts and someone guessed what the URL would be for the post they were about to submit, so they made a link post that went to itself. And that was clever, and it basically just started a comment thread. And we thought ‘Oh, let’s just make that a post type’. And we have countless examples of this.

That’s the part where allowing for this sort of creative freedom is really, really helpful and the best way for us to support that is having a pretty straightforward policy for the site, pretty straightforward tools (and we’re continuing to improve those and we still have work to do there), and then letting people be creative, letting people feel that sense of ownership over their communities, where they understand that we’re providing the space for it.

We’ve sort of built the digital town square and they are inhabiting it and decorating it and building communities there.

Speaking of this town square concept, celebrities and influencers have become a big part of these communities as well. How does that mesh with the idea that Reddit is all about the users?

One of the things we’ve found that has been really interesting is that, over the last year, more and more AMAs have been spread out throughout the site. And that’s been really important because it turns out when, say, Jeremy Lin shows up on r/NBA, it feels really special to those NBA fans.

And then Jeremy’s not just showing up once a year to promote something. He’s actually showing up because some poor girl accidentally got his name tattooed in Chinese on her ankle. True story. And because he’s a participant in that community, he saw that post, and he remembered ‘Oh right, r/NBA, it’s this amazing Reddit community of NBA fans. Oh look, this girl accidentally got my name tattooed on her ankle.’

But she was being such a good sport about it, she was like ‘I guess I have to become a Jeremy Lin fan’ and now he’s chiming in on the comments. This back and forth continued to the point where he met her at one of his games. That is a life-changing experience not just for her, but for this entire community, right?

This is THE NBA community on the internet. This is where so many opinions get formed and/or so many writers are pulling story ideas to write about. That has a huge, huge impact and it’s also in Jeremy’s best interest to participate there.

And it creates this great dynamic because those mods see this participation happening, we’re doing what we can to bring more and more people like that to the community, and it creates this great virtuous cycle that, at the end of the day, users will love and it’s good for everyone.

Alexis Ohanian on stage at CMX Summit East 2016

What do you think motivates mods to do what, in some cases, is immense amounts of work and how do you sustain that?

It’s the same thing that motivates people to volunteer for their church, to be a scoutmaster for their Boy Scout troop. How does one describe that? It’s that sense of leadership and community-building that gives people tremendous, invaluable fulfillment.

It’s weird, I don’t think anyone would ask, ‘Mrs Johnson, why would you spend 20 hours a week doing volunteer work for your church? Why would you do that?’ It’s almost unthinkable to ask that. But because it’s online, I think there is this dynamic, this perception that maybe it’s different or it’s less real. But the fact is it’s different, because I would argue it’s more real and it reaches more people.

And at the end of the day, if the driving force for all of us as humans is to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and for some of us it’s the willingness and commitment to build these communities or be a force in supporting these communities that you could never put a price on it. You get so much satisfaction from doing it.

Well gosh, wouldn’t it feel better to build a community of a few million people online as opposed to a few hundred in your town? Or to, yes, build and support a community of 5,000 people who just really love a particular thing on Reddit, like birds with arms. Although that is bigger than 5,000 people…

That can be just as satisfying.

Given that it’s Reddit, how do you prove ROI? What metrics do you look at?

It’s less about ROI. It’s more about: we set metrics that are geared towards ‘How do we create the healthiest, most welcoming environment we can?’

It’s a barometer that we’re starting to get better at really quantifying. By the end of this year, I hope we can… passively be able to look at the health of a particular community on the platform and know how healthy it is or know which direction it’s trending or know what the tipping point is for a community for it to become self-sufficient and healthy. Is it 50 posts a week? Is it three active mods? How do we quantify that? Because we still don’t know that yet.

That’s the sort of thing that we think about the investment in community it’s really important to us because that all ties back to engagement, which is the metric we all talk about here as a company.

People are going to be engaging more on Reddit if they’re having satisfying discussions, they’re finding content they’re interested in, finding the communities they’re interested in whether they knew they were interested in them or not. And the community team plays a huge, huge role in that.

The sales team is the only team dictated by this clear ROI dollar amount because that’s very much their job, but for everyone else, it flows up to things chiefly like engagement and a healthy community is going to lead to more engagement.

Alexis at CMX Summit East 2016

Alexis at CMX Summit East 2016

How do you measure engagement? Do you weight different things differently?

To your point, this is always evolving. Overall as a company, we look at it from a weekly standpoint.

But when we think about it on a granular level, that algorithm that tells us if a community is healthy or in the right direction, there are so many variables: time spent within the content, votes, it’s any number of things. So we’re not even sure where it’s going to land, because all those things get tested. That will be a magical thing if we can figure out what that key thing is, and that’s what I’m hoping. We have smart people here. We’ll figure it out.

How much community engagement do you think comes from design (algorithm, user interface) versus really good user-generated content?

I think it’s a lot of former, because there are plenty of news sites that have really good content that have terrible, terrible community engagement. In fact, I think that’s why it’s so jarring for them.

For example, an organization like NPR, they consider themselves purveyors and creators of really good, high-quality content, so they imagine that the consumers of this content would also be similarly high-quality. And yet they find lowest-common denominator comments. And that’s disheartening, so they remove the comments.

So I don’t think it’s the content. I think the product has a lot to do with it, and then the bar, this sort of standard. We have this federation of all these different communities, there are different kinds of standards that each community applies to the rigor of its comments. So a discussion on a sports team’s fan community… is not going to require everyone to use a citation, which, say r/askhistorians would.

And what’s interesting is, as new users, as humans, we conform fairly naturally to those standards. And yes, software helps, moderation helps. So if someone shows up on AskHistorians and says ‘I was Thomas Jefferson, this is what really happened,’ they will get reprimanded using those mod tools.

I use offline examples all the time because Reddit is very akin to that. If someone were to walk into a historian convention hall full of serious historians, if they got the chance to put up their hand and get behind the mic and be like ‘Well, let me tell you, I’m Thomas Jefferson’… that would take an incredible amount of audacity because there’s a norm set in that room. And I think that happens naturally. We’ve all been in situations where it’s like ‘Sure, I’m just going to keep quiet and listen to people because I’m going to learn a lot, but I have nothing really to contribute… maybe a question, but I’m certainly not going to state that I’m an expert.’

Reddit communities work the exact same way. And I would project that any online community works the exact same way.

Alexis Ohanian and CMX CEO David Spinks on stage at CMX Summit East 2016

Alexis Ohanian and CMX CEO David Spinks on stage at CMX Summit East 2016

If you could go back in time and change one thing about Reddit, what would it be?

I would have made better design decisions. Like, I don’t know why I chose Verdana as a font. I think we’ll never betray the idea of having design that is in support of the content and not design just for design’s sake.

There are plenty of sites that are beautiful that no one visits because nobody’s going to show up for your rounded corner or your drop shadow, they show up for the content. So we would have always kept those priorities right, but we definitely would have hired someone who’s a better designer early on.

If you haven’t seen the native mobile app or the mobile website, your experience with Reddit is very spartan and frankly, intimidating for a lot of people.

But then there’s an element of, once you get to know how to use it, you’re special.

I know, I know. And I think we can retain that while still evolving the desktop experience. That is my bet.

Alexis Ohanian will be speaking about community, moderation and the future of Reddit at CMX Summit West 2016 on November 2nd. Tickets are selling out fast – grab yours now!

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Evan Hamilton

Evan Hamilton is the Director of Community for CMX, where he organizes CMX Summit and CMX Series events. He has been in the community profession for nearly a decade, having worked at UserVoice, ZOZI, and Coursera. In his laughable spare time, Evan organizes Community Manager Breakfast in San Francisco and plays music as Kicking Tuesday.