Alexis Ohanian is an unabashed Internet optimist.
Each online link — as long as they are treated equally on an open and accessible Internet — has the potential to, in his words, contribute to “making the world suck less.”
He shares the lessons he learned co-founding the ultra-popular social news site Reddit in his recent book “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.” He’ll talk about his experiences Thursday at the Walker Art Center.
Ahead of his visit to Minneapolis, Ohanian, 30, spoke by phone — just after he finished browsing subreddits on the NFL and “earth porn,” a k a beautiful nature photos.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
Q: What surprises you about what Reddit has become?
A: What started as this little project in a tiny rented apartment outside Boston is now one of the top 50 most trafficked websites. We knew we were on to something when the platform was working and people were submitting links and building on them. We just never thought it would grow like this.
Q: A lot of sites are flashier than Reddit, which still looks like a traditional message board. Why the spare design?
A: This was our first project. Steve [Huffman] and I weren’t really great at CSS and actually, frankly, there weren’t nearly as many standards as there are for design now. We haven’t modernized it a ton, mostly because we knew early on, we made this platform for subreddits, for communities. We figured, let’s just create the tools and let people do with them as they see fit in terms of design. But we wanted to start with something simple. It’s easier to build on top of something than it is to try to take something down and reimagine it.
Q: People debate whether anonymity is helpful or hurtful in online discussion. Most Reddit users don’t use their real names. What’s your take on anonymity online?
A: Pseudonymity, anonymity, have played an important role in communication since the beginning of time. We may not even have had an American Revolution without anonymous publishing because it was rather treasonous to write the things that Thomas Paine and others wrote during and leading up to the American Revolution. Furthermore, you look at the great works of literature we wouldn’t have. Look at what the Brontë sisters were able to produce, only because they had pseudonyms. Whether it’s anonymity or pseudonymity, they’ve been around in publishing since forever and there are plenty of examples where they have provided a huge asset in allowing great ideas to spread. It’s a gift and a curse, obviously, but it’s nothing new.
Q: “Without Their Permission” features stories of people who use the Internet for good, raising money for charity or pursuing their dream careers. But there’s also a lot of noise online. What advice can you offer for someone who’s trying to stand out?
A: It is a challenge, right? Because getting attention in a crowded space like the Internet is tricky. Whether you are trying to get someone to check out your app or whether you want somebody to care about your cause, whatever that app is or whatever that cause is, [it] has to be genuinely good, has to genuinely be something people want. It’s serendipity in a lot of ways, but the best way to put that serendipity on your side is to start with something great, and lots of hustle.
Q: Your book offers tips for people interested in launching tech start-ups. Which of those lessons might be helpful for the general public?
A: Don’t let not knowing what you’re doing stop you from learning, from getting started, from doing whatever it is you want to do. Know that no matter who you see, if they’re fronting like they have it all figured out, they’re either lying or delusional. Really, we’re all just hacking it.