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Alexis Ohanian

Co-founder of Reddit

Alexis Ohanian is an activist, tech investor, and the co-founder of a little website called Reddit which saw more than 208 Million unique visitors in September of 2015. The Brooklyn based tech mogul is also an advisor at the legendary startup accelerator program Y Combinator. When not working, Ohanian is known for his work on both digital rights - becoming a major voice in the 2012 protests against internet focused Congressional legislation - and human rights, with his volunteer work in Armenia. Fusion sat down with Ohanian to discuss Metallica, Quake, inequality, and the future of the internet.

Editor: Latoya Peterson

Design: Miguel Costa and Omar Bustamante

Development: Fusion Interactive

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=====The Beginning=====

“I was this nerdy kid in Columbia, Maryland and my parents didn’t understand technology at all. They had been convinced by my cousin to buy a computer for me. This was not a trivial purchase, but they were like - “okay, you know what? Let’s do it.” And it changed my life. [A]n internet connection came maybe two years after - and that was like, total game change. And when I think about all that has happened since then, it was just a direct result of having that good fortune of getting access, getting the support.”

Alexis Ohanian
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=====First Computer=====

“[My first computer was the] 486 SX - the DX was faster, but my parents were like “no, that’s too expensive.” And it was still good enough, don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t play all the video games I wanted, but it was fine.”

“[The internet] made schoolwork feel so silly. I made websites for adults who didn’t know I was a kid, because I would go on these message boards for non profits and just say like “who needs a website?” I would make [web pages] for them, not for money, just for pride. I was doing this through high school.

[I]t was so empowering because I’d be doing this BS schoolwork and I’d come home and have adults who were grateful to my skills as a developer, and as a kid that was my ticket, that like flipped the switch in my head, and made me so hungry because I felt power.”

Intel 486SX Commercial
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=====Web Skills=====

“[Being online I] was either playing video games or learning HTML to build websites about playing video games. Geocities, Angelfire [web pages] - I had them all. Tripod. For a minute there, I had a midi website. I would download these midi files, which were synthesized music files, of video game theme songs or movie theme songs and just host them."

The legend of Zelda
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=====Quake 2 / Angelfire=====

“I remember my first Geocitites site - it was a Quake 2 fan page. And like black background, really cheesy, animated gifs of fire, and rocket launchers and stuff, it was so lame. I had blink tags and pop ups.”

Quake 2
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=====Metallica Black Album=====

“I grew up [a] hardcore Metallica [fan]. [My screen name on Reddit] kn0thing [is] from King Nothing, I just put a zero in there. Like, “cool, I’m a gamer, I can put a zero instead of an o.”

“[M]y life was dominated by metal pretty much until I got to college and then I felt like rock had just like fallen off, and then I discovered all the hip hop I was missing. I still tend to like [Nine Inch] Nails and Metallica from time to time. Those are the two that have stuck with me. Blueprint, Blueprint 2, Downward Spiral, Pretty Hate Machine. Man, I would play a lot of Quake 2 to PHM. I mean Trent Reznor, he did the soundtrack for the first Quake game, he might have helped with the concept for the second Quake. Yeah. And oh, fun fact: there’s a nail gun in Quake and if you look very closely, the branding on it is Nine Inch Nails. The N - I - Backwards N.”

Black - Metallica
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=====Masters of Doom=====

[“Masters of Doom is] the story of iD software, and it’s not - like it’s a well written book, it’s not like amazeballs, but it was well written enough that I got into the story about the founding of this company that I played all these video games of that made me think, hey me and my friend (Steve Huffman) could probably start a company too. “

Masters of Doom
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=====Starting Reddit=====

“So Steve and I lived across the hall from each other freshman year at the University of Virginia. I saw him playing video games freshman year and I got really excited because I was worried that no one else played video games. I needed someone’s coattails that I could ride on and Steve’s were perfect. And at this point, we knew we were going to start this company - [our first idea] was called My Mobile Menu. We knew we were going to start this and he had heard of [Y Combinator's] Paul [Graham] online and knew he was giving a talk and it was our senior year spring break, so we thought “why not? Let’s just go to Boston instead of Cancun and hear this dude give a talk on how to start a start up.” Yeah, we were nerds. It’s true.”

Alexis Ohanian
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=====Ahead of the Times=====

“The first company idea was if we could let people skip lines by ordering food from their mobile phone. A year and a half later, we changed our idea because Y Combinator rejected us for that idea and said do anything else, just not mobile. [W]e just didn’t have smartphones. We would have failed miserably.”

The Birth of Reddit

"We [Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian] applied to Y Combinator with My Mobile Menu and got rejected. We had a few drinks that night and were pretty bummed. We started to head back, but on the way back to VA from Boston PG [Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator] called. but they didn't like the idea and if we changed it, they would listen to another pitch. I found out later, it was Jessica who rescued us who really convinced them to give us a shot.

We got off the train in Connecticut and took the next train we could get back to Boston. Then we met with Y Combinator. They basically said we will fund you for browser, not mobile, because it was 2005. Mobile wasn't a thing yet.

We didn't have an idea yet - we just kept asking [PG] questions and we kept going, and figuring out what was interesting in the world and what problem we could solve.

What we hit on was this - there was no one place to go to find the most relevant and interesting stories of the day. There were news sites and individual blogs, but there wasn't one comprehensive place, no zeitgeist, even though I hate that word, for those kinds of discussions and news online, in whatever community you found.

So we pitched that. And they liked it and said we'll fund you.

We were just happy we got some money, we didn't realize exactly what were building, or how much it would change the internet. We started by building discussion threads and the algorithm and then we launched the forums - and from there, it grew."

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=====Mentors=====

“PG was definitely helpful, but do you know who was a mentor? Jessica [Livingston, the other founding partner of Y Combinator.] Jessica is the reason Reddit got into Y Combinator. So without Jessica, there’s no Reddit. Without Jessica, there probably wouldn’t have been a big exit out of YC for a number of years because Reddit was the first big one.

She was the one who made the case for us the morning after we got rejected and said “You need to bring these two back, their idea is bad, but I believe in the two of them.” And so all credit to Jessica. She was the one that saw the potential in the two of us when no one else did.”

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=====Changing the World=====

"I’m always fond of saying if you wanted to change the world during the industrial revolution you had to open a factory, in the internet revolution, you just need to open a laptop. And that concept has been proven out by a number of folks and it’s incredibly empowering, but we’re leaving a bunch of people out of that equation and the result is going to be traumatic, not just economically but socially, if we don’t get it right over the next 10, 20, 30 years.”

Alexis Ohanian
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=====Inequality Matters=====

“Cliche, but leaving reddit to volunteer in Armenia really put things into perspective. The members of my family who survived the Armenian Genocide eventually made it to the USA, where I would ultimately be born. Inequality, especially on a global scale, becomes crystal clear when meeting people (entrepreneurs or otherwise) who have to overcome systemic problems every day that I never even had to consider in my life and career. Let's be clear -- I'm a startup guy, I'm not trying to solve for inequality as my fulltime job, there are awesome people who are working to do that every day, but I do think we can be a part of the solution."

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=====Outliers=====

“The canonical story [in Malcom Gladwell’s 2008 book Outliers]* is the Bill Gates one. [His] story is an amazing one and you obviously can’t take anything away from the success that he’s had. But it’s not a coincidence that he was one of the first kids in the country to get access to a PC and was able to do what he did with his career. I am sure there were other people that could have been Bill Gates, but weren’t, because of things beyond their control.

I see that as motivation for [society] to create more of those opportunities. Create more chances for people to be awesome, whatever it is they end up doing. [T]here’s usually all this mythologizing of the person,the individual, who created this amazing thing, and it’s like yeah, OK, they were great, but the defining factor in their life, more than anything else, was probably something they couldn’t actually or didn’t actually control. And that for me humanizes a lot of those successful really great people and makes me hope we can not fail all the others.”

Outliers - Malcom Gladwell
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=====Educator Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk - “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”=====

[Sir Ken Robinson] talked about people who were considered broken by traditional schooling and just needed to get into the right venue. [H]e uses this example of a woman who couldn’t sit still in class, just failed everything, she just was a terrible student, but they were able to get her into a place where she could dance. It turned out she was a brilliant, brilliant dancer and you can imagine how the story goes. Today, she’s one of the world’s most brilliant choreographers. But it was an interesting example from a guy who clearly had spent his entire life thinking about education and how the model that we still expect people to fit into is for a society that doesn’t exist anymore. [Before] we could only hope that people had certain types of agrarian or maybe even industrial jobs and [now] we have an internet, and you know, there is a lot more potential for creativity and ingenuity and talent to thrive.”

Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED Talk
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=====William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden (2007)=====

“It’s a really good book, because it talks about how the best intentions of the West over the last 100 or so years have actually made situations worse. And it really put into perspective that even the best of intentions could be fundamentally wrong or make people worse off. And that’s a hard pill to swallow, right? As a white dude, coming at it from a perspective of privilege, it was also extremely data driven, he was all about the numbers of impact. It’s interesting to me because half of the battle is getting people to care. A lot of people don’t even care - people with power, people with privilege. The other half of the battle is to not make the situation worse. And that’s the irony - once they care, the [work] becomes making sure we don’t make this worse.”

The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly
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=====William Kamkwamba 2009 TED Talk - “How I Harnessed the Wind”=====

“[Onstage at TED, Malawi-born engineer] William talked about the first time he ran a google search on windmills and was like “where the hell was this when I had [an] outdated library?” It was just a glimpse into the transformative impact of knowledge democratization. And how this reality [means] there are - and have always been - these amazing people that because of life lottery tickets never got access to the things that could have let them make all of us better off. That’s the role that I hope the internet can help play in changing how we think about education and access to it - there are surely, many more William Kamkwambas that haven’t been able to excel. And although it’s not the only thing it’s gonna take, it’s a big part of it.”

William Kamkwamba 2009 TED Talk
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=====Maya Penn 2013 TED Talk=====

“I discovered [teenaged internet entrepreneur Maya Penn] through some video she posted on YouTube. She started her first business when she was eight or nine. [...]And it had grown so successful that she started up a non profit to go along with it. Because that’s the thing to do when you have a successful company is to start a social enterprise along with it. And she’s done all this stuff before she was 14. I finally got to meet her - and her parents - when we were down in Atlanta on the book tour. And I got this glimpse of the future, or what I hope is the future. Because she was able to get the support and the resources to be awesome, to be amazing, and like, a casual viewer of her storefront would have no idea at first glance that it was being run by a teenage girl. But if the liked her stuff, they bought it. I know not everyone is going to find their thing [by] becoming and entrepreneur and making things and selling them. But whatever it is, whether it’s activism or simply just finding a voice, expressing one’s self, the internet can be this great platform.”

Maya Penn 2013 TED Talk
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=====On Reddit and Hate Speech=====

Creating and enforcing policy for a platform with over [200] million people is no small feat, but Steve and I are excited to be announcing changes that will keep reddit thriving, growing, and a welcoming place for open, authentic discussion. [Editor's Note: Alexis Ohanian's co-Founder Steve Huffman returned to Reddit as CEO in July 2016. After his appointment, the Reddit team led a site-wide crackdown on harassment and the banned or quarantined dozens of subreddits that fostered racism and bigotry.]

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=====The Future=====

“The future? I really hope the internet lives up to its fullest potential. There was a really good Sir Tim Burners Lee AMA on Reddit where he talked about his vision for the World Wide Web. And it was this very idealistic hope that if we could make ideas accessible - because really, humans are just copy machines - the web can be this amazing platform for sharing those ideas faster and further than ever before. The internet is not a panacea, it’s not going to solve everyone’s problems. But it could be a tremendous equalizer. And knowledge is at the core of it. So that’s my hope.”