Alexis Ohanian Serves Up Internet Wisdom in New Book
BY ROUBEN KRIKOURIAN
Alexis Ohanian describes himself on his blog as a “startup guy, with the aim of making the world suck less.” Forbes magazine describes him as “The Mayor of the Internet.” Indeed, neither description is a stretch.
Alexis Ohanian was fresh out of college in 2005 when he co-founded reddit.com with his partner Steve Huffman. Ohanian, responding to Asbarez’s questions via email, says he had no idea that their website would skyrocket to worldwide popularity in a matter of a few years. “Steve and I had no idea. Today reddit is one of the largest websites online — over 100,000,000 people visited last month alone, that’s mindboggling,” Ohanian says. “Back when we began in 2005, we just were happy if we’d made something 100 people would use.”
Reddit, self-proclaimed to be “the front page of the Internet,” is a social news website where the content is submitted and voted on by its users. Readers vote up content they find interesting and the end result is a dynamic front page where interesting stories and pictures appear and are discussed.
Today, reddit is a hugely popular social media powerhouse and often plays a pivotal role in current events. For example, in 2012 reddit mobilized its community and Internet giants like Wikipedia and Google to successfully oppose two congressional bills, SOPA and PIPA, that threatened Internet freedom and net neutrality. Reddit is also known for regularly hosting mass interviews, called AMAs (Ask Me Anything), with public figures like Will Ferrell, Bill Gates, and even President Barack Obama. But mostly, reddit is a place for people to share pictures of their cats on the Internet.Alexis Ohanian sold reddit in 2006 to publishing giant Condé Nast, but continued to serve on its board. In 2009, Ohanian left reddit and spent three months working in Armenia as an ambassador for Kiva, an organization that helps people lend money through the Internet for microfinance institutions in developing countries. During that time he also helped organized the first TED Talk in Yerevan, TEDxYerevan.
Ohanian has since worked on a plethora of projects. One of his latest and most popular projects is Breadpig, an “uncorporation” as Ohanian calls it, that publishes artists and sells geeky merchandise, giving proceeds to charity.
Ohanian most recently published a book, “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed,” which became a national bestseller after its release in October, 2013. The book is about “harnessing the power of the web for good,” with Ohanian sharing his experiences and tips with young, would-be entrepreneurs who want to make an impact in the world.
Ohanian was in Los Angeles on a massive, five-month tour with 150 stops and 75 universities. I was able to steal some time away from his busy schedule to ask him a few questions.
ROUBEN KRIKOURIAN: What is your favorite reddit moment?
ALEXIS OHANIAN: How to choose just one? Obviously Mr. Splashy Pants got me my TED talk, so I’m grateful for that, but that’s the magic of the platform, there are countless amazing moments every single day between people using reddit.
R.K.: What does the title of your new book mean? How will the 21st century be “Made Not Managed?”
A.O.: It’s a riff of the Grace Hopper quote “It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” The internet is uniquely awesome at enabling people access to the world’s largest library and stage, so don’t wait for a gatekeeper’s permission to learn and create and reach your maximum potential for awesome. Managers, of people or capital, used to have all the power — today the makers, the doers, have all the leverage in a web-connected world. Be one of them: make things and solve problems.
R.K.: What did you set out to achieve when you wrote “Without Their Permission?” What do you hope people will take away from this book?
A.O.: I was so frustrated by what I saw during SOPA and PIPA — when those two bills in the USA nearly became law — that I was motivated to take up the offer to write a book and produce something that would show anyone — a Senator or a college student — just how important the internet is and what they can do to make sure we all reach our maximum potential for awesome.
R.K.: What role do you think young Armenian entrepreneurs can play in Armenia and in the Armenian Diaspora?
A.O.: I left reddit to volunteer for Kiva.org in Armenia for a few months, so I saw the entrepreneurship our people are known for first hand. The reason I wrote the book and took a 200-stop book tour is because I want everyone to get the message that entrepreneurs aren’t just special people — no, we’re all capable of being entrepreneurial. In fact, the internet is the greatest enabler of entrepreneurship we’ve ever seen. What do you want to learn? What do you want to share? It’s all there. Get started!
R.K.: What are some of the advantages and pitfalls for civil society and activism in the “Internet age?”
A.O.: Ultimately, the internet is another communication platform, which like all the others before it is just a tool. It’ll be a reflection of us, the people using it, so it’s up to us to be good stewards of it.
R.K.: TEDxYerevan, the TED Talk that you helped organize in Yerevan, Armenia, was very popular and gained a lot of traction. What was that experience like? Do you have plans for similar projects in the future?
A.O.: It was so awesome to be a small part in the first TEDx in the Caucasus. I was so proud, but really, I don’t deserve any of the credit for it because I really just helped facilitate. I’m excited to see how it’s continued and look forward to even more of these sorts of conferences in Yerevan! I’m planning on returning in September.
R.K.: What do you think about the developing tech industry in Armenia? How can the Armenian government and people encourage innovation and foster new ideas?
A.O.: It’s promising, because technology — software in particular — is going to be the most robust and fastest way to grow the Armenian economy. I wish we taught computer science alongside chess for every Armenian schoolchild. That’s something the government could do, along with snuffing out the corruption that hampers or discourages good people from being as awesome as they can be.
R.K.: What role, if any, has your Armenian identity played in your rise in the cyber world, philanthropy, or activism?
A.O.: When you walk around with the last name “Ohanian” it’s at the forefront. When you’re an Armenian born on April 24th, you spend every year reflecting on just how much you’ve got to do in order to honor the Genocide survivors and victims alike who made your life possible.
R.K.: Why are you such a huge advocate for the Open Internet?
A.O.: Because I don’t know what I’d do without it. Seriously, I wouldn’t have a career or a place to show off photos of my cat.
R.K.: What is the idea behind your project Breadpig? How do you make the world “suck less?”
A.O.: We started out publishing books from webcomic artists like XKCD, but now we’re more of a crowdfunding support team that runs campaigns and handles all the logistics so artists can do what they do best — make art — instead of manage shipments. We aim to make the world suck less by both assisting artists to become sustainable through their art as well as donating profits to worthy nonprofits.
R.K.: What are some new projects that you are excited about in the tech industry?
A.O.: Bitcoin is pretty interesting. I’m an investor in both coinbase.com and buttercoin.com because I’m anxious to see the massive financial industry shakeup when they can no longer charge the ridiculous rates for things like simply wiring money or transferring it between currencies.
R.K.: And finally, I have to ask, what is your favorite Armenian food?
A.O.: It’s not technically Armenian, but I love hummus. The cliché in startups is you should try to be at least “ramen profitable,” but during reddit, Steve and I were “hummus profitable” because it was my staple: cheap, tasty, healthy and filling.