Anonymity On Reddit May Be Holding The Social Network Back. Its Co-founder Thinks It’s The Only Thing Pushing It Forward
Reddit is a social network largely known for shocking users with bizarre memes, hilarious photos and eye-opening conversations. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s first question to me when we sat down for an interview:
“Do you have a large garbage bag I can have?”
We did, in fact. And after getting it for him, he never looked at it again. Ohanian later explained that he likes to go into tech companies and see how fast they can get him something he requests.
Ohanian doesn’t act like your typical tech founder and his company continues to stand apart from its peers. With 300 million monthly active unique users, Reddit is the 5th largest website in the U.S. With that many people coming to the site every month, the social network should be one of the big players in video ad dollars, but it isn’t. Of the more than $70 billion spent on digital ads in the U.S. in 2016, Facebook and Google claim a majority of the market. Reddit, on the other hand, doesn’t show up even in the top 10 sites when it comes to digital marketing.
What’s been holding Reddit back isn’t just oddity. It’s anonymity. On Reddit, users can come to the site and share using pseudonyms and fake identities, which is a turnoff to traditional advertisers. Allowing users to come to the platform anonymously has also led many users to feel unsafe on the network.
But when you discuss this topic with Ohanian, it’s clear that the 34-year-old thinks anonymity is Reddit’s competitive advantage
“It’s hard to talk about the struggles you have in a relationship, or your battles with dealing with skin care,” he said. “Reddit is the one place where these communities self-identify… to talk about the stuff they just can’t bring themselves to talk to with some of their closest friends offline or the masses online.”
In an interview, Ohanian and I discussed his plans to scale Reddit and why anonymity on the network isn’t going away anytime soon. He recently raised $200 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital and others, with plans to use it quickly on a redesign of the homepage and more than 50 new hires by the end of the year.
Here are some excerpts from our full conversation. But don’t try to find any mention of the garbage bag — it never came up.
Caroline Fairchild: Why a redesign now? Reddit has looked basically the same since its inception, so what’s going on with social media that led you guys to believe that a redesign is necessary?
Alexis Ohanian: Frankly, it had more to do with us than the state of social media. Steve and I came back to the company two years ago, and in the last two years, we basically did all the things we would’ve done if we hadn’t left eight years ago, or whatever … 2009. When it comes to the state of social media today, we think we have a really unique opportunity because for the last decade, everyone has come to know a social media that is really anti-social. All of the dominant, traditional social platforms are one-way filters for the best version of your life. They’re not a place for conversation. They’re not a place for community. They’re a place to make your college friends jealous about how wonderful your life is, and humans need that. That’s like the first 30 minutes at the cocktail party where you’re just exchanging superficial banter. People want that, but it’s not the kind of connection that really drives people to make decisions, how they see the world, and Reddit has that. Reddit is actually the one social social network because it’s the only home for conversation, and we want to double-down on it.
CF: How do advertisers feel about anonymity on the platform? Wouldn’t it be much easier to get rid of that?
AO: So, there’s pure anonymity, and you’ve seen lots of platforms try it and mostly fail because there’s no sense of accountability. On Reddit, we actually have a sense of identity; it’s just not your government name usually. Usually it’s a name that you invent. And that’s really what makes Reddit so powerful. It’s because it lets you be your most authentic selves. You don’t have to worry like you would on other social networks of what your crazy uncle might think because you’re coming out. The ability to be flexible with one’s identity is something that we as humans actually have championed and thrived because of long before the internet.
CF: Right now you’re talking about the positive sides of creative identity and anonymity, but there are trolls and offensive comments happening on the platform. Are you worried about that scaling as well as you think about getting more monthly actives?
AO: We are no doubt dealing with a brand debt or perception debt… and that’s why some of the first things we did two years ago were updating the content policy, which sets the rules of the road for the site, explicitly banning things like harassment, for instance. We want people to feel safe on the platform… And at 300 million [monthly active unique users], we’re thrilled with how well it has scaled so far, but we’re always evolving. We’re always evolving, and the thing that overwhelmingly gives me hope and excites me is that 99.98% of all the content on Reddit never actually gets reported by another user. You can report anything: A message, a comment, a post. And it turns out that even hundreds of millions of people with identities that they construct online behave responsibly 99.9% of the time. We’re always pushing toward 100, but we have some of the best engineers at the company helping us do that.
CF: What do you think the biggest threat is to realizing that goal of community and being able to hear other voices via social media and traditional media?
AO: I think the biggest threat is human nature. We as people don’t like discomfort. That’s a good thing. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a good thing we generally try to avoid discomfort. The bad news is that means we’re also far more inclined to stay within the spaces that feel familiar, that reinforce our previously held beliefs. And so it is going to be this challenge, I think, for all of us to exercise those muscles that are sometimes painful but are the only way that we’re going to start to better understand one another and our world. And that pain is growth, and that discomfort is a thing that so long as we are making sure that people feel safe, so long as we’re making sure that people respect the rules of the road that let people feel like they can be a part of the conversation, that’s the important part. If we can work to those standards, I think we can actually start to understand one another a little bit more.
CF: President Trump is pursuing policies right now on immigration, both curbing it as well as some policies that could hurt the H-1B program. You are the son of an undocumented immigrant, so I am sure this is something that is very personal to you. Where are you with this issue in the country right now, and what is the President missing?
AO: You see how many founders of billion-dollar companies are immigrants or themselves, like my case, children of immigrants. It’s staggering. These are the job creators. These are the very people we want in this country who are creating jobs and keeping America leading the world. Tech is an especially important place or industry to get right because the speed of innovation is so fast, and because we as a country, we lead the world in tech. It’s one of the few industries we still lead the world in. And, oh, by the way, it happens to be the industry that is going to affect all others. Every industry is going to eventually be a tech industry in some way, shape or form, because technology will have to be the underpinning of their business. And so that’s a really highly leveraged industry for the United States of America to lead the world in.
So, our perception is simple: Let’s make sure we keep that unfair advantage and the thing that’s helped us so long as a country is getting the best and the brightest to come here, to have opportunity they wouldn’t have elsewhere. And I think when you unpack this general xenophobia, I think there is a real concern, a valid concern, that as much as tech hubs have fostered so much growth and so much change and so much progress, there are a lot of people who still feel really left out.
Correction: This story has been corrected to make it clear that Alexis Ohanian is the co-founder of Reddit, not the CEO.