Pure Genius

Q&A: Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, on his new book

Q&A: Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, on his new book

Posting in Technology

Alexis Ohanian says learning how to code is the most viable skill of the century -- even for jewelers.

Alexis Ohanian could be described as something of a modern-day pilgrim, only his gospel is about Internet freedom and entrepreneurship. Ohanian believes the phenomenon of “going viral” is about more than, for example, a lifelong friendship between a monkey and a kitten. Ohanian says the scale of viewership the Internet affords pushes us to innovate faster than ever before.

After co-founding Reddit, Ohanian started Breadpig, a social enterprise that publishes web comics like xkcd and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal and donates the profits to charitable causes. He co-founded the online travel site Hipmunk in 2010.

Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, Ohanian's memoir-turned-internet guide, came out October 1st. The book tells the stories of people Ohanian has worked with along his rise to Internet gurudom. Their stories speak to a kind of citizen power in the Internet age that we have never seen before.

Reddit is one of the most trafficked sites on the web, with over 70 million unique visitors last month. You had plans to become an immigration lawyer, what happened?

As is often the case, a delicious waffle got between me and law school. I walked out of an LSAT prep course one Saturday morning and went and got waffles with my buddy Jack, and we realized that we didn’t actually want to be lawyers.

I had been obsessing over my GPA for half of college at that point. I realized it’s a lot of money, it’s three years of my life, I should really want to be a lawyer. Fortunately that Waffle House was there –- right place at the right time.

You describe yourself as a “startup guy with the aim of making the world suck less.” Suck less in what particular ways?

When I was in college we were asked why we were interested in studying business. I figured making the world a better place is a pretty lofty thing. Making it suck less is a bit more doable.

A lot of it comes down to enabling people to live up to their full potential of awesome. With Breadpig, we’re either supporting non-profits helping people learn to read or building schools, or we’re simply helping artists make a living in a way that’s responsible and supported by their fans.

You’ve just embarked on an ambitious five-month long tour of 65 colleges. What are you saying to these up-and-comers?

People are doing amazing things online that they wouldn’t have been able to do at that scale without the Internet. The reason we’re doing this bus tour is I wanted to offer them the class in entrepreneurship I never got when I was an undergrad -- and not just if they want to start a company. If they want to start an Etsy store or a Kickstarter project or just a Tumblr blog as well. To encourage them to get into the process of creating -- with a lower case “c.”

We talk about Internet users as existing in two distinct categories: those who jumped on the wagon and those who were born inside it. What are the aspects of the Internet that seem unattainable for older generations?

It’s not necessarily an ageist thing, but if you grow up with the Internet there’s a kind of fluency. There’s a difference between growing up in France versus moving there later. You can be a scholar and devote countless hours to the language, but it’s still not the same.

I see it now. I’m 30 and I’m downright jealous of the kids in school right now just by virtue of the fact that the resources they have, compared to what Steve Huffman [the co-founder of Reddit] and I had, are vastly different.

You can go online and watch some of the brightest minds in the world on TED Talks. You can take free classes at MIT even if you’re at a community college in suburban Maryland. There are so many resources that were not available.

And if you really want to get nitty-gritty about it, when we started Reddit, we had to buy servers off of Newegg and install them in our apartment and then take them over to this publication facility in Boston. Now you just need a credit card. It basically costs less than your cell phone bill to get a website hosted on Amazon.

Look at something like Etsy. The idea of a market where people sell crafts is as old as civilization. But they’ve taken this market and achieved scale with it. I know these two women who started independent Etsy stores selling jewelry. They liked each other’s stuff and got into business together. Now they’ve opened a storefront called Scarlett Garnet in downtown St Louis. That’s amazing. They are part of a revival of a downtown that was derelict for decades. A lot of their revenue still comes from the Internet, but it’s enough to sustain a storefront.

Part of the fear mongering around the Internet was that it was going to have an impact on brick-and-mortar stores -- which it has undeniably. But here’s an example of entrepreneurs adapting to the new technology and doing something they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to. Banks only lend money to other banks. They don’t lend money to citizens starting a business. Ten years ago these two women would be the best people to get Christmas gifts from.

There have been people making amazing jewelry for a long time who were never exposed to an audience bigger than their immediate friends and family because of some bullshit that got in the way. And we have worse jewelry as a result. We are as a civilization poorer because all of those countless people never got to put their ideas into the world.

I’m really harping on the jewelry thing, but someone could put out a necklace, and it goes viral. Now all of a sudden every other jeweller is looking at this and going, “Well played. Now I got to step up my jewelry game and push the craft forward.”

Part of the reason there is so much innovation in other industries is because things hit scale so quickly -- the tech industry is a great example. A great idea can “go viral.” Once everyone sees a cool new AJAX technique or JavaScript hack it’s really easy to replicate it and that means we’re constantly innovating. As more and more industries approach that kind of speed it’s going to mean more cool stuff a lot faster.

Let’s talk about your book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed. Thirty years old is young for a memoir by most people’s estimate, but the book has received great reviews across the board. Tell me about the story you tell.

I really was not trying to write a memoir. People love hearing about the early days of Hipmunk and Reddit, and I wanted to tell those stories for sure, but I was most excited to write about the people with whom I’ve worked.

Lester Chambers [the recording artist who launched a successful Kickstarter campaign with Ohanian], Zack Anner [host of the wheelchair travel show Rollin' With Zach], Zack Weiner [author of the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal], all the activists that helped win against SOPA and PIPA, all of their stories are even more interesting because they are not just cookie cutter of the same: “Hey! Here’s another white dude who’s having success on the Internet starting a company.”

I am most excited about this platform helping people be awesome at a scale they never could have before. I hope the book shows people there is no excuse not to give this a go.

The title reads “Without Their Permission.” I wondered, who are “they”?

The gatekeepers. All of the industries that have historically had gatekeepers or some kind of barriers to success. We talk about permission-less innovation all the time in tech. The reason this industry has been as successful as it has been is because the barriers to creation are so minimal. That’s what makes the Internet such a fertile place for innovation. It’s really just taking time, writing code, and putting it online.

If you want to open a muffinry you have to find a great location, get a loan from a bank, there are so many factors to your muffinry success. Muffins are delicious, but it’s harder.

As more of these industries get affected, I believe, these barriers will fall. More people will be able to get their ideas to the world without permission. Without having to sign with a record label like Lester Chambers. Without having to get in the Sunday comic section of the newspaper like Gary Larson.

There is this shift affecting different industries at different speeds. What happens is more people like Zack Anner get an audience that they wouldn’t have had before. People with cerebral palsy don’t host travel shows in the old model. In fact, we rarely ever see them on TV. Why is that? Well, because some gatekeepers somewhere along the way said, “You know what? This is not what the audience wants.” And that’s fine. They are entitled to being wrong. But now these talents get to bloom.

I probably spend too much time on the Internet. But I’m exposed to this stuff on a daily basis. I see these folks getting to do what they love firsthand, and it’s inspirational.

You speak to the public often. You consult and advise. You are constantly being asked about Internet freedom and entrepreneurship. Let me open the floor to you to talk about something you feel doesn’t get addressed in the media.

One of the biggest things I would do all over again if I were back in college is dedicate more time to computer science. I took a couple classes, but once I met Steve Huffman, my co-founder, I thought, “You know I’m not really cut out for this so I’m going to stick to making web sites and doing lightweight programming.”

Right now there are jobs at every company I advise –- literally every single one is hiring and they are all looking for developers. In this moment in time there is a skill set that is in incredible demand -- and that demand will not wane any time soon. Learning how to code is the most viable skill of the century. It’s also one of the most freely available skills to learn. What I mean is, whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Huffman, they are all largely self-taught.

They took CS in school, but then they’d go home and teach themselves Python or Ruby on Rails. The resources are freely available. It’s not easy! But the resources -- like Codecademy who has gamified the process -- are getting better and better. They are teaching you the skills that are the most viable of the century.

I cannot stress this enough. Especially for kids in college who have the free time and don’t have the responsibilities. Get interested in programming. You have no excuse not to at least give it a go.

Look around at most CS departments and they are still dominated by white -- and Asian -- males. We’re not going to see the Internet live up to its full potential unless we get as many people as possible on it with the skills to do great things.

Bottom line: if you invest a year or two to learn how to code -- it’s free, it’s just time -- you will be doing yourself a tremendous service. Even if you want to go the path of the immigration lawyer, learning a bit of scripting and software will make your life so much more efficient. Any time you are doing a repetitive task, it can be done by software much much faster. I want people to have these skills.

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Sonya James

Contributing Writer

Sonya James is a multimedia producer based in New York. With creativity and innovation in mind, she speaks to diverse voices on topics from racism in the art world to the patriotic nature of southern food. She holds a Masters Degree in Community Development. Disclosure