Entrepreneurs Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman famously founded Reddit as college roommates in 2005. Tech journalist Christine Lagorio-Chafkin’s recent book, We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory, follows their sometimes rocky relationship as Reddit grew from a simple, user-directed front page for the Internet, to a scandal-rocked dominating force in online culture.
As the subtitle implies, the site has been at the forefront of issues like the limits of free speech, privacy policies, and the unfettered spread of misinformation or “fake news,” grappling with those thorny matters well before social media giants Facebook and Twitter took notice. In a sense, Reddit is the “id” of the Internet, and that’s what has long fascinated Lagorio-Chafkin. “My friends thought I was nuts talking to these guys who happened into the idea for Reddit,” she said. “It had the reputation of being sort of a cesspool, and I wanted to know just how it got there.”
So she started meeting regularly with Ohanian at a Brooklyn cafe and he told her about the early days when Reddit was still in its infancy. It was a tough summer, personally: his mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, his childhood dog had died, and his girlfriend at the time suffered a nasty fifth story fall. Yet he still threw himself into promoting what Lagorio-Chafkin dubs “a little scrappy site—I mean, they barely had a product.” She was equally impressed with Huffman, and knew he, too, would make a great subject.
But it still wasn’t quite a book yet. She spent several years following Reddit’s evolution, writing numerous shorter articles for Inc. She conducted hundreds of interviews, scoured reams of archival footage and content, and closely followed the multiple scandals as they emerged. It’s all here: the CEO shuffles, the 2014 celebrity photo hack (dubbed “the Fappening”), GamerGate, the 2013 suicide of Sunil Tripathi after Redditors falsely identified him as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, the white supremacy group that used Reddit to organize its Charlottesville rally, and more. (You can read excerpts here and here.)
We Are the Nerds is not primarily a “tech-bro” book, despite Reddit’s typical white male co-founders. There are plenty of women featured in its pages, like Marta Gossage, a Reddit community manager who waded through some of the ugliest content on the site and also helped evolve the company’s thinking about dealing with the police and FBI, while still protecting the users’ right to privacy. “When you walk around Reddit’s office, is it mostly white dudes? Yeah,” said Lagorio-Chafkin. “But the executives, they’re 50 percent women and 50 percent people of color. I think it shows that, once again, Reddit is at the forefront of where we’re going.”
Reddit has certainly had its share of leadership issues over the years, most notably when Yishan Wong came on board as CEO. Ohanian and Huffman had established the loosely held principles that made Reddit such a huge success, notably that the users would have the final say in terms of up-voting or down-voting content on the site. There would be no gatekeepers in the form of a traditional editorial board. According to Lagorio-Chafkin, Wong took that to the extreme. The intentions were good; the results, less so.
“One of the dirtiest jobs in the world is community management.”
“It allowed Reddit’s most avid users to constantly test the limits of free speech,” she said. “That meant hundreds and hundreds of subreddits were being born, [with] the worst pornography, the most violent images you can imagine.” And the site’s community managers bore the brunt of the abuse. “One of the dirtiest jobs in the world is this very friendly-sounding one, community management, or content management,” she said. “I learned this is something that could literally inflict PTSD on a person.”
Wong also made some questionable business decisions. It was his call to relocate the company headquarters to San Francisco, and then again to a small town called Daly City, which was closer to his own home in the South Bay. That, apparently, did not go over well with the staff. “He issued an ultimatum to the Reddit board: ‘We’re moving to Daly City, are you with me or not?'” she said. “They didn’t respond, and he just stopped showing up at the office.”
Wong exited as CEO in November 2014 and Ellen Pao assuming the CEO role. Pao decided to finally take community management seriously. She started banning a handful of the most egregious subreddits—just five, at first. Despite the outcry from users at the time, the decision proved to be a wise one. According to Lagorio-Chafkin, a 2015 study showed that her bans really did have a positive effect on restoring a sense of civil discourse to the site. “I think Ellen was ahead of her time in terms of banning people,” she said. “It took years to see the [good] effects of that, and it was a very controversial decision that probably helped cost her the job.”
Indeed, Pao’s tenure was short-lived. She also had a vision for restructuring the staff to create a more modern company, but that translated into multiple layoffs every few weeks. This culminated with the termination of Victoria Taylor, who was much beloved by the Reddit community. Users revolted in what became known as the Great Blackout. Every post on the home page that day featured Taylor: articles about her firing, memes, pictures of her, and plenty of memes featuring pitchforks targeting Pao. There was even an online petition to oust her.
Pao resigned as CEO soon after, on July 10, 2015, and Huffman (somewhat reluctantly) took her place, returning to the company he helped create. “He told me it was something he felt he had to do,” said Lagorio-Chafkin. “It was the best thing he’d ever built and he wanted to save it.” Huffman came up with what she thinks is a smart strategy for dealing with the tension between the principle of free speech and how it has been abused and exploited (particularly by the extreme alt-right) in recent years.
“Neither Alexis nor I created Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen,” he wrote on the company’s blog just five days after becoming CEO. He reasoned that promoting violent content and pushing the limits of tolerance in online communities did not necessarily warrant protection. The First Amendment protects political speech; pushing boundaries to test the limits of civil discourse is something very different. So is deliberately spreading misinformation.
“It’s like shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater,” said Lagorio-Chafkin. Today, it’s not just one human’s voice, standing on a soapbox in a public square. Thanks to the unprecedented connectivity of the Internet, especially social media platforms, “[One person’s speech] potentially has this amplification the founding fathers could never have foreseen. And there’s no infrastructure in place for regulating that yet,” she said.
“What do you do when a toddler pushes the limits? You set some boundaries.”
Social media platforms typically employ what she calls the “neutral platform defense,” arguing that they aren’t responsible for the content they disseminate and comparing their businesses to the telephone company—simply a means for people to communicate. The reality is more complicated than that. Huffman recognized this earlier than most and banned hundreds of subreddits. This sparked a predictable backlash, with users crying censorship and accusing Huffman of hypocrisy. “4-Chan is literally just making fun of Reddit for being pearl-clutching and over-sensitive now,” said Lagorio-Chafkin. “But what do you do when a toddler pushes the limits? You set some boundaries.”
Lagorio-Chafkin readily acknowledges that Reddit still has an uphill battle in terms of navigating this complex terrain. There’s also an uphill climb to reach the board’s stated goal of one billion users, with all the cultural shifts such growth implies. The site now has mainstream advertisers, many of which would not want to see their ads next to objectionable or deliberately offensive material. And while Bloomberg News once memorably described the site’s design as having “all the aesthetic seduction of a phone book,” Reddit now looks a lot more like Facebook. “Every user has a profile page now, and it has a friendly little bubble mascot to direct new users,” she said. “It doesn’t look like Usenet anymore.”
That poses another central (as yet unanswered) question: how the site’s core community will react and adapt to a rapidly changing site in the future. “Can Reddit’s spirit survive the mainstreaming of Reddit?” said Lagorio-Chafkin. “Will the original Redditors, the volunteer moderators, stick around as it becomes something brighter and shinier?” Reddit’s story is far from over. She might just have to write a sequel one day.