Creatively Speaking: Alexis Ohanian


You'll love today's Creatively Speaking interview with co-founder Alexis Ohanian. I mean it. Even if you don't yet know what reddit is"¦ the kid is pure genius. And, apparently, a musician (and natural wit), as well.

TeamredditCrop.jpg /

Reddit founders: Chris Slowe, Alexis Ohanian, the alien, Steve Huffman

DI: I guess i should lead with the absolute most important question--the one on every reader's mind: what's the deal with the little reddit cartoon character? Is there a story behind him/her/it? A name? A history worth sharing?

AO: I was bored in marketing class one day and decided our yet undesigned website needed a mascot -- one from the future. That way, we knew the startup would succeed. How else would it have been able to travel through time?

Otherwise, there's not much of a history to it (yes, "it" this alien has no need for gender. The sex life of the future isn't very alluring. Be warned.) My first version looked like something from Soviet propaganda, but the third version is basically what you see today. I still can't believe Steve let me talk him into that...

Oh, and there is a name, but I never tell on the first interview.

DI: How did you guys hit upon the idea for the site?

AO: Actually, we stumbled into it. It hit us after we'd gotten rejected by Y Combinator (the seed stage venture firm that ultimately invested in us). We were called back and told we'd be accepted as long as we changed the idea we'd applied with.

It was later that afternoon when Steve and I realized we had a common problem with finding new and interesting content every morning (and again when we were bored at class during the day, or in the library, or...) I was the one with about twenty tabs open and Steve had long been a Slashdot user and student of great community content. Somehow it became the problem we'd solve, Paul Graham seized it and aptly titled our quest, "building the front page of the web."

DI: As i understand it, there have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions since you guys went live in 2005. Has it been hard maintaining your quiet, simple footprint and design as larger and larger companies get involved? Probably not the best comparison, but Kiehls just isn't the same since L'Oreal bought them out - nary a free sample in the store these days.

AO: Those capitalized words look awfully foreign to me. Fortunately for us, our acquiring company (Wired Digital) has gone out of its way to give us a ludicrous degree of autonomy. Really, ludicrous. I'm writing this on a beach in Costa Rica, where I've been for the last four months.

OK, that's not true. But having Conde Nast (of Vogue and GQ fame) as a parent company has made us all much better dressed.

OK, that's also not true.

DI: So what's the biggest difference between you guys and, say, Digg?

AO: We covered that with the first question: the mascot. I've confirmed that their mascot, a featureless humanoid armed with only a shovel, wouldn't stand a chance against our alien.

That, and I believe our communities are very different. You won't have to try hard on reddit to find an expert on some subject -- no matter how obscure (Erlang redditors, I'm looking at you). Some of the best content on the site comes from the comments of users either fact-checking, debating, or just being witty.

Our sites are also fundamentally different. reddit is unique in that the links on the front page are constantly rising and falling. Hit reload every few minutes on reddit and you'll see popular stories floating up while others fall down. You'll also be helping us hit our revenue goal (thanks!).

We're proud to say that we didn't do our research when starting reddit and hadn't heard of digg until a few weeks after we launched. They'd already been around for over half a year at that point, but we had the advantage of ignorance, which I believe is why we've always been so different and thus stayed so competitive.

That said, the celebrity of Kevin Rose and digg did us a lot of favors by educating folks about the concept of a news website that was edited by its readers.

DI: Okay, so now for the programming geeks in the blog: can you talk about the nitty-gritty? How did you build the site and how do you maintain it?

AO: Wrong interviewee. Steve restricted my Subversion access after 2 months. We originally wrote the site in Lisp, gaining us worldwide fame within the Lisp community. This pushed our traffic numbers to around 100 users a day.

Sadly, we switched over to Python within six months. Until around that point when we made our first hire, Steve did all the development and I did the mascot doodling (and the other non-programming things). We'd discuss features, I'd design them in my cracked shareware copy of PSP 5.0 and he'd implement. I don't know what he does in Emacs, but it's magical.

Nowadays our team has exploded to a total of five. Maintaining the site has become a bit easier now that Steve no longer has to sleep with his laptop (Not out of loneliness, but because the site was so unstable in those early months).

DI: What do you like to do when you're not redditing?

AO: Read stuff printed on dead trees bound with glue (paperback, please). Or my Kindle. I also play more video games than a 24-year-old probably should, but my gaming habits have curbed significantly since I quit my level 60 paladin. Oh, and did I mention that I'm in a band? ( - more on that later)

DI: If you could have lunch with any dead person from history, who would it be and why? And it better not be the alien dude.

AO: I knew that history major was going to come in handy. I should probably toss out the name of some esoteric figure, but I primarily studied German history around the Second World War -- most of those folks ought to stay dead.

Wouldn't that be an awkward conversation: "Well, hi, welcome back. Want to get a sandwich?"

Instead, I think I'd have lunch with Jesus. Because if I could resurrect him for lunch, then that would make me...

DI: Working on anything new?

AO: I've been investing a lot of free time in breadpig lately. Breadpig, Inc. It's a pig with bread wings and deliberate attempt to create a company that forgoes making a profit for doing interesting (and vaguely charitable) things. I basically wanted to design and do geeky things that people wanted to buy, but none of the money.

Although I don't personally want the profit from breadpig, I want the opportunity to try and come up with clever things to do with it (that don't involve pimping rides or filling pools with chocolate sauce).

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