‘I’m keen to see how the tussle for revenue plays out,’ says author of book on Reddit
Journalist Christine Lagorio-Chafkin’s We Are the Nerds tracks the rise and evolution, mistakes and pitfalls of Reddit.
When Christine Lagorio-Chafkin first met Reddit co-founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, in 2011, they weren’t keen to talk about the platform.
They had sold it to the media house Conde Nast in 2006 and later, stepped down from their executive positions. Ohanian would rejoin as executive chairman from 2014 to 2018; Huffman as CEO in 2015, a post he continues to hold.
But in 2011, they had moved on, to a travel-bookings website called Hipmunk, and wanted to discuss this new venture. “I was still intrigued by how a wobbly website set up by 22-year-old University of Virginia graduates had become ‘the front page of the internet’,” says Lagorio-Chafkin, 42.
Eventually, the two men did collaborate with her. The result was We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory, published in 2018. The book traces the website and company’s rise and evolution, mistakes and pitfalls.
The algorithm has been intriguing to watch, and so are Huffman’s current efforts to raise revenue, Lagorio-Chafkin says. Excerpts from an interview.
At what point were you convinced that this was a story worth telling?
As a journalist in the late-Aughts, I had watched these fledgling news-based networking sites, such as Fark, Digg and Reddit, become popular. But the others seemed to crumble under Reddit’s weight. It had something special: a community that upheld it and an algorithm that organically pushed interesting content on the top. There were communities dedicated to every kind of interest — from financial advice to photographs of chairs underwater. At the same time, Reddit was also a gateway to the dark side of the internet; it had pornographic content, advice on gambling, links on where to procure illegal substances or firearms.
Ohanian and Huffman were self-starters. They didn’t have much outside funding; they operated with a very small staff spread across different cities. Yet they ran one of the largest websites in the US. How did they do it? That’s the question I wanted to answer.
The idea for the platform came from someone else…
Yes… Huffman was studying programming, and Ohanian, business. They took a bus from Virginia to Harvard, to hear artist-turned programmer Paul Graham speak, and to pitch him their idea of a food-delivery SMS service.
Graham — whose incubator Y Combinator would later help launch companies such as Airbnb and Dropbox — didn’t think that would work. There were no smartphones yet, and apps on the phone didn’t exist.
But Graham’s partner (and later wife), Jessica Livingston, thought the two men were good together — a combination of a programming mind and a business-focused mind. She and Graham invited the duo back, and offered them an idea.
Could the two men build something like the news-based networking sites Delicious and Slashdot, to aggregate content from across the internet, but do it better? “Can you build the front page of the internet that shows us stories that are relevant to each of us,” Graham asked. Ohanian and Huffman said they could.
The platform has survived… through the eras of Digg and Slashdot, Facebook and Twitter. How has it managed this?
It is definitely the algorithm. Ohanian and Huffman, along with the late Aaron Swartz and programmer Christopher Slowe (now back as Reddit’s CTO), had that right from the start. The algorithm didn’t just allow the user to give a thumbs-up to something they liked, which Facebook did too. It created a way for the user to say, “This content is not for me”… the downvote option.
This mechanism allowed the site to be self-moderated, even before volunteer moderators stepped in. Enough upvotes, and something landed on the front page.
While Facebook and X (formerly Twitter), have always had a kind of a central decision-making hub, the Reddit algorithm allowed users to evolve their own norms and standards. Of course, it also faced and continues to face revolts by these same communities.
How has the platform changed, in the years that you have studied it?
Well, whether you knit, run, need help fixing a washing machine, or are breastfeeding, there’s now a subreddit for you. On the other hand, if you dig deep enough, there is still revenge porn, fat-shaming, racism, graphic violence.
When Huffman stepped back in as CEO, it marked a turning point. As one of the founders, he had the authority and the connection to steer communities. He implemented stricter content guidelines, redesigned the site to look a lot more modern, after a decade of looking like an MS-DOS application.
Lately, Huffman and his ability to put his foot down have brought about Reddit’s most recent controversy — a revolt by moderators who use third-party applications to access the site and are concerned about its new API or application programming interface charges for such apps (effective since July).
Third-party apps are saying they can’t afford the exorbitant fee, and moderators are caught in the middle. This has led to large-scale blackouts by moderators in protest of Huffman’s decision. It’s a complicated place to be in, but platforms like The New York Times have also prohibited the training of generative AI using their content. How this plays out will be interesting to track.