How Reddit Emerged From A Rejected (And Very Different) Idea

Without Their Permission
Without Their Permission

How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed

by Alexis Ohanian

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Alexis Ohanian co-founded Reddit in 2005. i i

hide captionAlexis Ohanian co-founded Reddit in 2005.

Tanya Kechichian/Courtesy of Hachette Book Group USA
Alexis Ohanian co-founded Reddit in 2005.

Alexis Ohanian co-founded Reddit in 2005.

Tanya Kechichian/Courtesy of Hachette Book Group USA

Reddit calls itself "the front page of the Internet." The social news site and global discussion board has become increasingly popular since it launched in 2005. Topics range from politics and entertainment to animal videos and conspiracy theories. Many public figures have used Reddit to reach out to fans and supporters, and last year, President Obama used the site to answer voter questions live.

Reddit was founded by Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman. When they conceived of the site, they were still in college at the University of Virginia. They began as a small operation, funded by seed money from the startup incubator Y Combinator, run by Paul Graham. Now, the site has more than 80 million monthly users all over the world.

Ohanian has written a book, Without Their Permission, which tells the story of Reddit. He spoke with NPR's Arun Rath.

On taking the first step toward creating Reddit

Steve Huffman, my co-founder, and I really had no idea that it would grow to be one of the top 50 sites in the U.S. At the time we were two undergrads at U.Va. who just wanted to keep living like college students for as long as we could. And we had just had a lot of good luck happen to us during our senior year. We went up on our senior year spring break — probably the only people from Virginia who were heading north to Boston for their spring break their senior year. Because, one, I don't care for beaches; there's too much screen glare. And two, because a guy named Paul Graham was giving a talk called, "How to Start a Startup."

On getting a second chance to secure startup funding from Paul Graham

You know, I'm from a generation of people who got trophies for everything and, you know, I was really fortunate because I had not really had any big setbacks. We had met Paul — at the time we had a very different idea. We had wanted to allow people to order food from their cellphones. And so we were really surprised when they rejected us. We got a little drunk that night. And the next morning on a really long train back to Virginia from Boston, Paul called me back. And he said, 'You know what? We like you guys.'

On barriers to starting a Web business today

I cannot deny the good timing we had. So much of success is tied to that timing that we can't really plan for. What has helped a lot, though, even in the wake of the entire financial disaster and still the economic recovery that goes on to this day, is that the cost of starting a company continues to fall. In 2005 we actually had to order servers off of Newegg and assemble them in our apartment and then take them down to a colocation facility. A high school student right now, as long as she can get her parent's credit card, she can start a website on Amazon for less than her cell phone bill.

On the importance of Internet privacy

The thing that matters so much now, in light of the NSA revelations, is that more and more Americans are connecting the dots and speaking up about how important their right to privacy is. And any American would see something like their mailbox or their home as protected by the Fourth Amendment. As something that ... [if] law enforcement wanted to get into it required some due process, required a warrant. And it's really easy to see that and map it to our digital mailbox, or our digital home, our digital storage.

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