Last Friday I sat in the front row at the political startup NationBuilder in Los Angeles to watch Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian speak, sign books, pose for pictures, and eat a plate of tacos. The audience was a digitally savvy group that seemed excited to have a bona fide tech celebrity in their presence.
I was interested to know how Ohanian felt about the legal loopholes that let people buy and sell guns on the site he helped create, especially given his past as an activist for Internet rights. Following his fireside chat, we spoke in a tense 26-minute back-and-forth that gave me an inside look at what a bizarre and potentially frustrating thing it is to be Internet famous.
The Reddit Guns Controversy Breaks
On January 8th, Mother Jones broke a strong piece on Reddit’s active marketplace for anonymous gun buyers and sellers. Rather troubling was the company’s direct role. In 2011, while part of Conde Nast, Reddit licensed its logo to be placed on assault rifles. Reddit’s user agreement states the site "isn’t intended to be a marketplace for any goods and services."
But there have been more than 1,000 listings on the subreddit Gunsforsale in the last six months, posts from more than 400 redditors, and at least 100 AR-15s sold. Guns are popular on Reddit, with more than 9,000 subscribers on Gunsforsale, and more than 150,000 on the Guns subreddit.
Sixty-two percent of online sellers admit to selling weapons without providing background checks, according to a 2011 undercover investigation by the city of New York. On Reddit, sellers like FirearmConcierge even braggingly tweet about how gun violence is boosting sales.
Site moderators post guidelines asking users to follow federal laws, but a legal loophole allows private sellers to withhold conducting background checks on arms transactions. That means sites like Reddit can provide firearms to pretty much anybody who wants one.
Ahem—Can Somebody Please Do Something?
When I spoke with Ohanian I asked him about the loophole and showed him pictures of Reddit’s licensed logo emblazoned on assault rifles. The branding story is old news, it happened in 2011, but Ohanian said he wasn't aware of it, which seemed troubling, and continued his narrative of ignoring the issue. He hasn't publicly talked about his opinion about guns on the site he helped create. I asked what it was like to see his company’s brand on high-powered weapons, and why he hasn’t taken a stand the same way he did with dubious Internet laws like SOPA and PIPA.
He agreed that redditors have "figured out the loopholes," but kept returning the onus to the government for changes to be enacted. "The way to stop it, like actually make a difference, is through legislation," he told me. Still, most other online communities already prohibit gun sales and related postings. Reddit hasn’t. Why not?
"Individuals at the end of the day have the freedom to behave as they see fit," Ohanian said. "And if what they are doing is legal, then they have every right to do it no matter how much it upsets me."
I suggested he pressure Reddit’s board of directors, of which he is a member, to admit the problem and write about it on his personal blog, create a task force, and take a stand publicly, like he previously did for net neutrality. I said his voice, as the public face of Reddit, was influential.
He said his role, rather than leader, was to follow issues that already mattered to people. "I was riding on the coattails of a much bigger movement than SOPA and PIPA," he said. "There were actually hundreds of thousands of people, millions of people talking about it."
This is the tricky thing about what you might call Internet celebrity: It's almost oxymoronic. On the web, popularity is a numerical measure. The idea of someone "leading" the discussion feels out of reach, even for the figurehead of a 100-million-reader-strong community.
When I said he had a lot of influence over redditors, he called the idea naive. "I don’t have that kind—no one has that kind of power and influence."
Still, that didn't stop Ohanian from traveling the country on a publicity bus tour to raise awareness and campaign for the open Internet. He also spearheaded Reddit’s Jan. 18, 2012 blackout in protest against SOPA and PIPA. For his work fighting for net neutrality Ohanian was named the most influential activist of 2012 by the online newspaper the Daily Dot, and dubbed the "Mayor of the Internet" by Forbes.
Lessons From The Fallout
The next day—which was a Saturday—I got a phone call from Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s communications director and the person who had arranged the interview. She demanded to know why I had asked Ohanian about the guns.
"That’s not what you agreed to talk about," she snapped. "Why would you ask Alexis?"
I reminded her I wanted to talk about items being sold on Reddit. As a founder, Alexis is the face the public associates with the brand. And he sits on the board of directors, so he has power and relevance. Taylor was furious and told me my upcoming Monday interview with Reddit’s Dan McComas was canceled. There’s no reason for you to speak to him, she told me.
I've reported outside the technology industry, where PR representatives are helpful and protective—but hardly the kind of secret police that tech journalists have become accustomed to dealing with. It's one of the web's other great paradoxes. Its pseudo-libertarian mantra is web culture's greatest asset and it's biggest moral quandary, wherein questioning the mantra is the only thing in the world that's not allowed.
On Monday, Ohanian struck, publishing a preemptive blog post about our interview. He clarified that Conde Nast didn’t allow the Reddit logo to be sold; instead, they were allowed to use assault rifles emblazoned with Reddit’s alien logo in a "not-for-profit-buy," which means money was exchanged for the logo on the condition that licensed items would only be for personal use, not for sale.
There's no moral imperative to stop people from selling guns. If the reform laws don't pass, it's because there's not majority support—end of story.
But at the same time, movements need leaders, and more and more movements are starting or gaining critical mass online. Strangely, the people that have built the infrastructure for these communities (like Ohanian) seem to feel just like regular guys. Asking Ohanian about gun control felt like I was asking a highway engineer about the cause of traffic. Why would he care?
Still, Ohanian isn't a regular guy. Regular guys aren't guests on The Colbert Report. Regular guys don't get covered repeatedly by this magazine. Regular guys don't have an in at the White House to get the leader of the free world to do a live chat using their product.
This may be a glimpse into the future of political personages. Like Kennedy and TV, some public figures just take to a new medium naturally, and it seems inevitable that Ohanian, the Mayor of the Internet, will someday head to Washington. But where public support also means public supplication, we might be looking at a strange role reversal, in which our politicians actually do our bidding instead of acting on their own moral agenda. Whether that's a good or bad thing is up in the air. It's complicated—not something you can easily upvote or downvote.