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Steve Huffman: “Reddit Has Been Home To Some Of The Most Authentic Conversations”

Reddit cofounder and newly appointed CEO Steve Huffman talks about rebuilding community, racism, and free speech online.

Steve Huffman: “Reddit Has Been Home To Some Of The Most Authentic Conversations”
Homecoming king: As one of Reddit’s founders, Huffman has returned to the site with an eye for its strengths and flaws.

Fast Company: After Ellen Pao resigned in July, you came back as CEO, leaving the successful online travel company Hipmunk, which you also cofounded. Why did you return?

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Steve Huffman: I felt like I had a moral obligation to return to Reddit and try to fix it. It’s a very egocentric thought, but I truly believe that I’m the only guy in the world who knows Reddit well enough to actually fix it.

One of the first things you did after your return was release a new content policy and ban a list of particularly offensive subreddits, including the racist /r/CoonTown. Is this part of the fix?

I didn’t ban CoonTown for being racist. I don’t like that they’re racist. I find those users sickening, but that’s not why we kicked them off of Reddit. We kicked them off of Reddit because that was a toxic set of users with a game plan for how to undermine Reddit itself. They were actively invading other communities, and generally dragging everybody else down. So if you make Reddit worse for every single other person, we will exercise our right to ask you to leave. But we’re not going to go on a scorched-earth policy looking for every sign of racism on Reddit. That’s not practical, and I don’t think it’s smart. It’s important, both in the real world and on Reddit, to know what humanity is all about. There is racism all around us. If we pretend it doesn’t exist, we’re only holding ourselves back as a society.

Some people say that Reddit and other Web 2.0 companies need to “grow up” to be successful. Do you agree?

I don’t know if grow up is the right term. Reddit, the company, we need to get our act together. The site has not changed meaningfully in a very long time, nor has our technology, nor have our strategies. We’re a 10-year-old company behaving like a one-year-old company, but we are actively maturing. I think, a year from now, we’ll be very different.

How so?

My concern right now is building out the team and getting a consistent product cadence going, rebuilding our relationship with the community and with the moderators. And then we can start worrying about monetization.

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Historically, online communities have been difficult to monetize.

We don’t make nearly as much money as we could with our current ad products. So we’ll improve those. But there are just so many business models inside of Reddit. Twitter makes tons of money selling sentiment data 140 characters at a time. We’ve got way, way more data. I’m just not stressed about that at all.

What about packaging AMAs [Ask Me Anything forums] as their own product, as some people have suggested?

I’ve not actually really heard that idea. [Laughs] I guess it’s funny for the CEO to say. What’s cool about AMAs is how built into the communities they are. Certainly Reddit will facilitate getting more people doing AMAs, whether it’s celebrities or just interesting people. That’s one of the magical things about Reddit, how intimate those conversations can be.

Will you change the Reddit interface? It looks old, but it’s also iconic.

I used to claim that at least it’s very functional, but I don’t even know if it’s that functional anymore. We always liked the effect of seeing a wall of text, but I don’t know how much I still like it these days. That’s just me as a user talking. I’m not going to touch the UI until I’ve got a ton of goodwill with the community.

Are complaints from the community distracting?

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No matter what I do now, there are people who are vocal supporters, and there are people who are very vocally against it. There’s a certain freedom in that.

Have you noticed the community changing in a big way?

The tenor of the site is very much the same as it was a decade ago. Since the day we added the commenting feature, Reddit has been home to some of the most authentic conversations you can have online. And Redditors have always complained about the state of Reddit, for as long as I can remember.

As a founder of the company, whatdo you think you bring to Reddit that previous CEOs weren’t able to?

I know why we made all of the decisions we made, because if I didn’t make them, I was in the room when they were made. A lot of them were very arbitrary. There’s lots of stuff that Reddit does that’s sacrosanct on the site or internally where it’s like, “No, no, that’s just a hack that I did seven years ago.” Then there’s just the practical aspect of it, which is, I am an engineering and product guy. I’ve got a mountain of feature ideas that I’m excited to plow through with the team here.

Were you coming up with those ideas during the Hipmunk years?

My approach to product development has always been to just use things until they make you angry, and then whenever you’re angry, that’s an opportunity. And I found Reddit making me angrier and angrier. So there’s lots to do.

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When you and Alexis Ohanian started Reddit a decade ago, what did you think it would be?

Well, it depends. We got into Y Combinator in 2005 because they liked us, but they didn’t really like our original idea. Reddit was basically the result of a brainstorming session of things that we could build. At that point, I just didn’t want to look stupid in front of [Y Combinator cofounder] Paul Graham. At the start, Alexis and I used to fake a lot of the content on Reddit. I had scripts that would download a bunch of news sites and show me new links, and we would submit them to Reddit under various user names and manipulate the vote score so it would look like we had actual users. [A few months in,] I took a day off. Back then our front page would dry up if it didn’t have enough submissions. So I was like, “Shit, I forgot to check.” When I checked, it was full, and all links were from real users. That was a really cool moment. That was the day where it was like, “Oh, we have a real thing here.”

Did you have a set of values for the site?

Mostly we had these anti-values: We weren’t going to make you enter email addresses. We weren’t going to spam you with this and that. We weren’t going to force you to categorize things. We weren’t going to remove offensive content. Unless we had to do it, we weren’t going to do it. We wanted people to show up on Reddit and be entertained.

How have those values evolved?

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Now on Reddit, there are many, many communities, and anybody can create one. Back then, it was basically clones of Alexis and me: young tech dudes . . . that’s about it, pretty much. Now, we’re global. We have men and women on the site across all interests, and that helped us grow. And then, of course, we’ve had to confront content controversies over the years, with pornography, with hateful stuff. It’s forced us to reevaluate what we want the community to be: what we’ll tolerate, what we won’t, and that sort of thing. But at the end of the day, we still, as much as we can, want Reddit to be an unfiltered view of humanity.

Do you have any ideas for new companies kicking around?

I’ve already got two startups. I don’t have time to think about other things to do.

About the author

Sharon E. Sutton, FAIA, is an activist architecture educator and scholar who promotes inclusivity in the cultural makeup of her profession and in the populations it serves.

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