When Reddit decided to hire its first chief product officer last year, one of the first candidates that cofounder and CEO Steve Huffman spoke with was Pali Bhat, the VP for product management and design at Google Cloud. Huffman was impressed—but he also had his reservations.
“My concern with Pali was that he hadn’t worked on something like Reddit before,” Huffman remembers. “Consumer internet is its own thing. And then there’s Reddit, which is further down the spectrum.” During his decade at Google, Bhat had worked on some offerings with a consumery element, such as payment services. But at first blush, Google Cloud’s focus on industrial-strength developer tools seemed far afield from Reddit’s community of redditors, who share everything from breaking news to optical illusions to highly technical troubleshooting advice in over 100,000 subreddits.
Then the two reconnected after a few weeks, and Bhat explained that he’d been doing a lot of thinking about the job. “He gave me this 20-minute spiel about Reddit and how it fits in, and how it works, and what the opportunities were,” Huffman says. “I may have said it, but definitely in my head, I was like, ‘You’re hired.'” Last October, Reddit made it official.
Asked today about what enticed him to leave Google, Bhat emphasizes Reddit’s humanity. “People call it the front page [of the internet] and all kinds of other things, but I see it as a human face of the internet,” he says. “And what’s really magical is you have this place on the internet where complete strangers can come together and have really meaningful experiences and share authentic conversation.”
Founded by Huffman and Alexis Ohanian in 2005, Reddit has long been one of the most-visited websites in the U.S. But its user base of 50 million daily active users does not rival Twitter’s 229 million daily users or Snapchat’s 332 million, let alone Facebook’s 1.96 billion. That would seem to leave plenty of room for Bhat to instigate product improvements that result in more growth—a critical goal as Reddit works its way toward an IPO. (The company filed confidential paperwork with the SEC last December; early rumor had it that it was shooting to go public as early as last March, but it still isn’t talking about timing.)
Bhat, of course, doesn’t frame his aspirations in such clinical terms. Instead, he says that the Reddit community is a positive force in itself, and the larger it gets, the more powerful its benefits. “If we grow Reddit,” he declares, “we are going to make the world a better place.”
Like many an executive with sprawling ambitions, Bhat has ground them down into an acronym: SUPER. That stands for Simple, Universal, Performant, Excellent, and Relevant. Even if the link between some of those terms and Bhat’s goals is a tad nebulous, it’s worth stepping through them one by one: “Simple” involves making Reddit more approachable, particularly to new users who haven’t figured out how to wend their way to the material they might value most: “We’ve just made getting around the app a whole lot simpler,” says Bhat.
In February, for instance, the Reddit apps got a new tab called Discover, with a scrolling array of images, GIFs, and videos based on inferences drawn from each user’s consumption habits. It’s not about imposing an algorithm on anyone, though: “Show more posts like this” and “Show fewer posts like this” options let you proactively tell it what you want to see.
The “universal” in SUPER references Bhat’s desire to expand Reddit’s global footprint. The service has been slow to make itself multilingual; its top four countries—the U.S., UK, Canada, and Australia—reflect its present dependence on English-language visitors. Localizations for German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian rolled out less than a year ago. Bhat says that more languages are on the way.
“Performant” is a cherished tech-industry buzzword that means, basically, “fast and reliable.” Bhat says that Reddit downtime is down by 64% thanks to optimizations implemented in 2021. The service’s engineers are also busy modernizing its web platform with efficiency in mind, with the aim of delivering a zippy experience even to users with subpar internet connections.
Reddit chief product officer Pali Bhat
In many ways, every service on the internet will look to have more community capabilities.”
Finally, “Relevant” is about ensuring that the items users see on Reddit are likely to be of interest to them—with a particular emphasis on using AI to augment classic Reddit people-powered curation. “You go into Reddit and you can vote on pieces of content and say whether a piece of content was relevant or a comment was helpful,” explains Bhat. “And users do that at scale on Reddit.” Now the company is adding machine learning to that mix, both to assess an item’s pertinence and to suppress harmful content.
Moderation by people (and a dash of AI)
Speaking of harmful content: In its early years, Reddit was a free speech free-for-all, but beginning in 2015, when Ellen Pao was CEO, it banned a variety of subreddits rife with racism, harassment, and other scurrilous activities. The company continued to tamp down on its uglier regions after cofounder Huffman returned as CEO: It ousted a 71,000-member Qanon subreddit in September 2018 and later terminated more than 2,000 groups for harassment and hate speech, including its largest community of Donald Trump enthusiasts.
Reddit hasn’t stomped out all hate and misinformation: Time’s Andrew R. Chow has recently reported on troubles in subreddits about India and China. But controversy over the service’s most abusive members and its moves to rein them in has dwindled even as larger services such as Facebook provide endless evidence that throwing AI and throngs of paid moderators at problem content is no miracle cure. Huffman credits Reddit’s 50,000 empowered moderators for the progress: “Where I think Reddit has shined is we don’t rely exclusively on centralized moderation,” he says. “It just doesn’t scale.”
On a similar note, Bhat says that the future of civil discourse on Reddit involves “empowering moderators to be able to do their jobs of keeping the conversations in their communities relevant to those communities and safe for all of those users.” But he adds that the service has real-time systems in place to crack down more quickly on dangerous material than it once could. And he stresses that efforts at automated moderation will build on Reddit’s human-centric approach rather than replace it.
“Having worked on machine learning systems at scale at Google, one of the things I discovered is the most important thing for those machine learning systems to work effectively is having that signal that’s high fidelity,” he says. “And Reddit is one of those unique services on the internet where we have that huge amount of signal that’s helping us differentiate between what’s relevant and what’s not, what’s good and what’s not.”
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman
The thing I’m probably happiest with is that Pali is just very practical.”
He’s not wrong. Facebook has been steadily beefing up the features it provides to group moderators. And Twitter introduced its own community features last September—though as with everything else about Twitter, it’s not entirely clear what the future holds for them.
As for Reddit’s own future, former Lyft executive Adriel Frederick joined Bhat’s team last month to spearhead “Reddit X,” a group responsible for “bold bets” that could involve anything from audio and video to, yes, the blockchain. But when I ask Huffman what it’s been like to work with Bhat so far, he doesn’t wax grandiose. Instead, he says that “the thing I’m probably happiest with is that Pali is just very practical. We’re just shipping stuff that users want. It’s easy to say, but actually, I’ve found it hard at a big company to sometimes do the obvious things.”
What’s surprised Bhat most about Reddit since joining the company? He describes himself as an “OG redditor” who’s long hung out at subreddits on his personal pursuits, such as cricket. Still, he admits that it took being on the inside for him to appreciate that the service’s appeal extends far beyond the nerdy niche with which it’s historically been associated. Eight months into his time as chief product officer, he says, “I’m just incredibly confident that Reddit is for everyone in the world.”