Tuesday 6 December 2016

Ask Me Anything: like how Reddit can make more money this time

Alongside Facebook and Twitter, Reddit is the most powerful platform for discussing news and swapping stories. Our tech editor spoke to co-founder Alexis Ohanian

Published 03/11/2016 | 02:30

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian
Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian

Every publisher knows it. If your story hits the front page of Reddit, you'd better have very big servers.

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Despite the advent of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms used and abused by media, Reddit is still a monster when it comes to deciding what gets read and what is passed over.

It has 250 million active users and is the eighth-most active site for web traffic in the US (it's around 20th worldwide).

Even if you've never used the site, you've probably heard of its "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) sessions, now a go-to feature for minor celebrity and pole-climbing politician.

So it seems incredible that co-founder Alexis Ohanian (together with Steve Huffman) sold the goliath to publishing giant Condé Nast for under $20m (€18m). But he did, now admitting that they let the service go "too early" in 2006.

Ten years on from the bargain sale of the century, Ohanian is back as chairman of Reddit, while Huffman is chief executive.

"The only way it works at this scale is because we built tools for hundreds of millions of people to self-organise around tens of thousands of communities to discuss and vote on the best content of the moment," Ohanian says.

He's not joking. When it comes to content - articles, photos and discussions - Reddit arguably trumps all other online platforms.

Last year, it had 83bn page views and 7bn "upvotes". And unlike Facebook and Twitter, where links are posted but rarely clicked on, users go to Reddit to share and click on linked content that's posted. That gives Reddit an unprecedented punch when it comes to information that is shared and consumed around the world.

"We built a platform that tens of thousands of communities can call home where they openly and honestly discuss and vote on the best content of the day," says Ohanian. "The pseudonymity of Reddit allows people to feel secure enough to be their full selves."

This pseudonymity is not without its challenges, though. Long before Twitter trolls were harassing people off the internet, Reddit's communities included gangs of malevolents dabbling in hate speech. Is this to be expected in a service that still lays claim to being "the front page of the internet"?

"With our content policy and the community and trust and safety teams we've built out, those groups and individuals are thwarted pretty soon after their violations are reported or discovered," says Ohanian. Apparently, just 0.02pc of content posted is reported as offensive or problematic.

Nevertheless, Ohanian appears to be conscious of Reddit's increasing responsibilities when it comes to being one of the world's biggest sharing sites for content. With more and more associating social media giant Facebook with media properties, it's not surprising that Reddit is being tagged with the same issues.

In this context, it is within the last year that the safety policies Ohanian talks about have been bulked up. Ohanian puts Reddit's responsibilities in a general way.

"[It is] to build the most equitable platform we can for as many communities as we can to create homes on the internet for everyone," he says. "Everyone can find their home on Reddit and their Reddit user name will mean as much to them (or more) than the name on their birth certificate."

Aside from Reddit, Ohanian has a growing portfolio of interests. Together with a former Y Combinator partner Garry Tan, he has just raised just over €100m for Initialized Capital, a new venture capital fund that will invest in early-stage startups.

He is also a fairly successful author, with his book 'Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed' reaching fourth in the US bestseller charts in 2013.

And he retains a strong interest in Armenia - the country his parents emigrated from to escape genocide.

But while tabloid newspapers have recently picked up on his reported romantic partnership with tennis superstar Serena Williams, he is still most closely associated with Reddit.

Yet for all its popularity and power, Reddit has a relatively tiny commercial footprint. While Facebook pulls in close to €20bn a year and Twitter over €2bn, Reddit's revenue is reportedly under €50m.

It hasn't tried to keep pace with other mega internet properties when it comes to making money.

Ohanian says he aims to put this right.

"Two-hundred-and-fifty million monthly active users is a lot of people," he says. "But Reddit's advertising product didn't change much for the half a decade Steve and I were gone, so we've been making improvements in earnest since coming back. We're seeing a lot of early success with even basic improvements to our native ad product, so I expect this to keep trending up and to the right."

In fact, Reddit is launching targeted ads by topic of interest - a totally new concept for the site.

"Prepare your pitchforks," posted Ohanian's co-founder and Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman last week.

"We are enabling basic interest targeting in our advertising product. This will allow advertisers to target audiences based on a handful of predefined interests (sports, gaming, music), which will be informed by which communities they frequent."

To prevent a total meltdown of adblocker-activist Reddit users, Huffman says that the new ad services will have an opt-out option at browser level.

Nevertheless, it's a big change for the platform and one that could see it start to mine a lucrative user base.

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