Reddit's plan to tackle trolls and beat Facebook

Published 13/11/2016 | 22:37

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

For the best part of a decade, the social news site Reddit was neglected.

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Abusive users ran free in its darkest corners, its look became dated and “100pc” ugly, and it failed to adapt to modern technology, lacking both an app and a mobile website.

But despite being a bastion of 2009 aesthetics and style, Reddit was far from dilapidated.

It had continued to grow in popularity, and by 2015 had  more than 100m monthly active users who were part of an online community renowned for shaping public opinion.

What kept Reddit alive for so long when other social networks such as Myspace and Friends Reunited spluttered and expired is, in its founders’ eyes, the combination of its tens of thousands of different “communities” and its anonymous usernames.

Alexis Ohanian, one of the site’s co-founders, says: “When we left in 2009, there was enough that was right with Reddit to keep it growing in spite of no changes whatsoever. It’s pretty miraculous. I can’t point to any other company, let alone a technology company, that has managed to not evolve for the best part of a decade and still grow.”

Ohanian and his fellow co-founder Steve Huffman, realising that its potential was being left to wither, returned to the helm last year after being away from the company for six years.

“The chance to get back control of a company we started a decade before without any experience was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Ohanian says. “We felt it had a lot more potential.”

Ohanian is sitting in the speakers’ lounge at Web Summit, a European technology conference in the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, billed as the “Davos of geeks”.

Like many of those attending the conference, who include the co-founder of Tinder, Sean Rad, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the actor and founder of the online production company HitRECord, Ohanian’s eyes are shadowed with election-induced bags.

He is running on just two hours sleep and feeling taken aback by the previous night’s result.

“It’s still sinking in,” he says as we sit down in a corner of the lounge and conversation inevitably turns to the election of Donald Trump as US President.

Ohanian believes the election result makes Reddit more important now than ever before.

“If we can take anything away from this election, it’s that we need more communication across groups,” he says.

Although the social network has been mired in accusations of fostering hate speech and nurturing abuse, Ohanian thinks Reddit’s 250m users form a microcosm of public opinion.

“I think I, like a lot of people who live on the coast, was not really as in touch or aware as we should have been,” he says. “What we saw online was an expression of what was to come at the polls, which is tens of millions of people, if not more, really feeling not listened to and like they weren’t being represented in mainstream media. Now their voice has been heard.”

Among the voices on Reddit that received disproportionate amounts of coverage throughout the election was the alt-right. The site is said to have facilitated the growth of the nationalist movement that favoured Trump and fuelled his campaign, partly because of its use of pseudonyms and its community feel.

Reddit’s commitment to free speech has helped the site gain a reputation as a breeding ground for online vitriol and a meeting place for hateful trolls. Abuse was one of the first problems Ohanian and Huffman decided to tackle on their return, introducing a new trust and safety team, as well as warning messages.

For example, the first post on the /r/Politics channel now warns: “In general, don’t be a jerk. Don’t bait people, don’t use hate speech, etc. Attack ideas, not users.”

It seems to be working, says Ohanian, given that only 0.02pc of all posts are reported by users. “If I lived in a country with a 0.02pc crime rate I’d be pretty happy,” he adds. “It’s actually kind of heartening that this is happening online with people using pseudonyms. It doesn’t make for a great headline, but it’s the reality of it.”

Ohanian and Huffman founded Reddit in the summer of 2005 shortly after graduating from university, at the ripe age of 22. They had met on their first day at the University of Virginia, where they lived in halls together. Within a year of launching Reddit, they sold the site to Condé Nast for an undisclosed amount and, after working out their contracts for the next three years, the duo went their separate ways.

“We sold Reddit after 16 months because we thought we were getting the deal of a lifetime,” says Ohanian. “We’d just graduated from college and it seemed ludicrous that we’d been given this much money for 16 months’ worth of work.”

Ohanian spent the next six years investing in upstart technology companies and writing a book, while Huffman co-founded a travel comparison site called Hipmunk.

But it became difficult to watch their brainchild continue to grow and yet receive little improvement, so they both decided to return to the company: Ohanian first as executive chairman in 2014, then Huffman as chief executive in 2015.

“We’re not going to make the mistake of selling twice. We’re very, very much in it for the long term,” Ohanian says.

Since the pair rejoined the company, it has doubled in size. It now boasts a mobile app and website, 240 members of staff and almost 250 million users a month. And, for the first time in its history, the company is focused on revenue generation, with early advertising experiments proving “incredibly successful”.

But Reddit still needs to grow significantly if it is to compete with its closest rival Twitter and its self-declared competition Facebook.

“Facebook is the only company we think about,” says Ohanian. “They obviously have 1.8bn users so we still have a way to go with our quarter of a billion.”

Ohanian is optimistic that Reddit can trump Mark Zuckerberg’s social behemoth with its rudimentary commitment to authenticity and free speech. “Reddit offers the opportunity for us as humans to connect on a much deeper, broader level because users have an alter ego and aren’t tied to a social network of friends with whom they want to share how perfect their lives are,” he says.

Although Ohanian might not be thinking about Twitter, the microblogging site has a number of similarities with Reddit. It has close to the same number of users as Reddit with 300m on average each month, although its growth has stagnated for the past two years. Its founder Jack Dorsey also returned as the company’s chief executive in 2015 after a seven-year hiatus.

Unlike Twitter, Reddit faces a smaller task. “There are a lot of very obvious things we still need to do, because, while traffic kept growing for half a decade, the product and the business inside didn’t,” says Ohanian. “We have amazing people now, and a great executive team. But we still have a lot to do.”

Ohanian is positive that his and Huffman’s initial goals for Reddit can easily be met: after all they’re picking the “low-hanging fruit”, the problems created by half a decade’s neglect. For now, the focus is on refreshing the site and introducing more native advertising. Then, in the not too distant future, it can start working towards that sought-after billion.