Alexis Ohanian’s mind is in a thousand places.
The co-founder of Reddit, one of the Internet’s most ubiquitous websites, has expanded his focus in recent years to political protests, assisting startup companies, and fighting for unrestricted access to information.
Ohanian and his friend Steve Huffman founded Reddit, the wildly popular social news and community website, in 2005. Fresh out of college, Ohanian spent tireless nights perfecting the site, which relies on community moderators to post and filter content.
Shortly thereafter, Ohanian founded Breadpig, a site that assists creators with crowdfunding, sponsorships, and business strategy. Then came Hipmunk, a travel search website, for which Ohanian is now an adviser. And if launching those online ventures were not enough, the restless 31-year-old now works with infamous startup venture firm Y Combinator. He serves as an ambassador, meeting with applicants to the program as well as young entrepreneurial founders.
The innovation Ohanian sees in new entrepreneurs seems to excite him most. Having just returned from Y Combinator’s Demo Days, during which a batch of startups are able to present their businesses and products, Ohanian emphasizes the importance social media plays in delivering viable ideas to the masses. And one of those tools in this new arsenal is, in fact, Reddit.
“I think the biggest thing is that a lot of these founders—this is now dating myself, Reddit’s going to be 9 years old—a lot of these founders, they tend to be in their early to mid-20s, they grew up using it,” the Brooklynite says from a noisy airport, slightly chuckling as he discusses this proverbial passing of the torch. One of his favorite recent projects is Beacon, a crowdfunded journalism project that has raised over $4,000 to send independent journalists to report in Ferguson, Missouri.
“Unlike some its predecessors, it’s based around ongoing or recurring revenue for journalism,” Ohanian says of Beacon, which he recently backed. “It’s less about individual projects and more about sustaining long-term investigative journalism. A bunch of us were able to chip in and were able to get—I think within a day and a half—a journalist down to Ferguson. It’s such an exciting time because we’ve seen technology change the way we do reporting.”
He’s careful to make the distinction between journalism and reporting, as Ohanian believes that smartphone technology has provided a level playing field to report information as it happens. But simultaneously, as indicated by his support for Beacon, journalism is still incredibly valuable to him.
Ohanian’s passion extends to political activism too, as he remains one of the most ardent supporters of a free and open Internet. In 2011, Ohanian voiced his dissent against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and helped lead a grassroots movement that blocked the bill from becoming law. But for him, the fight for a free Internet is far from over.
“It is going to be ongoing, that is for sure. This not going to end anytime soon. This is a long-term war,” Ohanian says. “But I see it as lots of small victories. Getting 1.1 million people to comment on the FCC decision with regard to broadband—that’s a win.”
Ohanian, like many fighting for net neutrality, wants to see the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reclassify Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. This would help keep these ISPs from choosing which content providers get to use a so-called “Internet fast lane” to provide consumers with desired information in a process called paid prioritization. Simply put, it helps even the playing field for everyone using the Internet. Because of Ohanian’s success as an online innovator, he desperately wants a thorough democratization of information and content for those following in his footsteps.
Perhaps the one topic where Ohanian is not hesitant to showcase biases is sports. He loves the Brooklyn Nets, the NBA franchise that recently moved from New Jersey, and the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Ohanian credits this peculiar combo to his upbringing in Maryland and his dad’s interest in the team from the nation’s capital.
“My dad is really into football, so he indoctrinated me as a kid,” Ohanian says. “Then I moved back to Brooklyn, and decided ‘You know what, I guess they got a new basketball team from Jersey, I might as well support both.’” He hopes that the Nets can retain some young players to build the franchise for the future, and he can’t wait to boo LeBron James when the Cleveland Cavaliers come to the borough and play.
Ohanian’s mind flits from topic to topic with childlike wonderment and glee, waxing poetic on basketball lineups and dishing specifics on political protections for Internet usage. He is, admittedly, a bit ADD about his areas of interest, his brain working almost like the Internet does, leaping from page to page with the simplest click. It’s for that very reason that Ohanian doesn’t know what’s next for him. But he’s totally cool with that.
“My crystal ball is not good enough to actually tell me what is going to be the particular thing and I’m pretty agnostic. If it involves technology and it seems cool and I love the founders, I’m probably going to get excited by it,” Ohanian says.
And for those founders, he has a little bit of advice: “Make something people want.”