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Why Is This Man Running For President Of The Internet?

Alexis Ohanian started Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet.” Then he helped kill SOPA, the bill that threatened to destroy it. Now he’s running for President. Of the whole thing.

Illustration by John Gara

It’s an unseasonably cold early October evening in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is giving his elevator pitch to a flustered but rapt woman behind the counter of a fast-food joint, Runza, where he’s picking up 45 servings of the eponymous Nebraskan meat and bread dish to bring back to a party at a local sports startup. “Have you heard of Hudl?” he asks, explaining in unbroken paragraphs how the power of the internet is changing high school and college sports. The woman laughs, an is this guy for real? kind of nervous giggle. But he’s dead serious.

It’s the off-the-cuff version of a stump speech I’d seen him give a few hours earlier, to a crowd of about a hundred at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (“We need to be good stewards of technology.”) I’d watched him tell the crowd about Geek Day, a digital march on Washington that he had set into motion the day before, and tout his site’s success in fighting the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA — including the $94 million in lobbying, largely from the entertainment industry, that had pushed them to the brink of passing. He also tells a story about a trucker he met in Colorado who didn’t even know he was an “Internet Freedom” supporter until Alexis explained what that meant, and then — from the stage — he calls Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican who supported SOPA, to ask him why (he gets voicemail). He refers to the President of the United States, without hesitation, as POTUS.

Ohanian speaking at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The whole time, though, he’s subtly code-switching to speak to one of the invisible constituencies he knows is present: Redditors. These, after all, are his people, his true believers. So he references bacon. He uses the word “epic.” He acknowledges memes, like Advice Animals.

When he leaves the stage, he shakes hands and poses for pictures; had a baby been there, he might’ve kissed it. Then he’s off to the next stop, a high school football game, in a tour bus that had at one time been leased by the McCain campaign and converted into the “Straight Talk Express.” Now, it’s been painted over — half red, half blue — and along with Ohanian and a few other Reddit staffers, is also carrying a small press corps (BuzzFeed included), a documentary crew, representatives from farming startup AgLocal, and a staffer at the newly formed Internet Association lobbying group. It is trailed, loudly, by an impressive car-buggy designed by open source automotive startup Local Motors.

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that Alexis Ohanian — the insistently goofy, imposingly tall, never-off 29-year-old cofounder of what is arguably the largest cohesive community on the internet — is running for office. And in fact, he kind of is — but for a position that doesn’t yet exist.

Alexis Ohanian wants to be the President of the Internet. And he’s pretty sure he knows what he needs to do to get there.

Reddit, circa 2008. The design is mostly unchanged. startupmeme.com

Reddit’s politics used to be mostly self-contained. In 2007, it was the de facto online campaign headquarters for the Ron Paul “Re[Love]ution”, the place where much of Paul’s unexpectedly youth-oriented campaign was hatched, honed and subsequently reabsorbed. Paul was the first presidential candidate to stop by the site to answer questions, before its iconic “AMA” (Ask Me Anything) format was fully standardized. (Sample query: “Sir, should the government be able to keep secrets from the public at all? Is ultimate freedom more important that ultimate security?”) And his one-day fundraising campaign, helped by Reddit, raised $4.1 million and led to the coining of the term “moneybomb.”

But late last year, the site’s political ambitions suddenly expanded when the Reddit hivemind learned that Congress was well on its way to passing the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). The resulting campaign against the two aggressive technology bills championed in large part by the entertainment industry was organized, furious and largely organic. Reddit’s administrators, with Ohanian out in front, embraced the movement in full, helping to rally users and declaring, with other large sites including Wikipedia, a 12-hour internet “blackout.” The move was intended to demonstrate what SOPA — which gave copyright holders and the government unprecedented, unchecked power to shut down sites hosting allegedly infringing content — could mean to typical internet users. It was widely hailed as a success, and gave the SOPA fight a level of mainstream visibility unprecedented for such a wonky copyright bill. Ohanian was called as a witness in a Congressional hearing on the controversy, which was later cancelled. Nonetheless, SOPA, which had been widely supported by both Republicans and Democrats, became toxic. Days after Ohanian was scheduled to address lawmakers, the bill’s sponsor, Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith, pulled support. Lawmakers and Hollywood lobbyists alike were taken aback at the sheer force of the response, says Ohanian. “Every single person I’ve talked to in DC, all the insiders” he told the crowd in Lincoln, “agreed that they’ve never seen anything like that before.”

Reddit in 2012 is a vastly different — and much more influential — place than it was in 2007. For starters, as general manager Erik Martin tells me, the site got 42 million unique visitors (for billions of page views) last month, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands who were coming to Reddit five years ago. It’s recovered from its near-fatal acquisition by Condé Nast, which left the staff budgetless in a period of massive growth, and is now an operationally independent subsidiary of the venerable publisher. These days, the rate and scale at which Reddit’s users digest and curate content is unmatched by all but the biggest social networks. A link on the front page of Reddit can drive hundreds of thousands of views to a story. Virtually no other site, with a few odd exceptions (looking at you, Drudge), can do that.

But the SOPA moment, says Ohanian, set the site on a new, more explicitly political course. It led to the drafting of a Declaration of Internet Freedom (“We believe that a free and open Internet can bring about a better world”) and the creation of the Internet Defense League (“Make sure the internet never loses. Ever”), a coalition led by Reddit, Mozilla, WordPress and the Cheezburger Network (Failblog, The Daily Wh.at, Know Your Meme), with the goal of warning citizens of the next SOPA or PIPA.

“I’ve always tried to make ‘making the world suck less’ a goal of mine,” Ohanian tells me in Lincoln, “and so in that way I’ve sort of been aware of political things, and, you know, as a voter I’ve been engaged, but I’ve certainly never campaigned for anything, or really felt like an activist. What flipped the switch for me was when Reddit started really, really mobilizing around [SOPA], and I started seeing the posts on /r/sopa every day… that really impressed me, and really motivated me.”

If there was any doubt that Reddit was angling for real political clout, it was extinguished in September when the President stopped by the site to conduct a Q & A with users. It went about as well as it could have for both parties: It helped re-burnish the Obama campaign’s image as internet-savvy and anointed Reddit as a new media campaign stop. “For years we would tell people that [Reddit] is an important place to have an interview,” says Ohanian. “But once you have the President of the United States, it’s hard to anyone to say, ‘this is a waste of time.’” Obama’s AMA changed the site’s perception in the rest of the media, says Ohanian: Suddenly, he started hearing people refer to “Facebook, Twitter… and Reddit.”

It was from this context that Ohanian and Martin hatched, during a walk to the subway in New York, the idea for the “Internet 2012” bus tour. It would start at the Presidential debate in Denver on October 3rd and end in Danville, Kentucky, the site of the first Vice Presidential debate on October 11th, stopping along the way in, among other cities, Boulder, Colo.; Lincoln; and Des Moines and St. Louis, MO, to meet with startups, political activists and, of course, Redditors.

Ohanian left his full-time role at Reddit two years ago in part to work on his other two startups, Hipmunk and Breadpig. (The first is a travel booking site, the inspiration for which he credits to his father, a travel agent; the second is a geek charity shop.) But on this bus tour, he’s happy to step into the role of candidate, at one point even raising the specter of a traditional public life. At a panel in Boulder hosted by start Simple Energy, at which aides for Colorado Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet are present, he explains what he tells people who ask him if or when he might run for office. “For the foreseeable future” he says he wants to do more to change Washington from the outside than the inside — a response to a question that no one on the panel actually put forth.

As for whether or not this tour is the beginning of a bid to become, if not the nominal president of the internet, its political spokesperson in Washington, Ohanian is measured. “If you want to call me that,” he says, laughing, “it’s up to the voters, and the constituents.”

“I think that’s a pretty fair statement,” says Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger network of comedy sites and longtime net neutrality spokesperson. Huh joined the bus tour in Des Moines. “Privately, I’ve encouraged Alexis to take on more of that role. I think Alexis has the [ability to] articulate and the persona to actually do it.”

When I tell Ohanian what I and others on the bus have identified as “politician-like traits,” his response is noncommittal: “Hm. I definitely had a fifth grade teacher tell me that.” When I mention to Ohanian the personal commandment he had been repeating at every stop — “Make the World Suck Less” — has a quality of an internet-tested, millennial-ready political slogan, he laughs. “That’s interesting.”

Reddit General Manager Erik Martin, left, with Ohanian

This may be the beginning of Ohanian’s public political life, but his personal political story is longer. Shortly after inauguration day in 2008, the Obama administration was discussing the possibility of a weekly YouTube address by the President, in the style of FDR’s Fireside Chats. “To be a part of the next generation’s version of that,” Ohanian tells me, “would have been awesome.” Ohanian, along with Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman and Chief Scientist Chris Slowe, mocked up a proposal for a rudimentary Q&A platform, based loosely on Reddit, to be used with the videos. The project never came to fruition, but the proposal didn’t come out of the blue. Ohanian counts many in Obama’s 2008 campaign as friends, as well as its current CTO, Chicago startup culture kingpin Harper Reed. And Ohanian says he personally was instrumental in convincing the President to do the Reddit AMA. “I went out to Chicago,” he tells me, “because there were a bunch of Redditors working on the campaign. That was one of the major relationships I pushed” to get Obama on the site.

Huh, who also says Reed is a close friend, is aware of the delicate position this leaves the fledgling Internet Freedom movement in. He says it’s been hard to build a bipartisan coalition around tech issues. “When you start talking to Republicans about this,” he says, “they look around at everyone and ask, ‘Is this a trap?’ It’s a delicate balance, and I think we’ve been able to hold it so far, but we really need to come out and say that this isn’t a partisan issue.”

A perception of political affiliation wouldn’t be as much of a concern if the movement’s goals were better established. But the message is new and evolving, and the bus tour feels as much about spreading ideas as figuring out which ones, if any, resonate with real people.

Support for Net Neutrality, the confusingly named concept that internet service providers should not be permitted to favor one type of internet traffic over any other, for a fee or otherwise, is one of the platform’s few solid planks. It’s also been identified mainly with the Democratic Party — the President and Chairman of the FCC have spoken in support of it, while Mitt Romney, with the backing of many prominent conservative think tanks, is effectively against it.

There’s also patent reform, a tech industry bugbear. Ohanian’s view is that software patents should be abolished completely — a position common among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, many of whom are vulnerable to patent trolling. Likewise, copyright law is regarded as an overbearing, out-of-date set of rules that need to be reformed for the internet age. The opponents here are a Hollywood and old media — a lobby, not a party.

Setting up for the Iowa Uncaucus, a non-partisan, internet-centric civic engagement event. Speakers included a pig farmer, who asked for meat processing regulatory reform; an internet advocacy lawyer; and a local teacher.

Despite his sites’ focus on memes and humor, Huh is an unabashed internet policy wonk, and explains the in-progress platform as, at its core, a call for an early warning system: “I think there’s definite support to make sure we don’t get blindsided again,” he says, “to avoid what happened with PIPA and SOPA.” Keeping the internet free of obstacles to both business growth and speech is priority number one. Ohanian says that, at the moment, saving the internet is less about change than simply “not fucking things up.”

This is not an easy message to deliver to someone who doesn’t already know or care about startups or internet culture. “This is definitely a subgroup of internet users, but a very forward-thinking one,” says Huh. He sees the mainstreaming of these issues as inevitable, and the SOPA/PIPA backlash as just the beginning.

The slogan-length message of the tour — save the internet! — is easy to deliver to those who live and breathe the internet, who intuitively understand that as sites like Facebook, Twitter, and (yes) Reddit become larger and more powerful, they will be vulnerable not just to the indirect consequences of clumsy or lobby-tainted internet legislation, but to direct regulation. They likely also will expect the next generation of politicians to treat the internet as a discrete entity rather than a slice of the telecommunications industry. Ohanian, or any candidate who carries his “don’t fuck up the internet” torch, can probably count on support from those people, at least.

Brett Trout, a Des Moines lawyer who has spoken across the country in support of net neutrality and presented at the Iowa Uncaucus, warns that, at least for now, mainstream messaging is hard. “The problem is that the issues are pretty complex,” he tells me, “and people want soundbites. How do I explain to someone who doesn’t use the internet very much what net neutrality is? I don’t know how you motivate people to learn about it. If you can get people informed of what the problem,” he says, they’ll care. “But the problem is informing them.”

Huh admits that a platform united by the loose theme of “the internet” might have trouble reaching certain segments of the population – perhaps most. “For people whose lives aren’t yet that affected by technology,” he says, “I would tell them to think of their kids.”

Notably absent from what has come to be known “Reddit Bus Tour” was much evidence of the site itself. The tour kicked off with a debate-watching Reddit meetup in Denver, and while there were Redditors at every stop, they were usually outnumbered.

Not exploiting a 42-million-person grassroots base might seem like bad planning, but Martin says it was by design. “We envisioned this is a campaign for the internet, not for Reddit,” he says. “We would use it where it was useful for our mission, but as little as possible, to get our phone calls returned.”

The Reddit Bus in Des Moines.

Ohanian prefers to tell stories about how the site’s users have united to accomplish real-world things — 2010’s Rally to Restore Sanity, hosted by Jon Stewart, was born on the site, and it has thrown its formidable power behind countless charitable causes. On the other hand Martin, who is charged with managing the site’s thousands of active communities, tends to revel in the weird and entertaining aspects of the site. His presentation to students in Lincoln is anchored by the story of how, in response to a lighthearted thought experiment, a Redditor wrote a series of stories about what might happen if modern soldiers were dropped into the middle of a Roman battlefield. The stories were then optioned to become a Hollywood film, Rome, Sweet Rome.

“I spent 10 years doing improv, so on nights like tonight, where I know what I’m supposed to say,” he says, laughing, referring to a convincing, on-message speech about internet freedom he delivered in front of the Iowa Uncaucus, “I hate that shit.”

Martin, Reddit’s most operationally important employee, is pragmatic by necessity. He presides at the top of the staff of just over 20 that keeps Reddit running, and probably understands the site better than anyone else in the world. A set of communities virtually as diverse as the internet itself, and prone to constant — and often simultaneous — large-scale fits of ecstasy and anger, Reddit could easily have proven impossible to manage. In most cases, Reddit’s approach has been to let it regulate itself.

A heavily censored screenshot of /r/spacedicks, one of the many virtually unscreenshotable subreddits on the site.

The result is a persistent media conversation about the less savory sections of the site, which Martin is well aware of but careful not to endorse, defend or condemn. Earlier this year, the site’s /r/jailbait section, which posted sexualized images of underaged girls, was shut down after instances of child pornography were reported. A few months later, the site shut down a section dedicated to exploiting a security hole in Photobucket and posting private photos, mostly sexual in nature, but only after the media reported on it. “We don’t get in involved unless it has someting to do with [the] rules,” Martin told me. Reddit.com/rules lists just five. Only two are related to content.

This week, links from Gawker Media sites were banned (by volunteer moderators, not Reddit employees) from major subreddits after it was revealed that reporter Adrian Chen was planning to unmask the identity of a user named violentacrez, who had moderated /r/jailbait, /r/creepshots, and dozens of other sections, some created for the express purpose of being offensive, such as r/picsofdeadkids. (Update: The story has been posted here; followup here.) Martin takes a sort of old-school forum operator’s approach to dealing with content like this, intervening only when the law, or users’ safety, demands it. “We try to make rules so users can enforce themselves,” says Martin. “I do think Reddit is somewhat of a new thing, both for media and users, where it is a platform in the way the Tumblr and YouTube and Twitter are, but it’s also a brand and community — a community of communities — and I don’t think there’s been a site that does both of the things at the same time, the way Reddit [does].” Reddit, in this sense, has a lot in common with the legendarily laissez-faire 4Chan.

But this philosophy is increasingly difficult to reconcile with the site’s mainstream prominence. The argument that /r/spacedicks, a forum full of brazenly offensive comments captioning photos of porn, gore, and animal sex, can coexist on a neutral platform a few clicks away from a question and answer session with the President of the United States is logical, but only in the strict, philosophical sense of the word. To someone who has never heard of Reddit, it’s an impossible sell. It’s easy to imagine a political opponent pulling this lever, and getting results.

Erik Martin reacting to one of Reddit’s most bizarre and offensive subreddits, /r/spaceclop — a spinoff of the aforementioned /r/spacedicks. He said he knew what to expect, but nonetheless said out loud to himself: “That’s wrong.”

But to suggest that the Internet 2012 Reddit bus tour’s conspicuous lack of, well, Reddit is the result of a whitewashing or a founder’s boredom with the site would be, I think, misguided. Reddit internal contradictions don’t seem to bother Ohanian or Martin. The site’s DNA was still evident in the events, the messaging and even the bus itself. Painted on the bus’s grille was a QR code which, when scanned, opened a subreddit dedicated to the long-running “Bitch, I am a Bus” meme. One of the promised rewards for IndieGogo contributors to the tour was a late-night drunk dial from the bus. Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, was one of the recipients.

It’s also apparent that Ohanian and Martin still care deeply about this site, which they expect to keep growing at fast and steady pace. It’s been doubling in size at least once every year since launch. What’s more likely is that, in understanding Reddit’s power, Ohanian and Martin know its limits. As policy demands become real, and as Ohanian (or anyone) seeks to become an effective political player, the movement will have to learn to work within the culture of Washington. “The moment you have to turn that into sausage,” says Huh, “or make the bill, [that’s when] you’re actually doing politics.” In other words, it requires compromise.

“The internet doesn’t really get that,” says Huh. “The internet doesn’t really accept that as part of the process.” The internet — that is to say, Reddit — both abhors a hypocrite and applies the term liberally. In order to help the internet, he suggested, you have to leave it behind.

The tour did embrace what appears to be the movement’s base: startup culture. But this presents its own obstacles. “We don’t know how the machines of politics work, or we tend to approach things from a very idealistic perspective,” says Huh. At the Simple Energy event in Boulder, the panel and audience of entrepreneurs quickly become fixated on inefficiencies of the political process. A young startup employee interjected from the back of the crowd, “The people in this room are creating billion dollar companies. The senators should be here. The President should be here.”

And a campaign too deeply rooted in the startup world would run the risk of seeming out of touch, or elitist. The recently launched San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation (sf.citi), which is advised by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey and others in the San Francisco startup scene, released its first video this week. It includes some self-evidently good ideas for improving how the city works. But it is also very much of the scene — it’s easy to imagine how, to someone unfamiliar with the video’s participants, it could look like a foreign object. Or a parody.

The Internet Freedom cause may not have caught fire yet, but with the defeat of SOPA and PIPA, the movement has bought itself some time to figure things out. Paralyzed by the overwhelming backlash, legislators have steered clear of ambitious internet legislation for the time being. And the Obama administration has raised its voice in calls for the preservation of net neutrality — a sign, perhaps, that the campaign to “save the internet” is already working.

During his visit to Reddit, the President struck a conciliatory, hopeful tone in the answer to the first question about the internet:

Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the Internet remains the open forum for everybody—from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although their [ed note: the first comment on this answer was a correction. “there*,” wrote user dsfargegherpderp, to the President.] will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won’t stray from that principle— and it will be reflected in the platform.

Ohanian’s quest to become president of the internet, then, may be facing an insurmountable obstacle. The actual president is running, too.

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