Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian: How the Web should lobby Washington

October 3, 2013

It was an informal setting for a Q&A. Alexis Ohanian, right, along with his dad, Chris Ohanian, and friends Jon Swyers and Brian Femiano, tailgating at FedEx Field.

For over a year, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has devoted his time to instructing aspiring entrepreneurs and advocating for the open Web. Now he's rolled his experiences thus far into a new book, "Without Their Permission." It's part memoir, part instruction manual and part-call to action, and it hit store shelves this week.

Ahead of a massive 150-stop book tour, we caught up with Ohanian — a devoted Washington Redskins fan, who grew up in Columbia Md. — while he was in town tailgating at FedEx Field with his father, Chris, and two friends he's known since the Boy Scouts. This conversation was conducted in front of FedEx Field, huddled around an orange traffic pylon, and has been edited for length, clarity, and bullhorns.

Hayley Tsukayama: You're kind of going after two distinct audiences here  those looking at "skipping the MBA," as you say to launch their own businesses and those interested in political action. How do you feel those audiences interact?

Alexis Ohanian: I wanted this book to be something that my fellow millennials could look at and find useful. I want this message of Internet entrepreneurship in the broadest sense... Not just starting a startup and becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg. Whether it's just starting a podcast or an Etsy store -- I don't care -- just start something. Because we are the best suited to take advantage of what is this huge shift.

And I think reading it helps with the folks on the policy side, on the government side. Because we are voters -- I mean, unless you're not 18 or a felon. What we saw with SOPA/PIPA is that we still have a tremendous power as voters. I am anything but cynical after seeing what happened with SOPA/PIPA, which everyone said was impossible. So yes, it's easy to get really disillusioned with government, but they still work for us.

People see the tech community and Washington as very insular communities. How important do you think being well-versed in policy and understanding the political power of the Internet is to new entrepreneurs?

There is so much of the Internet economy happening all over this country and it is going to be more important than ever that these entrepreneurs and people who are in the industry have not just an awareness of the issues, but also a kind of empowerment. They can't feel disenfranchised.

If you look at things like [Mark Zuckerberg's immigration group] Fwd.us, you can see what you're talking about, in terms of that insular, sort-of valley mentality about "here's how we're going to hack Washington." And I have a lot more confidence in the notion that if we can get the Internet and if we can get these ideas and, specifically the access to those tools we need to make the most out of it to as many Americans and people in the world as possible, that's gonna give birth to the great ideas that will really push things forward. Someone in Des Moines is just going to have different problems than someone in Palo Alto. And this tool works regardless of whether you're in Des Moines or Palo Alto.

It's interesting that you mention Fwd.us, because it's been interesting to see them adopt a more traditional lobbying model, which seems to be — in some ways —counter to what we saw with SOPA and PIPA.

If I have learned anything from the last 8 years, it's how little we can really dictate, how little we actually have control. You cannot create an organic movement — that should be evident from the name "organic movement" — but people continue to try. I think it takes a certain amount of, frankly, humility to admit how powerless one is. If you think of the typical machinations... the fact is it was a lot easier to do that kind of top-down work in the past. SOPA/PIPA was the first time where it went from totally inevitable to totally unthinkable, to paraphrase Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.). That was so heartening.

I think the biggest oversight of the Fwd.us group — and this is indicative of us, if I can generalize, for tech — is that we want to look for the path of least resistance, for the hack. Where that fails, especially in the realm of politics, is when you want to try to organize a bunch of people to really believe in something, and you combine that with this idea of "by any means necessary." There was a significant chunk of the tech community that looked at those ads and asked...[why] can't we just say this is what we believe in, are there any people that support us?

I can understand that mentality that gave birth to their strategy. I see where it comes from. But what was so clear during SOPA/PIPA, from Restore the Fourth, is that there are so many Americans who simply feel disenfranchised, feel there's no party that represents them.

You can see where this trend is going. We've seen small-scale candidates start to raise money in larger and larger amounts from random people. Crowdfunding, you can look at places like KickStarter, which has abstracted to places like Indiegogo or Crowdtilt [Ohanian is an investor] where you can use crowdfunding for anything.

I would hope we could see the emergence of candidates who are beholden not to parties, but to their voters and are using technology in a somewhat 21st century way as opposed to how they're using it now.

The majority of your book, I found, was very optimistic about what the Web can do to change government. But you do have two possible graduation speeches [to the class of 2025] — one fairly grim — about how these discussions about technology, surveillance and the open Web may play out. 

The technology has definitely outpaced the policy, and it's about time we got everyone in the room and said, "Hey guys. Fourth amendment, it's really great." I think my editor, Rick Wolff, wanted to mess with me and show everyone what's going to happen if we don't get this right. Strike fear into them to show them what will happen if we don't get this right.

Do you think we're at a pivot moment before those two outcomes?

Yeah. I thought we were at a pivot moment before all the Snowden stuff. But privacy is, unfortunately, an issue that doesn't have the same urgency as "this is going to break the Internet." Because people think they don't have things to hide. But that's total malarkey; we all have things to hide.

And nearly all of us who understand the technology at play are in accord about what should happen. When you see mail in a mailbox, we know: get a warrant, Officer. And when you mail in an inbox, we know: get a warrant, Office. Privacy rights that apply to us in meatspace apply to us in cyberspace. Full stop.

If you — as you hypothesize in the book — could go back in time and hand it to yourself as a freshman in college, what would be the biggest takeaway you'd like to highlight?

The biggest thing would have definitely been... I would have stuck with computer science. It's such a — it's the difference between just being someone who has an idea and being able to do something about it and making something. It is going to be such a valuable skill in this century that I would like to think everyone at least considers it.

This is one of those rare times where this is a skill that's so valued and yet so freely available. It's not like you have to go medical school, to pass a test — whether it was Zuckerberg, whether it was Steve [Huffman, Ohanian's Reddit co-founder], so many of these people were self-taught. And that's not to say forget college, just teach yourself the Internet. But the best resources, the resources they all used, are free. And that doesn't make it trivial — it's still hard work — but there are few things that you can tell a college student with such confidence as: learn how to code.

Even if you never want to start the next Reddit, or Facebook or whatever, it will probably make your life more efficient. And you're going to learn how to learn, which is what the Internet is so good at. Say there's a high school student out there looking to make an app. As soon as that switch flips and she realizes everything I needed to learn to build this Android app I can Google for, or find on Stack Exchange, or I could talk to friends about, she's going to look at every other problem and think, "huh, how can I hack that?"

It's just that mindshift that, unfortunately, almost nowhere are we taught to do. It's not part of any curriculum because none of these curricula were written in the 21st century.

Correction: This post originally said Ohanian is an investor in Indiegogo, but he is an investor in Crowdtilt.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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