NEW YORK —A day before he was to speak at Harvard, Erik Martin was walking his 5-year-old mutt, Mog, down a few Brooklyn streets to a park.
Martin is in roomy blue jeans that fall over faded blue Nike sneakers. A few weeks ago, he was managing Reddit, one of the largest Web sites in the world. Now, he’s unemployed.
The longtime manager of one of the world’s most successful start-up Internet companies leans down to bag Mog’s droppings. The next day, he’ll speak on a panel about journalism for social change at the Igniting Innovation Summit on Social Entrepreneurship in Cambridge.
Time magazine named Martin to its list of the most influential people in the world in 2012, when Reddit was less than a fifth of its current size. The site, said to be valued at $500 million, boasted more than 174 million unique visitors in September 2014, just weeks before Martin announced his resignation as general manager on Oct. 13.
“If the Web’s most powerful images are the ones that go viral, then Erik Martin oversees the most infectious petri dish around,” Time said of Martin in 2012. “Since its founding in 2005, the site has avoided the influence of corporate brands and self-promoting celebrities, instead favoring the sometimes questionable taste du jour of its hive mind.”
Martin’s transition from Reddit could reflect future generations of entrepreneurs with varying interests as the Internet enters its “second generation,” a time when young people coming into the workplace have had access to the Internet for their entire lives. His leadership at Reddit helped shape the model of Internet freedom we experience today.
“ ‘A.D.D.’ is a very good term to describe what is going on in the Internet world,” says Kathleen Allen, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, about tech entrepreneurs. “Even if they make it big, they tend to start something new. It’s a lifestyle sort of thing.”
So what’s the next step for Martin, a 37-year-old barbecue-loving, early-’90s rap connoisseur and media guru considered an expert on communication in the digital age?
“It’s called A--h---- on Demand,” he says with a slight giggle.
It’s called A--h---- on Demand.
To understand Martin’s day-to-day work while he was at Reddit, one has to have at least a broad understanding of the vast informational ocean he was tasked with overseeing. Reddit’s aforementioned 174 million unique visitors hail from 186 countries and tallied more than 6.1 billion page views in September alone.
Part of his job involved meeting with potential advertisers, giving people the “Reddit 101,” as he says, and finding ways to monetize a free service.
The company “runs roughly break-even” through advertising and revenue-generating perks, says Sam Altman, president of the start-up incubator Y Combinator, an investor in Reddit.
“What I care about is not revenue right now, what I care about is getting to a billion users,” Altman says.
Martin’s job as general manager, a role that he took on in 2011 after coming in as a community manager in 2008, was to make sure his employees were appeasing a crowd that at some point got too big to be completely monitored by staff members. Martin remembers times when he would check the site at 3 or 4 a.m. “just to make sure something horrible wasn’t happening.”
While the site became too big to surveil, that responsibility was also inherently unnecessary. The premise of Reddit is based on free speech. A crude eyesore of a site, the giant message board is as close to endless content as you can find on the Internet.
Threads unspool after a person posts a link or message, and the universe responds with an avalanche of comments. The appeal is in its unpredictability.
“It’s endless. It’s like 100,000 comments per day. It’s impossible to read all that — no one should read all that,” Martin says.
Users can subscribe and add to subcategories, called subreddits, or they can create their own communities to serve their interests. The majority of the site is suitable for all viewers, but it’s also impossible to mention Reddit, and the role Martin has played in shaping the concept of free speech on the Internet, without mentioning the grimy elements that often generate more media coverage than anything else.
You need not look hard to find racism, offensive language and borderline illegal content, if that’s what you’re looking for. Recently, floods of stolen nude pictures of female celebrities such as actress Jennifer Lawrence and Olympic athlete McKayla Maroney were uploaded via a subreddit called The Fappening. An example of the conflicted role Reddit plays in aggregating the Internet, the site’s statement about the subreddit jumped from resigned to sympathetic to defensive regarding the decision to host it.
“While current US law does not prohibit linking to stolen materials, we deplore the theft of these images and we do not condone their widespread distribution,” the statement read. “Nevertheless, reddit’s platform is structurally based on the ability for people to distribute, promote, and highlight textual materials as well as links to images and other media. We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize.
“Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event.”
Reddit eventually banned the subreddit after users repeatedly posted images that broke site rules for child pornography.
Although Martin says he was phasing out of his duties as general manager by the time the pictures leaked, his general thoughts on moderation helped mold how Reddit dealt with the situation and how the company will probably deal with the many others that are sure to follow.
Unless law enforcement is involved, the content basically goes untouched, even the ugly, even the untrue. Without that freedom, the credibility and appeal of an anonymous message-board Web site would be tarnished.
Martin compares the company’s role in moderation and censorship to running any other type of business, putting it in metaphorical terms while eating at his favorite restaurant, Hometown Bar-B-Que.
“If you and I get into a serious argument in this restaurant,” he says, “no one would expect the manager to come out, determine who is right and kick one of us out. No, he would say, ‘You both get out.’ Or he would say, ‘Leave me alone.’ But like, if I stab you, the manager might call the police. But short of that . . .”
The lack of a moral obligation made it easier for him to sleep at night, he says, knowing the thousands of comments flowing through Reddit’s servers weren’t his responsibility alone. Users can “upvote” or “downvote” comments on the site, as well as report the comments to moderators as spam, for revealing personal information or as illegal content.
It is self-policing, because that’s the only way a site this big can operate. But also because that’s the point.
“The whole premise is that we’re not journalists. We have opinions, like everyone else, but the whole premise of the site is that it’s not about our opinions. It’s about the people,” he says. “We didn’t always agree internally. . . . So we would rather put our energy and time into making tools that help the community decide.”
But what does “Erik Martin, human being” — not “Erik Martin, GM of Reddit” — think about some of the disgusting content the site hosts?
He gives a small grin and looks down at the table.
“It’s horrible,” he says. “Daily, I’m tempted with, ‘Oh, I have that button where I can make this discussion disappear.’ Not really a button but theoretically, I could close this down. There is so much I find ignorant and stupid that I think shouldn’t exist. And just mean. That’s the stuff that bothers me the most.
“People are just mean for no reason.”
Martin lived in San Francisco for a short time but moved back to New York because he missed the seasons. Surrounding himself with tech folks day in and day out may have grown tiresome, as well.
“It’s like anything else,” he says. “You want to be surrounded by different kinds of people. The tech world can be very insular.”
It can’t be understated how poorly Martin fits the start-up culture stereotypes: the extravagance, the arrogance. He’s not overtly extroverted or introverted; he’s a quietish, funny, normal dude.
His father, Werner, remembers that when Erik was a child in Chapel Hill, N.C., he would gather kids together and create elaborate plays with homemade costumes.
“He’s not the recluse who sits in his room with his Internet connection,” Werner Martin says.
Werner immigrated to the United States from Switzerland more than 40 years ago and now runs his own robotic engineering company.
“We both learned business the same way,” Werner Martin says of his son. “I have a forest engineering degree, I don’t have an M.B.A. I know trees.”
Erik remembers being 10 years old and there always being six or seven people working in his living room on his dad’s latest project.
After getting a degree in American studies from Tulane University in New Orleans, Erik Martin moved back to North Carolina while working on an assortment of film and music projects, at one point joining an Internet improv troupe, before stumbling onto Reddit in 2005.
He discovered the site through Y Combinator and cold-e-mailed Alexis Ohanian, one of the site’s co-founders. Martin was one of the site’s first consistent users.
“When he first started reaching out to us, Reddit was me and Steve [Huffman, Reddit’s co-founder] in this crappy apartment,” Ohanian says. “When I first met him, it was clear that he was one of the few people who thought about Reddit then, and even the few that do even 10 years later, the way anyone other than me and Steve do now.”
At its most basic level, the allure of entrepreneurship comes from the desire to solve a problem. Not to change the world, or culture, or make a bunch of money, explains Allen, the USC professor who is the founding director of the university’s Marshall Center for Technology Commercialization.
“The really successful entrepreneurs are the ones who go in because it’s like a calling,” Allen says. “They worked like crazy but loved it. When they became hugely successful, they look at the hard times and say, ‘I really enjoyed that.’
“Running a big company is not something entrepreneurs are really passionate about.”
Which brings us back to Martin, a man just three years removed from making $14 an hour while Reddit was in its infancy. When discussing his future, he revels in the open road but makes multiple mention of having to “keep paying the bills.”
In the time immediately after he left Reddit, he wasn’t looking at any full-time jobs at other companies. He’s started mulling that option seriously, however, at other start-ups. He’s careful to look only at companies that aren’t too much like Reddit.
“People would always ask me, ‘What’s it like working at Reddit?’ Good, bad or whatever, I would say, it’s always something interesting. I always was like, if it ever becomes boring, I’ll quit,” he says.
“It’s not quite true that it became boring; there were still interesting problems, but it sort of became — not quite boring but closer to boring. A lot of what we set out to do — what I set out to do — we did it. I’m just ready for something different.”
That something started with a tweet.
“I’m starting new co called ‘a--h----- on demand,’ ” he wrote in October. “Hire us to deal with insurance, cable, etc co’s. ‘We’re a--h----, so you don’t have to be.’ ”
What started as a joke has turned into a curious but serious endeavor. A woman responded to the tweet and said she was interested in helping him create the company.
Martin bought the domain name days later, and the site is now live.
The start-up will aim to help those who, for whatever reason, don’t have the resources to fight for themselves, whether it’s a language barrier preventing a person from arguing with a cable provider or a lack of institutional knowledge about health insurance.
“We’re like the X-Men, but for a--h----!” Martin tweeted a day later. He has recruited more than 100 a--h---- so far.
Ohanian rejoined Reddit in November as executive chairman, after chief executive Yishan Wong resigned over a dispute involving the company’s new office location. Wong hasn’t announced what he is doing next.
While Martin denies that relationships with other higher-ups at the company played a part in his decision to leave, his dad mentions changes at the executive level as a contributing factor.
Ohanian left Reddit in 2010 to start a travel search start-up called Hipmunk before joining Y Combinator as an ambassador.
He says he expects to be a beta tester for A--h---- on Demand whenever Martin says it’s ready for him. The two are good friends.
“Erik has a really great creativity that is very —” Ohanian pauses, searching for the word, “very Internet.”
Martin now finds himself in a limbo that’s as familiar as it is exciting and daunting: The simplicity of pitting an idea, whether by himself or with a newish company, against ever-changing, ever-evolving infinite competition online.
“There’s always going to be another kid in college working on something,” he says and half-laughs.
He walks the few blocks back to his apartment.
He is going to relax for the rest of his Friday. Make an espresso, surf the Web, then pack for an Amtrak train to Harvard.