The Six Most Important Moments in Reddit History

Alexis Ohanian, author of a new book, looks back at the highs and lows of the social news site he co-founded from landing an interview with the president to landing in hot water over its users' behavior after the Boston Marathon bombing

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tanya Kechichian

It’s a rare thing in this life to create a mid-sized country out of thin air, but that, in a sense, is what Alexis Ohanian has done. From a Massachusetts apartment in 2005 Ohanian and co-founder Steve Huffman launched Reddit, the social-network news aggregator that today has more users than France has people.

The site bills itself as the front page of the Internet and more than once the description as been spot on. On Reddit, users post news links (or any links, really) to the site, which other users then “upvote,” pushing the most popular posts to the top of the page.

It’s democracy in media in action, and in the eight years of Reddit’s existence the results have been a measure of the Internet’s potential and peril.

This week, Ohanian releases his new book Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, a memoir and how-to guide for the Internet entrepreneur. Ohanian is no longer involved in day-to-day operations at Reddit, but functions a bit like the site’s conscience, defending, celebrating and occasionally reprimanding the site’s users.

TIME asked Ohanian for a look back at the six most important moments in Reddit’s history.

1. Mr. Splashy Pants

In 2007, the environmental group Greenpeace held an online poll to pick a name for a humpback whale in an effort to stop whaling by the Japanese government. Most nominated monikers were majestic, and, let’s face it, a little cheesy: “Shanti,” “Libertad,” “Aurora,” to name a few.

Redditors, as they site’s users are known, got behind the name Mr. Splashy Pants, and the campaign went viral. After the decidedly goofy name took the lead, Greenpeace resisted at first, extending the poll by a week. But in the end Mr. Splashy Pants took 78 percent, compared to three percent for the nearest rival, and Greenpeace embraced the name, turning it into a major marketing campaign.

Japan canceled the whaling expedition, Mr. Splashy Pants is alive and well somewhere out there in the deep, and the episode helped put Reddit on the map.

“They actually accomplished what they wanted to and all they had to do was not take themselves so seriously,” Ohanian said.

2. President Obama’s AMA

The highest profile event in Reddit’s history was President Obama’s August 2012 AMA, or “Ask Me Anything” session, a Reddit tradition in which people submit to questions from users. The event crashed the site’s servers as too many people tried to join in the discussion all at once.

Ohanian had invited both Obama and Mitt Romney to participate in a forum on the site but was caught off guard when the president accepted.

“Just out of the blue the White House digital PR person was like ‘Hey, so, the president is doing an AMA in three days. Don’t tell anyone,’” Ohanian said. “Which is pretty awkward, because the site went down and part of the reason was because we could only tell a few of our engineers.”

3. Stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act

One of the watershed moments in the Internet policy debates came on January 18, 2012, when a handful of major websites used their homepages to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, which they felt threatened Internet freedom.

The two major sites that protested most ardently—by going entirely dark for the day—were Wikipedia and Reddit. Ohanian was a vocal opponent of SOPA but he wasn’t behind the decision to take the site offline.

“No one at the Reddit administrative team actually started that,” he said. Instead, in perfect Reddit form, the site’s team simply took notice of an escalating campaign of Redditors who promised to take themselves out of Redditland for the day. “We were following the lead of the user base”

4. Restoring Truthiness

In 2010, Redditors responded to conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s plan for a “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington, D.C., by calling for comedian Stephen Colbert to host a mock “Restoring Truthiness” gathering. To get Colbert’s attention, the community started donating en masse to a favored charity of his, Donor’s Choose, which connects people with teachers seeking funds for classroom projects.

Reddit broke previous fundraising records, raising more than $100,000 for classroom projects with so much traffic they overloaded the site’s servers. And when, not long thereafter, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart held the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” Ohanian was there. “It was a very geeky protest,” he said. “There were lots of signs that were grammatically correct.”

5. Boston Marathon Bombing

One of the darker episodes in Reddit’s history was the site’s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing in April.

In the frenzy to find the perpetrators, vigilante Redditors scoured images of the finish line for clues to the bombers’ identities, launching a pursuit that led to the harassment of innocent people, including the family of a Brown University student who had gone missing in March and was later found dead.

“Obviously this was an awful thing that happened,” Ohanian said. “This is the gift and the curse when you create a platform like this.” But he said he separates the platform from acts perpetrated by people who use it.

Ohanian compares blaming Reddit for the false reports about the bombers’ identities to crediting Twitter for the Arab Spring. “No, people caused the Arab Spring,” he said. “It would be like blaming Twilight on Gutenberg.”

6. A Spontaneous Pizza Delivery

In July, the friends and family of Hazel Hammersley posted a sign the on two-year-old cancer patient’s hospital room window requesting pizza. The image found its way to Reddit and readers sent along so many pies that the hospital had to ask for the orders to stop. Hazel and other patients were treated to a pizza party.

“An innocent little act like a bunch of little girls in a chemo lab putting up a sign that says ‘SEND PIZZA’ gets photographed by someone and posted on the Internet. Even ten years ago that same act would have happened and some good Samaritan may have possibly been like ‘I’m gonna figure out what room those people are in and send them a pizza.’ Maybe,” he said. “Today a million plus people saw that thread and some number of them participated and the rest were opened up to the fact that a bunch of random people on the Internet were willing to send pizza to a bunch of random kids going through chemo. And they probably felt a little better about humanity after that. “

WATCHOhanian Answers Questions From TIME’s Callie Schweitzer