Create something you love and help the world suck less: This advice is among the many wise words from entrepreneur, activist and investor Alexis Ohanian. I recently had the chance to interview Ohanian, who co-founded Reddit in 2005 as a way for users to share and discuss just about anything going on in the world of current events.
Reddit now has more than 160 million regular users, justifying its claim to be “the front page of the internet.” Ohanian himself has been dubbed “Mayor of the Internet” for leading the charge in open internet activism. He was among those who rallied against lobbyists pushing for piracy reform, which Ohanian believed would threaten innovation.
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Last year, however, he returned to Reddit and currently focuses much of his attention there. His role at Reddit gives him a bird’s-eye view of how the internet has flattened our world, allowing people of varying backgrounds a chance to access information and impact our culture and society.
Ohanian shared with me the top five lessons he learned in launching Reddit and as an activist seeking to protect the internet for our future.
1. The next generation needs a call to action.
Ohanian is passionate about pushing members of the next generation to take full advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given. “I don't want any of these kids looking back on high school as the best time in their lives. It's all just getting started,” he told me. “I’m always pushing this next generation to take full advantage of the opportunities we’ve been given, especially while they’re still young and relatively free of responsibility.”
The internet will undoubtedly play a major role in the lives of the upcoming generation as well, Ohanian said, as it influences how they interact with each other. It will continue to serve as a platform for many careers.
“The internet enables more people than ever before to do what they're passionate about -- and potentially make a living from it,” Ohanian said.
2. Your community is waiting for you on the internet.
The internet allows communities to connect and engage in a way that wasn’t possible a few decades ago. That ability -- to connect with others who may be far-flung geographically -- is one of the main reasons Ohanian said he and co-founder Steve Huffman created Reddit.
According to Ohanian, no matter what you’re into, there is a community for you on the internet. Reddit, as a social news-sharing site, helps you connect with those people. “So, whether you’re into makeup or ramen or anything else, there’s a home for you on Reddit pages, or elsewhere on the internet,” he said.
He added that the most crucial thing he and Huffman got right was building Reddit as a platform for communities. “We didn’t imagine there would be hundreds of thousands of diverse communities like there are today, but we knew that’s how we’d have to grow,” Ohanian said.
3. The internet is constantly evolving.
It’s no surprise that the internet is a fickle beast. Ohanian sees this firsthand, as every day brings new challenges, and as he works to meet people’s changing expectations. New platforms will emerge and mix with existing ones, with the result that the internet will evolve rapidly. In Ohanian’s opinion, this is a good thing since it drives innovation.
“There's always more competition for people's attention, but we're lucky because now that a quarter of a billion people are using Reddit every month, it's become ingrained in the lives of so many,” Ohanian explained.
Reddit continues to change, however, along with everything else on the internet. “There's no website quite like Reddit, which is why it's managed to grow in spite of not changing very much in the last six years since we left," Ohanian said. "That said, we're working hard to improve the product and make the experience better for everyone, from our most devoted users to the most casual.”
4. Keeping an open internet benefits everyone.
Ohanian felt he had a moral obligation to fight for net neutrality and to work to defeat SOPA and PIPA. He said he believed that they would stifle innovation as well as freedom of speech. He says he himself owes his success to the open internet. “I want to make sure that opportunity continues for everyone,” he said.
Along the way, another big goal is preserving the internet as a resource available to everyone, regardless of background or location. “We have a worldwide, borderless network that gets broader and deeper every minute, so let's not destroy that,” Ohanian said. “If you wanted to change the world in the industrial age, you needed to open a factory -- in the internet age you only need to open a laptop.”
5. Harness the internet for good.
As the title of his book suggests, Ohanian believes that entrepreneurs and innovators don’t need anyone’s permission to go out and change the world.
In his book, he explores why the internet is a powerful, democratic tool for disseminating information and allowing people to create new communities, technologies, businesses and charities. This is your moment, he says; so make it happen.
“Making something people love, even if it's a business, is still making the world suck less," Ohanian said. "Creating great jobs, producing things people want and fulfilling one's own purpose is absolutely harnessing the net for good.”