Reddit’s grand vision: ‘Come for the cats, stay for the empathy’

Alexis Ohanian took the South by Southwest stage to talk about the future of Reddit, including some upcoming features.

sxsw 2017 reddit
Credit: Leah Yamshon

Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian has a rosy view of the company’s future. Despite controversy over the online bulletin board’s role in the election of Donald Trump and the proliferation of white nationalism on its forums, Ohanian describes Reddit as “the global watercooler where people’s minds are changed about things.”

Ohanian gave an impassioned defense of Reddit and its potential during a solo talk on the opening day of South by Southwest’s interactive programming. As evidence of Reddit’s better nature, he pointed to stats like this one: With more than 280 million monthly active users submitting millions of posts, 99.98 percent of those conversations are never reported for content violations.

The .02 percent of conversations that are reported are certainly egregious. Ohanian hinted at but didn’t actually address the company’s move last month to ban three so-called alt-right forums, which weren’t removed for hate speech, but for doxxing. He said he and cofounder Steve Huffman decided upon their return to the company in 2015 that Reddit needed teams dedicated to community, trust and safety, and “anti-evil.” Reddit has said it’s committed to allowing free speech and preventing harassment on its platform, which the company has discovered can be a difficult line to toe. Twitter is in the same boat.

Ohanian pointed to a forum called /r/changemyview as another sign of Reddit’s potential. On that subreddit, posters share a belief they have and then ask other Redditors to change their minds. The most convincing responses, many with citations to back up their reasoning, are upvoted. In 30 percent of cases, the original poster says their view has been changed.

Ohanian said he’d like to put /r/changemyview in front of more eyeballs. Reddit is looking at front-page relevance as a way to introduce new users to the site and expose existing users to undiscovered subreddits. It’s in the early stages of testing. A trendy social-networking feature that won’t be coming to Reddit anytime soon?

“Live video is not anywhere near the top of the list,” Ohanian said, despite his admiration of streaming platforms like Twitch.

At times, Ohanian seemed a little unrealistic about Reddit’s place in the world—or at least downplayed its negatives. But he sounded so hopeful.

“I want everyone to have their home and their voice on Reddit,” he said. “That’s the only reason Steve and I came back. We know the potential Reddit has. We’ve seen it happen despite itself.”

“We didn’t even have a mobile website until a year ago, so people were pinching and zooming the desktop browser on the smartphone,” he added. “I don’t know why we did that to you.”

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