As far as Alexis Ohanian is concerned, the first decade of social media, with all its explosive growth and fundamental reshaping of our lives (and elections), was just the beginning. And it was an awkward, fumbling, foot-shuffling, hemming-and-hawing beginning at that.
“Social media is social like the first 30 minutes of the cocktail party is social,” Ohanian said during this week’s Worldz conference in Hollywood. “In fact, social media is anti-social. Now it’s time for the real conversation.”
That first 30 minutes (or two hours, he said both) is the time in the party when everyone puts on their best face, murmurs stultifying small talk, postures about their resume and studiously avoids saying anything meaningful.
If that sounds like your Facebook or Instagram feed or more likely, the feeds of those not-that-close friends who live surreally amazing lives, well, yes, you can see what he’s getting on about. Those two social-media giants are Ground Zero for the well curated, wart-free presentation of one’s life, examples of how so many of our feeds show only the perfect vacation/wedding/child/dog/meal and little of the real.
In an era when disapproving distant relatives, bosses, potential employers, college admissions officers, even credit-rating agencies are ransacking our feeds for reasons to say “No,” we’d be crazy to do otherwise. The result, however, is a mass of online conversations that aren’t personal, or social, or at all meaningful.
“For 10 years, social-media gurus have been telling you about starting conversations, about engaging your audience, and they have been blowing smoke up your ass,” Ohanian said. “Because social platforms are not designed for conversations. None of us looks in our social feed and says, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to read the comments. That’ll be a great conversation.’ It has been one-way for a decade and we’ve convinced ourself it’s social.”
Ohanian was using the very big stage at Worldz, a high-end and wide-ranging conference more or less about brands and marketing, to plump for another kind of conversation, a more genuine one that allows for richer and more meaningful conversations about nearly everything.
“We live in a bubble, we live in a world where the conversations we have are with the people we decided to self select,” Ohanian said. “”We’re at a time in this country when we don’t have nearly enough (conversations with people who have differing views). Sometimes they’re painful. Sometimes they suck. We need more conversations with people we don’t agree with.”
“The reason it works there is because it’s built for conversation, because the best comments get voted up,” Ohanian said. “You read the best of those conversations 10 to 20 hours later.”
Ohanian co-founded Reddit with Steve Huffman in 2005, and sold it to Condé Nast the next year. In 2015, he and Huffman again were running Reddit as an independent subsidiary under Conde´Nast parent Advance Publications, bolstered by an infusion of outside capital from major investors such as Sam Altman, Ron Conway, Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel.
This week, the company announced another $200 million in investment, at a $1.8 billion valuation, to finance several initiatives, including a homepage redesign and user-uploaded video. Many of the investors were repeats, including Conway and Y Combinator’s Altman, as well as Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia Capital, Fidelity, Coatue and Vy Capital.
Since returning as chairman, Ohanian’s personal life has thrust him into a different kind of spotlight. A five-year relationship with his college sweetheart ended, then he met tennis superstar Serena Williams in Rome. This spring, the couple announced they were engaged and Williams is pregnant.
But it was that other baby in Ohanian’s life, Reddit, and its place in the online media firmament that occupied his fiery talk at Worldz.
“Remember that talk of second screen?” he said. “God. How many of us got duped into that crazy idea? No one’s actually following a hash tag, because no one wants to see 10,000 people shouting, ‘Touchdown.’ That’s not content. Yet we bought into it.”
In an era of fake news, manipulated elections, alienated and isolated populations and ever more division and polarization, he said, “What we actually need is the slightly more difficult conversation with people we don’t know as well. When you scratch the surface, people aren’t being authentic and the conversations aren’t as meaningful.”
Reddit has been able to ride some notable culture waves, such as its huge forum on the hit HBO science-fiction show “Westworld,” where a quarter of a million fans subscribe. Those participants include one of the show’s creators, who is “now playing a cat-and-mouse game with his biggest fans” by watching and taking part on the forum, called a subreddit in the site’s parlance.
“It’s the only place you’re going to have a conversation between a content creator and the fan,” Ohanian said. “It’s an actual dialog. We can start seeing these things, I swear to you, that might have saved ‘Lost’ from becoming so weird.”
The site has routinely surfaced online trends of many kinds, from the most light-hearted – like the time Arnold Schwarzenegger cheered up a dejected would-be gym visitor – to the darker corners of alt-right conspiracy theories and beyond. But being near the wellspring of so much of popular culture is a vital and important thing, Ohanian argued, even as he took a couple of passing shots at Buzzfeed for routinely spotting those trends several days late.
Reddit also has been a center for Internet activism, from net neutrality protests to, on a smaller but still meaningful scale, recent efforts by a 14-year-old Muslim girl to successfully persuade the Unicode regulatory body to create an emoji for females wearing a hijab.
“The reality is Reddit is a sleeping giant,” Ohanian said. “We did not innovate for seven years but in the last two years, the company has shit more code than at any time in its history.”
Those efforts are way overdue, and welcome. Given Reddit’s continuing challenges with creeps, trolls and conspiracy weirdos (none of whom Ohanian addressed in his 15-minute speech), the company will need a lot more innovation by engineers, and intimacy among redditors, to improve the quality of the Internet they so frequently document.
“This is the age of authenticity,” Ohanian declared. “The last 10 years have all been about the first hour or two of the cocktail party. That’s why all of social is anti-social.”
Making social media, or Reddit’s version of it, more sociable is a fine goal, and perhaps way overdue, for everyone’s sake. Now let’s see if he can do it.