Alexis Onhanian, co-founder of Reddit: some questions, some answers.

I asked Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of the reddit, several (hopefully interesting) questions during one of his relatively frequent AMA‘s (Q&A sessions). Alexis was the largely nontechnical guy who built redddit over a summer during the first Y Combinator (YC) programme, with his technical colleague Steve Huffman, and later sold it to Conde Nast (though he still advises/works on the site).

Hey Alexis:
What do you enjoy doing the most these days?
You’ve done various things, made various things happen – what do you do to make you happy?

Cuddling my cat. Reading. And meeting + helping people be awesome using the internet. That’s why I wrote the book, why I’m doing an insane 5month tour for internet entrepreneurship, and why I care so damn much about not letting government or business screw up the internet.

Alexis Ohanian at the 2012 SOPA protests in New York by Alec Perkins
Alexis Ohanian at the 2012 SOPA protests in New York by Alec Perkins

If you were doing a startup again, without your past work at various of these companies, as a nontechnical guy, what would you say you brought to the table, to other, more technical founders?

No doubt, non-technical founders have a lot more to do to justify their worth at the pre-product stage of a company. We all have ideas. They’re worthless. A non-tech founder has to be egoless enough to do ANYTHING that is not technical. Ordering delivery, handling paperwork, collecting receipts, as well as the ‘sexy’ things like product and branding.
I’m particularly good from that brand + community building side, whether it’s creating the logos (notice all the mascots? heh) or developing that relationship with users and customers to create businesses that people love.
Of course, without first having a product that people want, all of this is worthless. I love that about the internet.

When you were doing $a_startup, who did you ask for advice, how much did you listen to them and how did you know how much to listen, and how much to JFDI?

You know, PG was a great mentor for me and Steve during the first 6mos of reddit because YC was still so small (we were first round, so there were only like 12 companies) but after that, I never really had a mentor.
Aside from Mr. JFDI ;) I wish I did have someone, though. Like Gabe. Or Jay Z.

Do you have any advice for British nightowls up late hacking on things between days of a python conference? :)

Please stop putting “u”s in places where they don’t belong.


Since I’m being polite & British – here’s a plug for his upcoming book Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed – you can preorder it, and co-incidentally, it’s on my wishlist.

Going viral: Luck of the draw

A while ago I blogged about how I had “discovered” a viral video.

I recently had an experience of just how life is serendipitous.

Ian / FollowTheFoot released a video which I thought was hilarious, and clearly worthy of more eyeballs, so I posted it to reddit to /r/videos and /r/travel.

Despite a few views in /r/travel, it flopped in /r/videos not succeeding in garnering any attention.

2 hours later, someone posted the same video, with the same title, again to /r/videos and front paged it.

I think this highlights several things:

  • that you win some, and lose some, and that life is not always “fair”, even if you were there first
  • the reason you failed may not be because you were wrong that the content was good
  • the first few initial votes on reddit are the most important to kicking it off
  • that it was clearly worth trying, as it was clearly deserving of extra eyeballs as I thought

Things like this, happen all the time through life:

When someone suggests an idea you originally tried a few months ago, and it works majestically for them.

That’s just the way it is, and the quicker you get over it, and realise that most of the time, it also works in your favour, the better!

Sometimes you'll win, sometimes you'll lose.
Sometimes you'll win, sometimes you'll lose.

Reddit and @wossy

A while ago, I was reading slowly over reddit, when I saw somewhat moaning about a thread on a subreddit called /r/BritishProblems where someone had posted someone had posted something complaining about TV presenter Jonathan Ross, and Jonathan Ross had, himself, using his handle “wossy”, turned up to debunk it.

After verifying that, it was, in fact, him, and seeing how the mood changed once he posted, I let rip a rather inane post on twitter, which to my surprise, led to the following exchange:

@wossy & @tdobson
@wossy & @tdobson

It was only after he responded to me, that I went back and noticed the calls on Reddit for him to do an AMA – a reddit-style Q&A/”interview”/”Ask Me Anything” session. Figuring I had nothing to lose, I asked, and that was the response. He even went back on reddit to tell people he was going to do an AMA in a few weeks time.

In many ways, this is a model example of what I was saying in a previous blog post about how to talk to celebrities or tech heros – by being genuinely friendly, and suggesting something that’s genuinely interesting, you can step above crowds of people simply interested in having a speechless momentary photo taken with someone, where they realise they didn’t have anything they wanted to say anyway.

I’m looking forward to Jonathan’s AMA – I think he’s doing Social Media “Right”[tm] – perhaps I can get him to answer some questions about what’s in it for him, if I ask nicely. :)

Does CBS “get” digital? CNET is dead. Last.fm is killing itself. Is it too late to turn the tide?

CBS, the media conglomerate, are verging on irritating me.

They’ve effectively just killed CNET through a disastrous corporate decision, effectively killing the impartiality of the organisation.

When high profile journalists quit, citing that their impartiality has been called into question, and the Editor-in-chief explains the incident in an statement using the line:

I could have quit right then.

You know the end is nigh.

CNET has had a good run. Arguably too much of a good run, but it’s purchase by CBS has clearly been a turn for the worse – that’s not reflecting on the journalists, but the suits at corporate.

As a business, they may be financially more successful, who knows, but as a business where the readers are the product, and where the readers value the balanced and honest reporting that they’re known for, they have no future. I hope there are enough up and coming publications for everyone to jump ship to – those guys have families and children – and CBS’s streisand-blindness could make it a chilly spring for those guys.

But that’s not all.

CBS also bought Last.fm a few years back. Since that point, Last.fm has declined in its startup-like quicky culture, CBS have messed around with well loved features and launched moronic ‘non-sites’.

This culminates in an announcement, a few weeks back, that today, Last.fm will turn off it’s radio support for a variety of countries, and will force users to subscribe to listen on their desktop.

Essentially the message they’re giving out:

As the market changes, we may once again be launching streaming services in more countries. If you would like to know when we bring a service to your country, let us know using the form below.

is a great big corporate “you are the product, you are no longer needed”, presumably from finance at CBS.

I like Last.fm‘s product, and I used to like the company. But there are lot’s of music sites out there, many of them legal, various of them not-so-much.

Do I have to support CBS to listen to interesting music? Can I find a different ways to fill my ear with interesting sounds in a variety of genres? I guess it’s now time to look at we7, Grooveshark, Deezer, The Hype Machine can offer.

CBS’s digital strategy seems to be mainly a combination of shooting themselves in the foot and killing their communities.

It must be touch, because they’re following the footsteps of various other organisations – remember when AOL killed Techcrunch in similar moves (ironically well-reported by CNET) or when Slashdot’s oft-derided “Corporate Overloads” jumped the shark and launched the most pointless microsite ever “SlashBI”.

There’s one media conglomerate that owns a web 2.0 site and hasn’t killed it yet. In fact the startup culture, and founder’s values at reddit.com have propelled it to 97,000 views per day, ranking the site 138th on the internet. As media conglomerates go, Conde-Nast owns Glamour, Vanity Fair and various other glossy magazines, and so Reddit isn’t an obvious fit, yet apparently the corporate team at Conde-Nast “get it”.

Whilst CBS noisily helps its subsidiaries self-destruct, I hope Conde-Nast silently lets Reddit do it’s own thing.

I accidentally ‘discovered’ a viral video…

This sounds quite pretentious, mainly because claiming you watched something “before it was famous” is incredibly hipster, but this isn’t meant to be. I just want to tell you a story…

A few weeks ago I was browsing, /r/travel on reddit and I came across this cute video a guy had made about travelling south east asia with his shoes. The guy was just starting a mini-series called “FollowTheFoot”.

I really enjoy travel videos, I was interested in more details behind the cinematography, so I asked him a few questions and, as is the beauty of reddit, he graciously repeatedly responded, finishing with a:

And best of luck to you! Just keep shooting, keep editing, and keep making new videos

I subscribed to his youtube channel so I’d find out about new videos, but I had no idea there would be anything more to it.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched his travel videos [walking through bat caves!], enjoying the editing, posted to facebook but not didn’t get much interest.

Yesterday, I got back from a weekend of work and saw a video he’d posted a few days earlier. It was a bit of a different vibe. This time, using basic CGI and narration, he beautifully explain the games we all played as a child.

I watched it, saw the double digits view count, thought, “ah, reddit might like that”, and posted it with a slightly provocative title to /r/videos.

It started rapidly gaining upvotes. I’ve seen how, on reddit at least, getting inertia, is important and so to be at 3-400 upvotes in less than an hour meant it was going to the front page. I messaged FollowTheFoot to tell him reddit loved him again and went to bed.

When I woke up, youtube was reporting that the video had about 30,000 views. Impressive I thought. Then I realised that that’s a good deal of inertia, and the video was probably going viral.

Waking up somewhere round the globe, FollowTheFoot messaged me:

Hey Tim, are you the Reddit OP? Thanks man! If you want, PM me your address and I’ll send you a unique postcard

A completely unnecessary,  but very touching gesture that I’ll be taking him up on – what an amazing lesson in how to be awesome on the internet! :)

The video has gone “full viral” now. The last time I checked, about 24 hours after posting, it had 500,000 views, had been covered by The Huffington Post, CBS, Gawker… all because last night, I thought, “ah, reddit might like that”.

Wow.

Games We Play

My Reddit Secret Santa is awesome

Last year, I took part in the record breaking worldwide Secret Santa organised by the Reddit community. I was one of 37,000 people who was given the details of a complete stranger to send a gift to, and at the same time, I received a gift from someone who’d been given my details. Usually, one gets matched with someone within your same country to reduce postage costs, but I opted to exchange gifts with people overseas to make it more exciting.

This is what I was sent. See if you can guess what country it came from! ;)

Here’s my unboxing video:

What I got
What I got

So after I’d received it, the box sat around the flat for a while until I got round to throwing it out. As I threw it out I noticed something in wrapping paper and found an unopened present inside…. turns out I had an extra Turkish delight! :D

David, thanks again. I can confirm the biscuits went down very well indeed and I’m looking forward to making good use of everything else! :D

DnB + Ceilidh = Doubly Awesome :: Monster Ceilidh Band

One thing that I don’t talk about that much is my tendency to fall in love with fusions of traditional and contemporary.

Take something awesome and traditional. Mix it with something awesome and contemporary. The result will be doubly awesome!

This post is about a band who certainly seem to be taking the “let’s just double that awesomeness” recipe to heart, but lets start from the beginning!

Last week I went to Manchester Ceilidhsoc – the university affiliated Ceilidh society who run regular events. Playing was a band I didn’t think I’d heard of, The Monster Ceilidh Band, but from the moment I walked in and heard the bassist going out of his way to lay down funky grooves, I could tell I was going to enjoy it. For unspecified reasons, I had about 70 glowsticks on me (as you do), and the hall was coincidently a bit darker that usual so I decided now was a good a time as any and handed out free glowsticks to anyone who’d take them… most people I danced with… the band… and the caller. From then on in, I didn’t stop the dancing and they didn’t stop dropping super-funky beats over killer tunes. :D

Afterwards I bought an album off them and, as they offered to sign it for me, I was very pleased to learn that disk two of their double album “Mechanical Monster” is “Monsters vs The Touch” – a collaboration with Tyneside DnB DJ “The Touch“.

If you thought Drum’n’Bass and Ceilidh could never meet, prepare your ears!

A breath of fresh air amongst other Ceilidh bands, The Monsters have an incredibly smooth web presence. I say this a technologist and social-media-ite.

Website, Facebook, Twitter, Soundcloud, Youtube? It’s all there.

Can you buy reasonably priced, DRM-free MP3’s of their work without tears?

Oh yes you can!

A few days after the gig, I was listening to Disc 2, whilst browsing their Youtube channel and realised I was already subscribed to it. Hmm, how could that be? Well it turns out that actually I’d crossed threads with them before.

Their mandocello-player appears to be a semi-active redditor and so actually I’d come across them, way before the gig on reddit and even went as far to suggest that they come and play in Manchester. This is the same fiddle player who doesn’t seem to have a personal website worth linking to from the bands about page.

Instead their name has been linked to the Urban Dictionary definition of “awesome” and for this band, I think that’s about as fitting as one can get. :D

Building reddit-frontpage-proof websites?

Rick Falkvinge’s website Falkvinge.net recently frontpaged reddit.

Falkvinge.net
Falkvinge.net

Actually, in the default setup, he had three articles, (#16, #22, #24), which, as he says, is a record for him.

Why is this a big deal? Well with reddit being Alexa-ranked 133 and getting about 8.7 million visitors every day, being on the front page 3 times at once, means you’re going to get a lot of traffic in a relatively short space of time. Think of 3 phone numbers being read out concurrently on 3 TV stations that all point to the same call centre – that’s falkvinge.net

This is pretty much a nightmare scenario to prepare for from a systems administration point of view as you have to prepare for lots of traffic in a short window of time. In addition, with social media, you don’t have the foggiest clue how popular something is going to be – something posted to reddit is much more likely not to generate much traffic or a smallish amount of traffic than it is to cripple your webserver, so you actually need to be constantly prepared for lots of traffic in a short window of time.

Stats for the 24 hours when I had 3 articles on Reddit’s front: 421 gigs of data served, 21.7M HTTP requests, peak 630 reqs/sec

@Falkvinge

Rick has a somewhat customised WordPress setup with the W3 Total Cache plugin on the latest version of Ubuntu, probably definitely with Apache from what I can tell. It’s anyone’s best guess what hardware it’s running on (UPDATE: this is the hardware he’s running). Fairly standard as far as I can see – it’s mainly static content and not outrageously interactive or personalised. There are some images, but they don’t form the main part of the site.

Again, I could not have survived that traffic peak without @CloudFlare (see previous tweet)

@Falkvinge

Rick’s solution to the problem is to the “cloud” Infrastructure-As-A-Service provider Cloudflare, which is essentially is a caching reverse proxy/CDN combined with a Distributed DNS service. What this means in practice is that they’re able to use Cloudflare to handle these unexpected large peaks in traffic without changing their infrastructure.

Using a blackbox called Cloudflare to scale one’s website is all very well, but doesn’t suit everyone and presents an interesting sysadmin challenge:

How would you build a setup for a simple-ish WordPress instance, like Rick’s, to cope with the levels of traffic he mentions?

Problem: How long will it take to fix it?

As a geek, one generally gets good at fixing things.

An interesting thing about technology, as opposed to say, carpentry, is that generally it’s very very small things that have significant implications. Frequently you spend a lot more time looking for the problem than you do actually implementing the solution.

Example:

  1. The symptoms: your website is taking a long time to load
  2. Diagnosis: check reproducibility, check server load, check for user error, check server error logs, see strange message in them and google.
  3. The problem: there’s a memory limit in the webserver program that’s set too low
  4. The solution: double a number in a config file and restart the webserver program
  5. The fix: do the solution (takes less than a minute)
The problem with this job, is that you're always 10 minutes from being done.
The problem with this job, is that you're always 10 minutes from being done.

One of the downsides of this, is that it’s really difficult to predict how long it’s going to take you to fix something. If fixing the problem is quick, yet correctly diagnosing the problem is much more time consuming, things can be frustrating for end users who ask the perfectly reasonable question:

When will it be fixed?

which as you can see doesn’t really have an easy answer – by the time you’re completely sure you’ve correctly diagnosed the problem, you’ve probably already fixed it.

Someone on reddit very eloquently summed up how you should explain the situation next time:

“Imagine you had lost your keys. You have no idea where they are. Now, tell me, when will you have found them?”

Inspired by a post on /r/sysadmin

Reddit for giving. Reddit for good.

(c) TheLake 2012
Omari. (c) TheLake 2012

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve heard again and again that the Internet is the scouge of our cultural industries, wrecking our economies and upsetting the neighbours.

Of course, none of this is true, but I thought it might be worthwhile if I highlighted what I feel is a growing trend in people’s behaviour resulting from the immersive worldwide communities that can be formed.

Reddit is as website. A social news website. Remember Digg.com with the the double gg? That thing you heard someone talk about before twitter. It’s like that but better, and bigger, much bigger. Digg has about 45m pageviews/day and is shrinking. Reddit has about 100m pageviews/day and is growing. There are serious numbers of humans, in real life, interacting via this site!

Yesterday, a reddit user, “TheLake” posted asking for help to raise £2,000 dollars to help a Kenyan orphanage build a fence. Omari, one of the orphanages staff had defended the compound four nights in a week from burglars:

After two previous invasions during the week, Omari was relatively certain another would occur. He woke up to the sound of footsteps outside his door, he figured it was his mother taking a few of the boys outside to go to the bathroom. He quickly realized that the footsteps were heavy, and that of more than one person; he then saw a flashlight shine beneath the crack of his door. Being the third time this happened that week, he had already stashed a hammer beside his bed. He grabbed it, and threw it at the first person who entered his room. He hit the person square in the head, and chased the rest out.

The following night, the three thugs returned, presumably to avenge their friend. Omari put up a fight but was outnumbered. The last thing he remembers was being struck in the face by the machete. He has been in and out of the hospital since, yet remains positive and confident that the suspects will one day see justice.

Redditors responded in their thousands to the appeal:

I’m a 20 year-old university student, but here have $2.

- athousandtimesmaybe

I’m kinda poor, the best I can do is $5 right now. Best of luck to them!

- matrinka

DEAR OMARI,

I AM PRINCE AL-JAHEEB, AND I WOULD LIKE TO OFFER YOU $10,000,000 USD IN SUPPORT OF YOUR CAUSE. IF YOU WOULD KINDLY SEND ME YOUR BANKING INFORMATION, I CAN ACT QUICKLY AND DEPOSIT THE MONEY. PLEASE INCLUDE A COPY OF YOUR PASSPORT AS WELL.

THANK YOU AND GOD BLESS.

EDIT: THANK YOU FOR YOUR QUICK RESPONSE OMARI, UNFORTUNATELY MY KING HAS STOLEN ALL MY FUNDS SO I AM ONLY ABLE TO GIVE YOU $20. BEST OF LUCK .

- zifiniti

Seems legit, sent $100. Now if you turn out to be stealing money I’ll spend another $100 on a machete of my own.

-notnotcitricsquid

and many many more

You can read the Original Poster, TheLake’s increasingly emotional posts here. Remember, he was looking for $2000.
His eighth update was:

Edit 8: Over $9,000 and I’m in a state of shock. I…… Just…………………Thank you.

His 10th update:

Edit 10: $44,000!!!!!!!!! REDDIT!!!!! I can hardly breathe

In less than 24 hours, Reddit raised $65,000 in total. To help an orphange. In a country most of the users will never visit.

(c) The Lake
Reddit, in less than 24 hours you have raised over $65,000 for the Faraja Orphanage. Thank you!

None of the users of Reddit (“redditors”) will have met to beforehand to agree to give money and most of them probably went back to voting up cute photos of animals and defending our internets.

Obviously, TheLake is very happy, as is Omari, as is the orphange. You can read the happy ending in full here and here.

The thing is, actually, this isn’t at all the first time reddit has showed it’s heart.

As one blogger said, clearly whoever said

“it can’t be done overnight”

clearly hadn’t met Reddit. :)