On April Fool’s Day 2015, a mysterious new page appeared on Reddit, featuring an oblong blue button, and next to it a clock ticking down from a minute. Every time anyone clicked on the button, three things happened: they couldn’t press it again, the timer reset, and a small coloured circle appeared next to their name. No one knew what would happen if the countdown reached zero.
There are lots of ways of describing Reddit that are both accurate and fail to capture what it is. It is one of the most popular websites in the world, with 330 million active users. It’s a “social news site”, the “front page of the Internet”, a place where users can “up-vote” the stories they think deserve prominence. But none of these quite works. A better picture comes through what had happened 10 million clicks of The Button later: the Knights of the Button had formed to keep the button going, never letting it tick down to certain oblivion. The coloured circle beside one’s name depended on the exact number on the clock at the time of clicking and “The Purps” formed to celebrate going as early as possible. The Emerald Council stood for balance, pressing the button at the halfway point. Some people would watch the button for hours so they could press it in the last eleven seconds, and join the coveted Redguard.
In We Are the Nerds: The birth and tumultuous life of Reddit, the internet’s culture laboratory, Christine Lagorio-Chafkin tells the story of the rise of a platform that could turn something as silly as pressing a button into something as meaningful as new tribes, complete with their own philosophies centred on The Button. This is the essence of Reddit, a factory for culture that forms and breaks up at breakneck speed online.
At the heart of Lagorio-Chafkin’s story are the company’s founders, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, and for most of the book we follow their lives and relationships. They meet in 2001 as game-loving freshmen at the University of Virginia, and within a couple of chapters are joining the first class of entrepreneurs at Y Combinator, now the world’s most famous start-up accelerator that has gone on to incubate Dropbox, Airbnb and plenty of companies you are likely to use all the time. When Reddit launched in 2005 it was a simple site. A handful of headlines and links, information on who had posted them, and a small “hotness” metre under each story. Back then, it was a single online community, whose users could pull vignettes and stories from elsewhere on the internet, and paste them onto the site. But Reddit’s USP was that it let users up-vote content they liked, and down-vote content they didn’t. Popular – “hot” – content became more visible; unpopular content vanished. This sounds like a simple tweak, but it was a stroke of genius. Faced with the infinite content of the internet, Reddit was supplying a solution: social editing. A large community of “redditors”, not a handful of professional journalists, could source the most interesting content, and, thanks to up-voting, this would frequently reveal stories that – hilarious, gory, irreverent, or genuinely surprising – were far more gripping than the front page of any newspaper. The site quickly grew and in late 2006 Huffman and Ohanian became millionaires after selling it – then with around a million monthly readers – to Condé Nast, the publishing giant best known for Vogue and GQ magazines. Reddit was described at the time as “second fiddle” to Digg – another social news site, founded in 2004 – and sold for less than half the price of wired.com, bought by Condé Nast that same year (the firm already owned Wired’s print magazine). While Reddit was not, then, the publisher’s most valuable or famous acquisition, it was nevertheless a sign that the corporate world was waking up to the changes that “social” sites were bringing to publishing.
Like many founders whose company is acquired, Ohanian and Huffman soon began to disagree, both with each other and with their new corporate bosses, and both eventually left to pursue other projects. As Reddit continues to grow, its various communities, the “subreddits”, begin to take more of the limelight in Lagorio-Chafkin’s telling. Subreddits are versions of Reddit, still with up- and down-voted content, grouped around areas of interest, set up and run by volunteer moderators largely free to set their own rules. (The resulting warren of often niche passions, each introduced by “r/”, is how most of us picture Reddit.) But what made the model so valuable – the brilliance and muscle of the hive-mind – also made it dangerous to a conventional publishing company banking on introducing advertisements to a previously brand-free space. For example, one day in August 2009, a post was up-voted to the front page that showed a user exploiting a vulnerability in the website of the US retailer Sears. Products seemed to be listed under categories called “Fucking Big Ass Saws” and “Fuck Yeah!”. “Infant Swings” were instead called “baby launchers”. People had found out that by tweaking the URL of the Sears website, they could edit how the text appeared. Sears were furious, complained to Condé Nast, and the posts were deleted. Reddit’s community responded with what would become predictable outrage at this “censorship”, up-voting dozens of critical posts that collectively became known as the “fuck Sears” campaign. Condé Nast began to realize they might own the site, but they couldn’t control the community.
Reddit’s story is, in a sense, bigger than Reddit alone. Its struggles have also been society’s struggles during the past few decades, and one of the the most important has been the growing political power of online communities. In 2012, Reddit participated in an internet-wide blackout in protest over anti-piracy legislation. Twice President Obama did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on the site, once before his re-election campaign and a second time days before leaving office. But the power of Reddit’s communities is seen most starkly when their anger is directed inwards, towards the company that houses them. On July 2, 2015 the Reddit staffer Victoria Taylor was laid off (the reasons remain unclear). She handled the AMAs that many redditors loved, with celebrities, musicians, or simply interesting people with something to say. Taylor was popular with the volunteer moderators, too, and was, for many, their only point of contact with the company itself. Tensions between Reddit the company and Reddit the community, strained for years, boiled into open mutiny. Within a day 1,200 subreddits had turned themselves off in protest. The then CEO, Ellen Pao, was blamed for Taylor’s departure. An online petition, demanding Pao’s resignation, attracted more than 100,000 signatures; only eight months into the job, she left. Dubbed AMA-geddon, it showed an astonishing truth: the company was terrified of the thing it had built.
Pao herself had been struggling with a second key tension: between free speech and what Lagorio-Chafkin calls “toxic sludge”. Among the thousands of subreddits hosted, there were ones that promoted gore, white supremacy and the sexualization of children. Before her departure, Pao had spent months trying to shut down the parts of Reddit that crossed the line into outright indecency. “We weren’t touching any of the many, many subreddits giving people a forum to espouse hate of other groups and theories of genetic superiority”, she explains to Lagorio-Chafkin. “That, to my mind, was protected because we wanted to encourage conversations and ideas.” Pao’s was a pretty low bar, and yet it was enough for pictures of her to be photoshopped to look like Chairman Mao and Hitler. A $1,000 bounty was offered for an image of her being punched in the face.
By three-quarters of the way through Lagorio-Chafkin’s account, Reddit has run aground. Staff members are suffering from PTSD – “not a term thrown around lightly”, she writes, but “one that’s very familiar to most former community staffers and executives at Reddit”. The author describes how another former CEO, Yishan Wong, who resigned acrimoniously in 2014, “still cringed when opening his email, in part because it has at times been filled with horribly abusive messages”. (“They’re accusing me of being a sexist white supremacist or some Nazi feminist destroying Western culture”, he tells her.) Staff members were on a new front line, reporting bomb threats, possible suicide attempts, child sexual abuse, revenge pornography, racism and extreme politics – and they would be “doxed” (have information about their offline life revealed) for doing so. To make matters worse, Reddit was still struggling to make any money. The company was squeezed: under pressure from the community in one direction, and from the boardroom in another.
Then, Lagorio-Chafkin’s arc moves upwards: Ohanian and Huffman come back, the latter as CEO. Huffman starts “shipping product”, launching new features to make Reddit look better and be easier to use. But they also – and this was perhaps only possible for the people who started it all – challenge Reddit’s community. “Reddit is a completely different company than it was a year ago”, Huffman announced in 2017. While he didn’t draw lines, the message was clear: content glorifying or promoting harm or violence towards a particular group wasn’t welcome. Subreddits, from r/selfharmpics to r/nazi and r/europeannationalism were shut down, this time without significant outcry. (It’s still not hard to find obscene threads on Reddit, but efforts to counter malign use of the site do seem to have succeeded in pushing the most overtly outrageous members away, if only to other parts of the internet.) Meanwhile Ohanian travelled the world, landing new advertising deals, again largely without protest.
Anyone who has read the founding stories of the other tech giants will recognize the narrative: a couple of self-defined geeky, risk- taking and technically competent students embark on a fantastical journey. It begins with a crazy idea, there are knock-backs and failures, but they persevere and eventually change the world. What does set We Are the Nerds apart is Lagorio-Chafkin’s access to the main players. She has spent six years following Reddit’s founders, getting to know them and conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, so you feel like you’re inside the room during the most important moments of the site’s history. Too many books on tech feel like they have been Googled together; Lagorio-Chafkin’s is rich in original reportage. Yet it is also this closeness that sees her veer towards a “cult of the founder” way of thinking which, especially common in Silicon Valley, presents tech founders as little less than modern-day gods, endowed with a personal genius to match the success of their creations. It is as though no detail can be missed and apparently irrelevant events are retrospectively imbued with significance. Take this account of a slightly sloping office floor:
[Chris Slowe, Reddit’s first employee] took a deep breath and walked back up the two long flights of stairs to the apartment, to find Huffman and Ohanian, feet up, letting their wheeled desk chairs slowly drift across the slightly slanted wood floor. He laughed. He’d long ago become accustomed to the sloping floor. He grabbed a roll of duct tape, with which he’d stabilized his own chair’s wheels by wrapping them, so he could work without rolling away from his computer. He tossed it to Huffman.
Metaphor? Human colour? I’m not sure. Given such tracts, parts of We Are the Nerds read like an unedited first draft, where the important reportage is hidden within a thicket of trivial detail. Things can also veer towards the unbearably saccharine. We are told, for instance, how in August 2017 Huffman
took a vacation, out to Burning Man with his girlfriend Elvie Stephanopoulos. During a windstorm, sand whipping up from the playa, he swooped her up into the air. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, over which was draped a goofy red Hawaiian shirt, and kicked her dusty black boots up in the air. Under a vintage marquee sign whose letters read “stage your own death”, they kissed.
The author’s focus on Reddit the company comes at the expense of Reddit’s communities, which only tend to appear when they impinge on the lives of the company’s founders. This is understandable given that Lagorio-Chafkin was evidently following Huffman and Ohanian around, but it is a shame because when she does shift her gaze, the view is often fascinating. We learn, for example, about the 10,000-strong community dedicated to loathing onions (r/Onionhaters), the flourishing communities of marijuana enthusiasts (r/Trees) and, set up shortly after, tree enthusiasts (r/MarijuanaEnthusiasts). Perhaps Reddit’s greatest collective achievement was “Place”. Like The Button, it was another April Fool’s Day experiment, a 1,000-by-1,000-pixel canvas. “Individually you can create something. Together you can create something more”, Reddit explained. Users could “paint”, one pixel at a time, but – as with The Button – communities quickly mobilized: r/TheBlueCorner marshalled huge amounts of manpower and organization to turn . . . a corner blue. Meanwhile, “The Darth Plagueis Project” filled a huge red square with dialogue from Star Wars: Episode III, r/MonaLisaClan did a fair job of reproducing the “Mona Lisa”, and national flags duelled with each other for space. Seventy-two hours later, over a million people had laid 16.5 million coloured tiles, creating a mesmerizing patchwork of online identity. “It was fractured and weird”, Christine Lagorio-Chafkin writes, “and really, really cool.” Cool enough to justify all the hate? The question is an open one.