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Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian Speaks with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex About Building a Better Tech Industry

26 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

When Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian decided to take action in support of racial equality and Black Lives Matter this June, he made a surprising move: stepping back to let someone else lead. He resigned his position on the company’s board, and publicly urged the social media platform to replace him with a Black board member.

But while Ohanian hoped that his decision would make room for someone else on Reddit’s board, he says that he hopes his decision is only the first step both for him personally, and for the social media company. In conversation with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex for a special TIME100 Talks on social media and our online lives, Ohanian discussed the importance of considering the role that social media and technology companies play in society—and the importance of having diverse perspectives among the people who build them.

According to Ohanian, his experience as husband to tennis legend Serena Williams and as father to their daughter Olympia, has pushed him to think about his role in the world—and the legacy he’s leaving behind.

“I just can’t help but want to create a world that is just fair to my daughter,” Ohanian said. “And I know that that’s lofty, but it’s a thing worth striving toward. And you know, I’m gonna work every day to get a little better.”

Read the full transcript of the Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Ohanian below.

You can watch the full TIME100 Talks special episode here.

MEGHAN, DUCHESS OF SUSSEX: Hi everyone, I am here with my friend Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, an investor and also a founder of VC Funds 776, Alexis, thanks for being here.

ALEXIS OHANIAN: Well thank you for having me Meghan.

MEGHAN: It feels very official, different from our normal chats. I’m glad that you’re here and what we’re talking about today is obviously so important and something that you are so knowledge in obviously as a founder with Reddit.

But I think if you don’t mind we can jump right into it because it made a lot of news and garnered attention when you decided to step back from your board seat at Reddit and instead to ask if they give that seat to a person of color and specifically someone who is black.

And I think you know that resonated with people in a huge way especially because you said you were doing it because you were inspired by your daughter Olympia. Can you tell us a little bit about the thinking behind that and what it’s been since you made that choice?

OHANIAN: Yeah. Well you know I just remarked recently on Twitter that given that I am still getting hate mail about it I knew I made the right choice. Because sadly, you know we’re at a place in this country where there is still a lot of work to be done, a lot of work to be done.

And when I looked at – when I looked at the positions that I occupied, especially one, Reddit is a multibillion dollar company, has a lot of influence on the world, especially in the United States.

And I thought about the role that it plays and the role that all social media companies play in our society and the world that it’s shaping for everyone including people like my daughter, like my wife, I knew that I had a responsibility to be able to answer her when she asked me in ten years when she’s a snarky teenager, you know what I did to help be a part of making things better for her.

And I’m happy to see that since you know that resignation protest, you know Reddit started making a lot of changes to improve the content, you know banning a ton of communities really built around hate and started to enforce more seriously a lot of these policies, I know there’s a lot more work to be done, and I hope that this is really a first step for me to try to just be more deliberate min the work that I’m doing and frankly more effective in the work that I’m doing to create a better future for my daughter and lots of other people who look like her.

Because frankly, it’s gonna mean a better outcome for all of us. And so I actually have kind of selfish motivations for that too. Companies are going to be more successful the more diversity they have because that means a broader range of ideas.

We’re seeing more and more studies that show just how healthy that is for boardroom conversations all the way down to the most junior employees to have those diversities of thought and experience. And frankly this is long overdue.

And I’ve been heartened when I have seen other people in similar positions who have stepped down to create opportunities for people of color. I still, you know I don’t have to look too hard to see there’s a lot more work to be done. And you know I’m happy to sign myself up for that, because I owe it to – I owe it to a lot of people and I’m ready for the challenge.

MEGHAN: Well you know one of the things that you had said actually on the heels of a piece that my husband had written for Fast Company, you wrote leaders lead. And I think that’s what you’re doing. Just let me thank you for saying that about the work that he’s doing is something obviously we’re both really passionate about.

But that’s what you’re doing, you are leading by example. And I think, you know, I’m sorry to hear that you’re still receiving hate mail. I know we have shared experiences in being in interracial marriages and you know raising small children who are of mixed race and how that plays into that.

But I think you know to touch on what you were saying earlier, what do you think that we’re losing in a broader sense when we don’t have that level of representation, not just in the companies themselves but in what the content is and how it’s being shared. I mean you touched on it there about the diversity not just of color but the diversity of thought, all of that is so key.

And I think perhaps you can address for people the damage that it actually does in the absence of that.

OHANIAN: Yeah, I mean I think – you know we’re having a – we’re having quite a year in 2020. And I think this has absolutely been a year of reflection and it’s one that I think will continue for many years to come.

And in particular if we look at the platforms and specifically in technology and in social media that have shaped so much of how we live, how we work, how we play, how we get informed, everything, you know you look at all of us who created those platforms and there is a common thread among all of us.

We all look the same. We all had very similar education experiences and backgrounds. And the way that has now played out and manifested fifteen years later is the culmination of frankly a lot of blind spots. And I say this you know knowing that there’s a generation of CEOs who I meet now who are sort of the version of me but you know fifteen years later, fresh out of college, starting something that they know one day will be, or really truly believe will be a world changing type company, who have so much more perspective than I did.

Who it goes with the saying – without saying, more often than not also don’t look like me. But even if they do have much more perspective on it. And what they’re realizing is when we talk about culture within an organization, you know people and culture, I think a lot of people originally thought of as just being like a rebrand of HR, human resources.

But what we are now seeing crystal clearly is that smart investments in people and in culture early. And that means thinking deliberately and intentionally about the values you want to create at a firm. Thinking about the way you want to do hiring, the way you want to do onboarding.

Because the kinds of environments you want to create for employees to feel welcome and feel included and feel a sense of belonging, those pay huge dividends over five, ten, fifteen years when you get them right. Because it means your retention is higher. It means it’s easier to bring on and recruit top talent. And it means that you have more voices in the room when you’re making even simple product decisions.

Because you have different perspectives. You have someone who can actually say and is empowered to say or ideally is in a position of power to say, we need to build this differently, because this – this just won’t work for me, or people who look like me because of some unintended consequence that well intentioned people just won’t get, won’t see.

And I’m – I’m excited because like I said at the end of the day, there is a strong capitalist reason to want this, aside from the obvious societal one. And as more and more companies realize that and are able to show that this is not just the right thing to do from a societal standpoint, but the right thing to do from a business standpoint, I think it really starts to get momentum.

And it’s important. This work, we’re seeing the – we’re seeing the implications, we’re seeing the results of not doing it and we can’t gt started soon enough.

MEGHAN: Well and I think also, you know as you remember we were, Harry and I just convened a small gathering just a month or so ago and you weren’t able to make it unfortunately.

But in your absence you recommended someone to come in your place I think was so beneficial for us to have that added perspective from John because what he was able to share is in conjunction with, as you put it, it’s almost like if I knew then what I know now, how differently would Reddit look now, if you had this sort of knowledge?

And in knowing that, what you are trying to create right now, which I think is just so impressive and necessary is speaking to all the things that you have from this leaned experience, having – having seen what’s happened through Reddit and other platforms, can you touch on that a little bit?

OHANIAN: Yeah. And you know John is the CEO of a company I invested in called Sentropy. He took all of his experience building you know machine learning. So artificial intelligence to basically teach robots how to read. And he used this to build a business he sold to Apple. He could have spent his remaining years just living a great comfortable life there.

But instead he wanted to start a company to make social media safer for his children and for everyone’s children. And we reached a breakthrough in the last couple of years where technology is now actually capable of reading and understanding language in a way that it never could before.

And so in the past, if you wanted to ban a racial epithet, you could by uploading you know a list of five hundred ways to type that word. And you’d do an okay job, but inevitably bad actors would find ways to.

MEGHAN: Slip through the yeah.

OHANIAN: Yeah. And we still see examples of this to this day, where you know in the wake of Ahmaud Arbery being murdered, communities were using the word jogger as a racial epithet for the N word. And without as lot of humans staying on top of it in community management, it’s impossible to really try to keep tabs on.

Now thanks to this kind of technology it can be detected in real time. When I look back at fifteen years of building a platform like Reddit and all of our social media peers, and I looked forward to the new sort of what’s to come, investing in those types of tools, those trust in safety type of tools is something that all of us you know as an industry sort of put off because what was most important was growth, and not far behind that was in revenue.

And what we are realizing now is those two really important things are actually very much tied to the toxicity of our platforms. People actually do churn out once they have enough bad experiences, there’s actually a business reason to intervene when those harassment situations happen, when that toxicity starts to build up.

And now that we’re finally connecting the dots as an industry I think we’ll start to see more change, but it hasn’t happened fast enough. And frankly it’s sad on the one hand that it’s had to become a business decision. But the fact that it is now sort of tied to the key drivers of the business, it means that it can’t be undone.

We now have to think of the trust and safety of our users, just as importantly as we think about growth and just as importantly as we think about revenue.

MEGHAN: Well and also the trust and safety of the employees, right? Because I think building the technology that can help cite those things and help safeguard everyone is key if you think about moderators and what they’re exposed to and the psychological offshoring that happens for so many people.

I was just reading about an employee of the YouTube who has just filed a lawsuit for the posttraumatic stress they’re experiencing because of the types of vitriol they have to read through without any emotional wellbeing support to go home with.

Can you imagine carrying that every day? So it’s really, it’s everyone that ends up being affected by it because someone has to tease through it unless as you say, what Sentropy’s doing, being able to find the technology that can help keep all of us safe in that.

OHANIAN: That is right. And it is, it is a toll that we are only starting to – only starting to recognize. And you’re right, a lot of companies in the past have literally offshored this to other countries, and some of that work is being done by Americans.

But regardless, it’s being done by human beings who you’re right, pay the mental and emotional toll of looking at awful content day in and day out. And the – the only – I’ll say the one silver lining on this is the number of reasonable decent people far exceeds the vitriolic awful people.

If anything I still do have more hope than ever in decent good people, in spite of everything else, I still – I still do believe that. And so part of this is about building the technology and building the tools to make sure that that small vitriolic, awful group is – does not have a platform to spread their beliefs and spread that kind of hate.

MEGHAN: You’re right, the good outweighs the bad, but my goodness the loud can be – the bad can be so loud, the damage that happens as a result of that is just – I think you’ve talked about and you tweeted recently that we haven’t yet begun to realize the legacy and the effects that all of these platforms and what social media and what the online space is doing to all of us on a deeper level.

And that’s what I think people haven’t realized. We’re in it now, but we have a chance to get ourselves out of it.

OHANIAN: Mhmm. We – you know I was – I was a history major at UVA and I studied post World War II sort of postwar Germany, the de-Nazification process basically that both West and East Germany went through.

And I never thought it would serve me now fifteen years later, but in a way it is. Because I do think there’s gonna be some work that will need to be done to de-radicalize a generation, especially here in the United States who you know predominantly white, predominantly male, feeling very disaffected and sort of left behind and frustrated by a lot of things, and who’ve found solace, who’ve found community, who’ve found kinship in dark corners that normalized really socially toxic behavior.

Whether it was racism, or misogyny, I mean you can sadly see this. And I think historians will have the receipts, they’ll be able to see this sort of paper trail. And I think more and more of these stories are starting to surface and more and more manifestos will be published and we’ll get a sort of much more raw and real and tragic glimpse into this.

But I think that is gonna be a lot of the important work of the next decade or so, to try to find ways, not just to curb the abuse going forward, but also to sort of reintegrate folks who you know have used these platforms to find community around sone of the most vile things.

And it’s – it is the gift and the curse of this technology, because we can now commune online in a way that is – it is really as real as offline. I think for a long time people were very skeptical that you could build a relationship with a stranger on the internet about your love of Pokémon that’s just as real as your best friend at the office who you see every day, or you used to see every day.

But the reality is, I think we all have examples now, and it’s pretty statistically significant, of people who have built very close relationships and friendships with people they don’t even know offline.

MEGHAN: Yes, sometimes even closer than the ones they have in real life.

OHANIAN: Precisely. And so if we can accept that, and we understand that and we believe that, then it is not a leap to consider the effect of what this done for recruiting, what this does for those really abhorrent, awful sort of ideologies and communities that can be formed.

Because yeah, it’s a great thing and we should celebrate it when you find someone else who loves Pokémon as much as you do, that’s great. Like you know and there are plenty of things that are either as benign as Pokémon or as wonderful as you know being in a community where being out is a problem and finding LGBT community online that you can speak to truthfully and candidly and openly.

And so there’s that spectrum. But those online relationships are just as real when they are negative. And what starts even almost sometimes gets waved off as being just a joke, or oh that’s just offensive humor, is a way to actually normalize really problematic behavior.

And I think that’s gonna be the really difficult accounting that we’ll have to have in the next ten years where we sort of – we figure out how to bring a lot of those folks back to deradicalize. Because these are – you know there’s – we talk a lot about the propaganda and the misinformation, but this is like – this is the beer hall.

And it’s not, you know eighty, ninety, you know in the ‘30s that beerhall was somewhere that you could go on a Tuesday night to sort of you know build that community and create that toxicity. But today, that beer hall is on our smart phone and we can visit it any time we want to. We can be right back into that community setting and that sort of normalization anytime.

MEGHAN: Well I think to your point as well that, you know, I was reading this piece in The Wall Street Journal, I’m you saw it, it was months and months ago. But one of the statistics that they shared was on Facebook, 64% of people who are joining extremist groups are joining it because it’s recommended to them.

So when you think about your own user experience of going online and your experience is being shaped by something that is pushing you in the direction that you may have not even been looking, but you’re vulnerable, or you’re bored, or you’re craving community, whatever it is, that one thing that opens this gateway to so many other things that takes you down a path that you weren’t even intending to go, but as you’re saying the adverse effect of that is tremendous.

And I think you know for us to be able to really – we were talking about this earlier, harness, how do we now reframe this space for good? How do we use all of the positive stuff that is part of the online space and try to create a community that is really focusing on that and empowering people in that vein?

As opposed to this vitriol that we’re seeing. And I think just, you know as we sort of wrap up one of the things that I would ask you is a lot of the sort washing of the hands that comes up and the lack of accountability is from the space of, well what really is hate speech. Which I don’t think that’s in question, but that does come up for a lot of people. Or how does a content moderator know if that’s just a joke, as you were sort of suggesting, some people say. Or if that’s true.

And how you monitor that in a way to keep everyone who’s on those platforms safe and not taken in the wrong direction.

OHANIAN: Yeah. Well, I’ll use – I’ll stretch the beer hall analogy a little further. Which is to say if I – and I love a good beer, so you know if I own a beer hall, I ultimately get to decide what my beer hall policy is. And that beer hall policy can be stricter than the policy of let’s say the country the beer hall is in.

And I can say actually no, the kind of environment I want to create at this beer hall is this, that, and the other. And that is the ultimate responsibility of a private business, right. They – you know – you know, free speech laws obviously vary country to country.

But if we just start with the United States, we have a framework created by the government which is the you know designed to be sort of among the most free possible. But as a private company, as an owner operator of a beer hall, we actually get to decide, no, buddy, you’ve had enough to drink, like we don’t want you to be here. Or like we don’t want your group organizing here, this is just not why we built this beer hall.

We got a lot of people who patronize this beer hall, and we just decided you’re some of the folks we don’t want to serve anymore. That is fully within the rights of a private business. And for too long basically it will never suffice to simply say oh, you know, we’re just a platform.

Because we know just how much of an impact it has. We know how much it actually informs, how much of the – I mean media is in the name social media. So I don’t know how – how that worked for so long. Like no, no, you can’t – you can’t say platform when you’re actually calling yourself a social media site, like it’s in the name. It’s media.

MEGHAN: And there’s responsibility with that, there’s responsibility in media, there’s responsibility in journalism, you’re responsible for what is being pushed out there. Just like in broadcast. But somehow the platforms have – have created a space where they are not subject to that same sort of jurisdiction. And it’s troubling. But you’re right, I mean I’d like to be at your beer hall, because it sounds – it sounds like a good happy, positive place.

OHANIAN: And it turns out, that beer hall actually would be really, really popular, because the vast, vast majority of people don’t want that in their beer hall so to speak.

MEGHAN: And that the owners would still make money. That’s the thing, and that the business is still successful.

OHANIAN: Yes. And in fact would be more so because people are more engaged and it’s – the only other sort of point I’ll make sure to make here is it’s also worth pointing out while often it’s said, well look, these communities can still organize elsewhere.

And that’s true, right. The internet itself is an unregulatable entity. But there is a huge difference that is made when platforms either explicitly or implicitly basically cosign these communities. And so like – and this is something you know that – that I think – I think we’ll ultimately be getting more and more scrutiny even at a government level.

But right – there is an impact that it has when you’re used to – you know you’re – you’re scrolling through a news feed of, oh a cute photo of your nephew, oh, you know my uncle just got a promotion and then oh, some weird – some racist conspiracy theory. And that normalization, it’s different if you know you’ve got to go to jenky url.com to find, to know.

MEGHAN: That’s a really good point.

OHANIAN: That – as a user, you feel like – I mean, and I – we – we – I think we far too often separate online offline, like these are – they’re actually more similar than we realize. And so it’s the difference between opening up that sort of civilized newspaper or watching that – that sort of typical news station, and then seeing yeah, you know family photos and then craziness. It in a way.

MEGHAN: It conflates it.

MEGHAN: Normalizes the craziness.

MEGHAN: You’re right.

OHANIAN: Absolutely.

MEGHAN: That’s absolutely right.

OHANIAN: And that – that has another role to play in it and it’s one where – like I said, I think we’ll be spending a lot of time working to undo and fix a lot of this stuff. I’m grateful for the work obviously that you and Harry have done and I know will continue to do.

Because it’s just – I don’t know, I – and I’ll admit, you know it’s on the one hand it’s – it’s – it is disappointing to know that so much of this perspective I only really got once I, you know, once I – I married, well started dating but then certainly once I married my wife and once we had our daughter, it leveled it up to another – another place.

Where yeah, I – I mean we talked about this often, I just never – I’ve had so many moments in my life where I was given the benefit of the doubt, where I never felt unsafe, where I always felt heard, where I did not realize until I was in a relationship with someone who has achieved as much as she has and still regularly deals with this in painful frustrating ways.

And as a husband you just get outraged, and then especially now in the role as a father, I just can’t help but want to create a world that is just fair to my daughter. And I know that that’s lofty, but it’s a thing worth – worth striving toward. And you know, I’m – I’m gonna work every day to get a little better.

MEGHAN: Thank you so much, honestly, and just all of your insight, I think it’s gonna help a lot of people to better understand why we’re all so passionate about this, but mostly just thank you for doing the work and leading the way and finding solutions, not just for all of us, but for your little girl, for our little boy, for all of us. So we really appreciate it, thank you.

OHANIAN: Thank you for having me,


Correction, Oct 20

The original transcript of this interview misstated the spelling of the Duchess of Sussex’s name. It is Meghan, not Megan.

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