On a recent episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher, Reddit co-founder and recently returned CEO Steve Huffman talked about the site’s impact on the 2016 election, the responsibility of social media companies, and — oh yeah! — the huge editing scandal that made Reddit’s Trump supporters so furious.
That link will take you to the highlights of that discussion, or you can listen in the audio player above. Below, we’ve got a lightly edited transcript of the whole conversation.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair is Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit. Steve was one of the co-founders of Reddit in June of 2005 before leaving to help launch the travel service Hipmunk. He came back to Reddit last year after the resignation of Reddit’s last CEO, Ellen Pao, and you might have seen his name recently if you’re paying attention to news about social media and the election. We’re going to talk about that and much more. Steve, welcome to Recode Decode.
Steve Huffman: Thank you for having me.
So why don’t we jump right into the controversy. You got an enormous amount of attention in the last two or three weeks about something you did on Reddit, which was edit. Why don’t you explain the controversy and explain what you did, and then we’ll talk about what that means.
Sure. So yeah, there’s quite a bit of context here. It started when we banned the community Pizzagate, which was a conspiracy-theory community.
Yes, and why did you do that? I’m going to interject every now and again.
There’s a couple aspects to it, but primarily because we’re pretty sensitive on the witch-hunting aspect of it. We saw that starting to develop, and after repeated warnings to not post personal information, we decided to ban it because ...
Pizzagate was actually in the news today because someone showed up with a gun at this restaurant in Washington, D.C., which these conspiracy theorists had been alleging, incorrectly, was a pedophile ring run by Hillary Clinton and John Podesta. That’s essentially it, right? It’s insane.
Right, and that sort of real-world occurrence is why we take these things seriously.
Exactly. It resulted in violence. He actually shot the gun inside this very nice [place], I’ve been there many times.
Yes, it’s very scary.
So go ahead. You banned it.
So we banned that community.
They were putting up personal information and things like that on the site.
Right. So we banned it. There were others on Reddit that were upset that we banned it, so there was a thread in particular about us banning it that was pretty hostile towards me personally as if, you know, I was part of the cover-up.
And I was in kind of a funny position because it was harassment, but over the years ... I’ve grown up on the internet, I have a very thick skin, especially I know Reddit as well as anybody.
And so I felt like, well, I’m a public figure, I can take it. I’m the CEO, I can take it. I have a thick skin, I can take it. And so what I decided to do was actually, in the spirit of fun, I replaced all the instances of my username with the usernames of the moderators of that community. I thought that maybe by meeting them on their troll level that we could find some common ground, the same way I feel like I would relate that way to a kid or something. Unfortunately ...
Yeah, they did not like this.
Actually, many took it that way, but many did not.
All right, so what were they doing [that was] personally harassing? I get the you-can-take it part, because we all get attacked online, a lot of well-known people do, especially if you say something even slightly controversial these days. What were they doing that was personally harassing?
I think we have to draw the line here between criticism, which I’m more than happy to take and I’ve taken my fair share of.
Like, "Steve, you’re a douche," kind of thing.
Sure, sure. But the repeated attacking, they had crossed the line in this particular case and it got to the point where I started thinking, “We should do something.”
If this was another employee at Reddit or even any individual, I would have disbanded it myself. And so I felt like we should do something, but banning it feels wrong because I’m not actually angry or hurt, I’m just kind of annoyed, I find this distasteful.
Right, so banning was not the choice, which you probably should have made.
I had considered it, but I ruled it out because I felt like, well, I’m just going to mess with these bullies. That’s what they are, they’re bullies, and I actually have the capability of messing with them, so I’ll do so.
So my actions, I guess, were precipitated by my feeling of hypocrisy, because I talk about harassment a lot. It is important to us and I don’t want that on Reddit or anywhere online for that matter, but I control Reddit. So I wanted to do something. I didn’t do the right thing, but that was my mentality.
What possessed you? Why was this the thing you wanted to do? You thought it was funny? Funny is an interesting word. So the result was so they can feel the pain of my ...
Legitimately, I thought, “They’re saying this. I don’t think many of them really believe it or are even for that matter thinking at all about what they’re doing. They’re just getting caught up in the moment typing these things.” And so I thought, “Maybe I can turn the tables on them. And [then] they’d [understand] that it looks ugly when you’re on the receiving end of it.”
Right, got it. These are the moderators of the forum who are allowing this to happen. And were doing nothing to stop it.
Right, right. Probably having a laugh. I thought they would see it and basically be like, “All right, he got us.” I guess in my fantasy there was going to be this moment of self-reflection which, you know, didn’t come.
Yeah. Because trolls are the most self-reflective people on the planet.
You know, in hindsight that makes a lot of sense. [KS laughs] Because I look back, having been a young internet troll myself at one point, I look back on my life and think, well, I’ve grown up a lot and I’ve learned that even words said in jest can have an effect on people. So I was hoping maybe to teach them a lesson.
And in fact it’s funny, a lot of the members of that community did say it was funny and were like, “You know, I think they’ve gone too far, whatever, I think this whole thing’s overblown.” But the challenge is ...
It looked like censorship.
You can say it was ...
Right, what would you call it? That is what they leveled at you.
Yeah, I would call it a prank. But the questioning of the trust in Reddit, like “have my comments been edited before?” It’s a very fair question to ask, so seeing that gain legs, that was devastating.
Does that happen on Reddit?
Just this time.
Just this time. Well, there was one time years ago where I replaced the F-word with “fog.” I don’t even remember the context anymore.
Okay, that’s somewhat funny.
Somebody had brought that to my attention because I had cited, “No, I’ve never done this before,” and like, “Well, do you remember that one time?” And I was like, “Okay, I guess I do.”
But again, a lot of this was ... there’s the tension on Reddit between the old school, where Reddit was kind of the Wild West and we used to mess with our users all the time, usually in harmless ways, and our position now, where I am the CEO and Reddit is a lot larger than it ever was.
So talk about the reaction. You got immediate — largely negative — reviews; though some people might have thought it was funny, most people didn’t. It seemed a step too far for them. Why do you think that was?
Certainly externally. Again, I think that’s the tension between the Reddit of old and Reddit now. And calling into question the veracity of what you read online. Is this stuff really there or are we undermining things for political gain? Which of course we’re not, but that was the question that was raised and that’s the one we’ve had to answer.
So explain your answer to people. You’ve been, “I regret this now, I shouldn’t have done it,” you’ve said that, you’ve done those sort of mea culpa situations.
I mean, the answer is no, of course we would not do anything in serious like that. But I know trust is earned and we do have to earn some of that back. But internally, we’ll make it a lot more difficult for somebody to do this sort of thing. Of course, I don’t think anybody would be foolish enough to do it again now.
Right, when the CEO gets into such trouble for doing it.
Right. That’s what I told the company: “Look, what I did was relatively small potatoes compared to what we could do, and look what happened. So we’re not doing this again, it’d be suicide.”
Can I ask you a silly question? What time at night did you do this? Because it seems like everyone’s insane at 3 am.
[laughs] No, no, I did it at like, probably ...
I’m thinking of our president-elect.
Fair. 4 pm, in the afternoon?
So you were just like, “Ah, I’m sick of this shit.”
You know, the worst thing is a CEO with an hour of free time. I was like, “You know, I haven’t written any code in a while. These guys are annoying me, I’ve got an idea.”
Was there one thing that annoyed you? Was there one of the posts that annoyed you?
I think it was just, overall, there’s a tension between me and that community. An ironic tension where they use me as the scapegoat of their ... like, I’m always out to get them. The irony is they’re on my platform and I’ve defended their right to be on our platform many times.
And sometimes I’ve been the last person between them and actually just being removed. And so I just was like, we have some common ground here. We’re talking about The Donald here, right? The community of Donald Trump supporters, and I felt like I get where some of the rage comes from, you just want to be heard. And at all costs. Because we see this in the nation and we see this play out on Reddit as a reflection of that. And I don’t want to take your voice away, I just want you to stop being assholes.
Really interesting. I think they’re sore winners, that’s what I call them.
Very. Very, very. And that’s where I’m just like, “Hey, you’re heard, you’re heard. And you’ll continue to be heard. But don’t let the actions of a toxic minority undermine the greater conversation.”
Right, because they have to back that toxic minority, I think, in a lot of ways.
I think you’re seeing this play out in the country. A toxic minority of people who are trying to renormalize bigotry and bad behavior are undermining this message that 50 percent of the country feels disenfranchised and left out.
And separating those two is not easy.
It’s like Gamergate, correct? They’re very similar.
We’ve seen this actually play out in the United States a lot over the last probably 15 years. Because even before Trump, even this last year, Bernie Sanders, his message was very similar, at least the part of his message that was resonating was the populace.
Left out, left behind.
Yeah. “I need a voice.” And I think that part’s really important, because people do need a voice, but it shouldn’t be hijacked by ...
Right, which it often is. So tell me, internally what was the reaction at Reddit? How many people do you have now?
And you came back how long ago?
About a year and a half.
A year and a half ago. So what was the reaction internally? Honestly. Were a lot of people angry at you?
Here’s what was most torturous about this: I did it Thanksgiving Eve.
I had to live through the holidays without ever actually seeing anybody at Reddit. So the community team, they were annoyed at me for sure, and they told me. That turned into, “How can we help?”
I’d say the overall attitude of the company was, “Steve, that was real dumb. But we get it, let’s move forward.” But I will say one of the most anxious moments I’ve had in life really was showing up to work Monday morning wondering, “How bad is this?” I’d been talking to the community team all weekend, we’re through it, we’re getting through it, but how does the rest of the company feel?
And? Did you have a meeting of all of them?
We did, we did. The first person I walked into that morning was like, “Hey, how are you holding up? I know it’s been really rough.” That helped a lot. And then we had a company [meeting] that afternoon where I explained basically what I just told you and apologized profusely, because the last thing I wanted to do was cause any damage to Reddit. You know, I love Reddit more than just about anything.
Something I told them on my first day back at work, and I say over and over again, is, “I want you to be proud to work at Reddit.” And if I have taken any of that away, it’s heartbreaking.
And so in general, they were not ... Because you know Ellen had a lot of problems internally, and there were a lot of ... Was your board at all ...?
The board was actually very supportive. They were like, “Don’t worry, this will pass. Don’t do it again, please.” And that was largely the attitude internally too: “Steve, you’re an idiot, don’t do this again. But we’ll help you through it.”
So how do you think the situation has turned out now? This group still exists.
Yes and no. So there are silver linings here. It was a great wake-up call, I think, for me and a lot of the team. Where we’ve drawn a line on harassment wasn’t the right one, because even letting them harass me, public figure, CEO, whatever, who can take it, that normalizes that behavior and makes it acceptable, and we cannot have that. So we’ve actually banned somewhere around 800 users now, of our most toxic troublemakers. That’s actually made a noticeable impact. I was surprised how quickly the tone changed.
Now that we have a strategy change — Historically, we’ve always tried to work with the moderators of communities, like, “Hey, get your people in line or we’ll have to do something.” That wasn’t particularly effective, in hindsight. So going after the actual troublemakers ourselves ...
So you identify them.
And we’ll talk about the criteria in a minute, like what does that entail. And they are thrown off and then not able to get back on, or can they in other voices?
There are a range of things we can do. So ranging from a warning — which is what we did with users who have been identified who were causing trouble more than a month ago, but not active right now, we just sent them a warning — to a timeout for one to seven days, which is probably our most common action, versus a complete ban. I try to avoid complete bans because the user will just come back.
Right, in some other form.
Exactly. Better the devil you know, and also you want an opportunity for education. Because many of the users actually respond. Once you set the boundaries, they actually do respond to it.
Right, time out.
But, of course, some require a full ban, and some percentage of those do come back. But it’s similar to spammers, right? If 10 percent come back, you still have removed 90 percent, and it does make a difference. And then, of course, just investing in technology to prevent people from coming back, prevent people from harassing our community team or moderators, whatever, whoever they’re taking their anger out on. That’s important too.
So what has happened to this particular group? You banned the Pizzagate conspiracy people, then the group about the banning still exists.
So The Donald, the Donald Trump community, still exists.
It’s called The Donald?
The Donald. The troublemaker users, the worst offenders ...
In The Donald.
In The Donald, most of them have been taken care of. We’ll see, a lot of the dust is still settling. That was an active effort through just last week. But some of the heat seems to have come out of that whole situation. We’ll see how it goes.
And who determines who gets thrown off The Donald?
Primarily, it’s our trust and safety team. There are three teams at Reddit that live in this world. We’ve got the community team, that’s basically the human face of Reddit. They’re the ones that actually do the talking to the moderators in the community. There’s a trust and safety team, which is basically tasked with policy enforcements. So they have the matrices of “they do this, we do this.” And then we’ve got the anti-evil team, which is the engineer ...
Anti-evil team. [laughs]
Anti-evil. It’s the engineering group that facilitates both of them.
Both of them to let it happen, to allow that ...
So they build a scalable tool.
When we get back, we’re going to talk more about Reddit in general, and these issues, because they’re very important issues now and you can see them occurring in the election. But do you feel like you’ve lost a major amount of trust among the people who use Reddit, or is it just the noisy cabal of the people who want to constantly disrupt things?
I think it’s mostly noise. On the site itself, the tone is fine overall. But I know we lost some trust and we have to earn that back and it takes time.
And how do you earn that back?
Time. I think the only way you can build trust in any context is it just takes time.
And saying you’re sorry over and over.
Yes, well, that doesn’t hurt too.
[laughs] All right, we’re talking now with Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit, about a lot of issues that are important these days, in the election and on the site itself.
I’m here with Steve Huffman, the CEO and one of the co-founders of Reddit, the online community which often is in controversy [laughs], it seems like. Can you talk a little bit about why you came back? You had been there and you had started it with Alexis and others, is that right?
It was just Alexis and I initially.
Yeah, this was way back in ...?
2005. And then we were joined, after about five months, by Aaron Swartz and Chris Lowe.
Okay, so what was the impetus? To just give people who don’t know who you are.
Yeah, so we actually applied to Y Combinator in the spring of 2005. It was the first class of YC.
We applied with a completely different idea, ordering food from your cellphone. But this was in 2005, so iPhones didn’t exist, restaurants didn’t have internet access.
Okay, so good job.
There was a variety of reasons why that idea was legitimately ahead of its time.
Yeah, yeah, legitimately.
But Paul and Jessica and the other YC partners really liked Alexis and I, so they invited us back to basically brainstorm something else we could work on. Out of that conversation came what would turn into Reddit.
And why’d you call it Reddit?
It’s funny to say this now, but back in 2005, domain names were also hard to come by.
Yes, they were.
It was an idea Alexis had. I hated it, I hated it. [KS laughs] The name we wanted was Snoo.
As in “what’s new.”
Yeah, got it. S-N-O-O.
S-N-O-O or S-N-E-W. We weren’t going to be too picky.
Okay, all right, Snew, “what’s new,” yeah.
But Reddit was available in the present spelling, and I remember, actually, very early on having an argument about this where I said like, “The only thing that matters is if somebody can spell the domain name after hearing it.”
I see, okay, good.
So it doesn’t really matter what the name is, and no one’s going to be able to spell this. And I was like, “I bet if you go outside right now,” — we were at dinner — “and ask 10 people to spell Reddit, you’re going to get zero out of 10 people.” The first person he asked was this woman who barely spoke any English and she nailed it.
And so I was just like, mic drop, I guess we’re doing it.
So it was “read it,” that “I read it,” essentially.
As in “I read it on Reddit.”
Right, I got it, okay. And then you had your little person, your little logo and stuff.
And we called the logo Snoo.
Snoo, okay, good. So what happened to Snoo? Did you ever buy that URL?
No. So it was just a landing page though, it used to just say "What’s New?" and there was nothing there. I don’t know what’s happened to it, I haven’t looked into it in a long time.
Interesting. So you were working on it for many years, and then you left and sold to Conde Nast and ...
Yeah, so more precisely, we worked on it for about 16 months and sold. Very early. And then I worked on it for another three years within Conde. During that time, Reddit grew quite a bit, but I left because I felt like I wasn’t learning anything. Reddit was the only thing I’d ever really done or known and I didn’t have anybody to look up to at work and I wanted to do another startup, one that was involved in the exchange of money so we didn’t have to contrive business models.
And unfortunately, we started a travel company. Travel is the most hostile space possible to start a company. But that was a good experience for me. Learning how to run and grow a company in a very cutthroat space required us to learn a lot of really important lessons that have been very beneficial.
Such as? What’s your biggest lesson?
Well, just how to plan. How to operate with discipline. At Reddit, those first five years, it was largely just shoot-from-the-hip. Which I think is okay in the early days of a startup, when you’re just following your intuition. But eventually, your intuition only takes you so far. Your users no longer are you, you start to have a broader user base and you can’t intuitively guess what they want.
So at Hipmunk, we got very good at the product process. You know, a problem, a hypothesis, design it, build it, test it, do a debrief — that was very good. Because remember, when we started Reddit, we were just 22.
Right, and you were saying you were an internet troll when you were younger. How did that manifest itself?
Okay, first let’s just get our definitions in sync here. I think trolling, similar to the word ...
You were just an asshole, okay.
Hey, now, hacker can be misused as well. So I would say trolling on the deliberately obstinate end of the spectrum, which is like probably being a little annoying.
Yeah like, "Yeah, what?" That kind of thing. So what did you do?
You know, I think there was a lot of sarcasm. It was mostly through video games back in the day. And of course on Reddit, we would inject spelling errors into people’s posts sometimes, just to be kind of annoying.
But you were just pranking really, essentially, but it wasn’t bullying, correct?
No, no. We liked having a laugh with one another, that’s all it was.
In a group of people.
I think mostly amongst friends. Trolling, I think, is a new word for something people have been doing for hundreds of years, which is giving your friends shit.
Yeah, okay. But it’s become much darker.
It has, it has. When you’re talking about things like bullying, harassment, which is different.
So you came back, Alexis was running it, and then it went to Conde. Was that a different experience inside a big media organization? And why did you sell?
So I’ll talk about the first part first. We sold because it seemed like we were getting away with something. The four of us who were at Reddit at the time — me, Alexis, Aaron and Chris — we were dysfunctional for a couple of reasons. Alexis’s mother was dying, so he wasn’t present. When he was present physically, mentally he wasn’t all there. Which of course we understood. Aaron had basically lost interest in Reddit. And Chris, who was great, was finishing his PhD. So he’d work during the day and we only had him at nights.
And we had no vision for the company because we started it through a brainstorming session, and we said yes because I wanted to work with Paul and YC. So the fact that we were going to make money for this thing that we felt like we didn’t have any business doing in the first place seemed pretty incredible. So we were like, “Let’s just do this.” And then working in Conde was ...
So they came to you. So like, “Let’s turn to a dumb media company to buy us.”
They came to us, this fellow Kourosh Karimkhany. Kourosh’s dream job was to actually be the GM for Wired.com. And Conde didn’t own it, they owned Wired magazine but they didn’t own Wired.com. So he went to Conde at one point and was like, “Hey, give me some money and I’ll go buy Wired.com for you.” So that’s how he ended up at Conde. And then he bought Reddit and Ars Technica as well and built the digital media part of Conde. And so that’s what brought us there.
And I learned a lot during that experience. But Conde, you know, Reddit’s four people and Conde’s, I don’t know, thousands or whatever — couldn’t be more different.
Right, no, I wouldn’t think so.
But we were are still in the Wired office, so it wasn’t like ...
It wasn’t like you were at Vogue magazine.
It wasn’t the New York City Conde, it was ...
[laughs] Yeah, you were with Anna Wintour, having lunch.
They kept the nerds on the West Coast. So I learned a lot: How to work in an office, how to hire people. I didn’t quite learn how to navigate the corporate bureaucracy, which if I had I might not have left. But I didn’t realize that was the missing skill at the time.
What was the big problem with that?
Hiring was slow. You know, we’d find these candidates, we’d interview them, we’d give them a good offer ...
Yup. And then I couldn’t get them through HR. I just didn’t know, how do I get somebody to sign this piece of paper so this engineer can start? A simple problem in hindsight, but it was a total pain in the ass back then.
And so you moved on.
Yup. So we left. Our contracts expired. So it just kind of fizzled out the relationship. And then I was gone for five years doing Hipmunk.
Right, and did you have ties to Reddit still, or not?
When I left, it was six people. They were amongst my closest friends. So yeah, very much so.
But I mean involvement. You didn’t have involvement. You just were doing Hipmunk.
Informal for maybe six months or so. I’d help with a bug fix here or there, or spam here or there, or offer them engineering guidance. I left in the end of 2009; summer of 2010 is when we started Hipmunk. And that’s actually when Chris and David, two of the early Reddit engineers, came over to Hipmunk with me. So we did that together for the next five years.
So you really weren’t involved in it, and it was being run by various CEOs.
Yeah, Chris took over after I left, and then he came with me to Hipmunk. Then Eric Martin took over for a while. And then Yishan [Wong] joined. And then Reddit spun out to become an independent company again. And then Yishan left ...
Well, independent sort of.
Independent sort of. Independent to the extent that the company had stock to issue two employees, which in this town is the important part because there’s some upside potential.
And then Yishan left in 2014...
Under controversy, if I recall.
The easiest way to describe it would be I think a midlife crisis.
And then Ellen [Pao] took over.
Right. Were you part of bringing Ellen in?
Briefly. Ellen was there. She was the COO.
Oh that’s right, she was the COO.
At that point, I had almost nothing to do with Reddit. I had been watching it from the sidelines, crisis after crisis, mostly as a user thinking like, “What is going on?”
Right, so it was a lot of crisis over what to ban and what not to ban.
It was tough. Reddit was facing these difficult decisions that they had never faced before. So it was in real time having us think through what’s the right thing to do.
Reddit grew up during an innocent time where we let everything go, but there wasn’t a lot of bad things to let go. So for us it felt like, “Reddit’s edgy because we have swear words on the front page.” But we weren’t fighting with racism. And so when those sorts of topics started coming up, Reddit was already entrenched in “just let it go” and now it’s all of a sudden ...
Do you think the group that founded it was too libertarian, too live-and-let-live, let’s-not-censor-anything? It feels very Peter Pan, 12-year-old boy, that’s why.
I don’t know if I’d go that far. It felt like we just wanted something authentic. You know? I know Alexis and I felt like at the time, it’s hard to relate to the mainstream media news. It seems like politicians are always lying to us and it seems like every news outlet has an agenda. Because that was [during] the rise of cable news, too, at the time.
We just wanted something real, and “real” meant, for us, not removing content. Like letting things critical of us live on the front page and letting edgier, more out-there stuff survive because that added to the authenticity of everything.
Right, so you’re trying to let your freak flag fly, but it moved very quickly into ugliness.
I wouldn’t say very quickly, but it did get there. We’re talking over the course of seven or eight years. And so in 2014-2015, these things started to really become prevalent.
So it’s more of a cesspool than anything else.
Again, we’re talking about a very small minority of users.
Look at Twitter. Twitter has the same issue.
Right, well, this is the challenge, and this is what we were talking about before. A small number of toxic users can ruin it for everybody else.
Absolutely. 100 percent.
And they’re very determined, and they know how you operate, and they know how you think, and they’re really good at going around your rules and pushing your buttons. So those were the things that Reddit had to deal with and it was challenging for Yishan, it was challenging for Ellen and it’s been challenging for me as well. I think each of us has made progress towards that end, but we’re still working.
So Yishan left, then Ellen left. Same thing, she got attacked very badly. There were other issues around that departure. But she really got attacked badly by the community.
Yeah, I didn’t like seeing that.
Did you guys do enough to defend her? I mean obviously, as someone who has history in Silicon Valley who had just gotten off the trial ...
I think Reddit from a technology point of view could have done more. Because when I returned, that was the context in which I returned.
I had just watched this and I was disgusted with it. I was very, very frustrated. That’s why we built up the trust and safety team, that’s why we put a new content policy into place, that’s why we started making technology changes to limit the damage that a few users can have. And that’s why ... things were bad last week but they weren’t as bad as they would have been a year ago or two years ago.
Sure. So Ellen got the brunt of that.
She did, unfortunately. And I feel terrible about it and I have a lot of empathy for what she was going through. Because it’s not fun. No matter how thick your skin is. So taking some of the surface area away where people are attacking, that’s been an important effort of ours.
So you came back. Why did you decide to come back?
I thought there was a very real possibility of Reddit dying. I thought, Reddit plays a wonderful role in many millions of people’s lives. From the shallow, funny pictures of animals and entertainment — we can guarantee a few laughs every day — to really thoughtful relationship advice or talking people out of depression or financial debt. Reddit plays an important role in people’s lives, and we make people’s lives better. And I thought it would be a shame if Reddit didn’t live up to its potential, or even worse, died.
And who approached you to do this?
Specifically, it was either Bob or Sam on our board. Bob Sauerberg, the CEO of Conde, or Sam [Altman], who led the last investment. I don’t remember, we had a number of conversations back and forth over a while.
Because I didn’t want to leave Hipmunk. I felt like yes, I can probably help Reddit but I’ve made all these promises to folks at Hipmunk and we need to see this through. And so that at the time was a very very difficult decision. I felt like I was letting Hipmunk employees down, and that was difficult to do.
And why did you think [Reddit] was going to die?
At the time, the community was in open revolt. And I’d see this before with Digg.
Issues around moderators, issues around everything.
The site was basically shut down for a couple of days over July 4th weekend. And you know, just a couple years ago the frontrunner in the space, Digg, had basically committed suicide.
And all of their users came to Reddit. Really it was one of the only days where Reddit has had this kind of massive jump in traffic was the day Digg died.
Why committed suicide?
They released a new version of their product that basically did away with user submission.
Yeah, it was terrible, I remember.
Bad move. And then it couldn’t roll it back. I don’t know all the technology things that went in play there, but that was the gist of it. So it was a little bit different, but basically the company had fallen out of sync with their community. So when I looked at Reddit, that’s what I felt like was happening.
Yeah, because these communities can die very quickly.
They can. Well, it had. And it had to my benefit when it happened to Digg. And like I said, Reddit has an important role to play in the world and I want to get us there.
So then you came back.
So then I came back.
Do you regret it?
I don’t regret it. There were moments last week where I was like, you know, I could live a calmer, simpler life. [KS laughs]
My birthday was as a couple weeks ago and I spent the evening by myself in Santa Cruz because I just wanted a little peace. I was walking around the beach looking at all these people thinking, “You all look really happy. I could have this life tomorrow if I wanted.” But then I also think, “I have so much purpose in my life right now,” and that is very addictive.
When I left Reddit, I felt very empty until we started Hipmunk. I just got kind of sad and depressed. So I love working, but I do every once in a while wonder, why am I doing this to myself?
That’s a very good point. When we get back we’ll talk about that and more. We’re talking with Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit and one of its founders. About a year ago, he became the CEO, and he recently got into a little controversy over editing certain posts. When we get back, we’re going to talk about the rise of fake news, the changes at Reddit and also where social media is going.
We’re here with Steve Huffman, the CEO of Reddit and one of its cofounders. We’ve been talking about a lot of issues around Reddit and some recent controversy he was involved in.
But let’s talk broader about what’s happening at Reddit. You were talking about communities dying quickly. It seems like social media has never been relevant to people, and yet so many of them are in distress. Twitter is in distress, you just underwent a controversy, there’s issues around Facebook and fake news. Something feels out of control at this point with social media. Maybe I’m overstating that.
I don’t know if I’d say out of control, but social media is new in humanity and as a mechanism of communicating. I do think what we see, over the last 10-15 years, it seems like every year there’s a new dimension to it. This year was probably the election and the influence of social media over the election. Or maybe, on the other side of it, just the visibility into the election via social media. And so we’re solving new challenges.
So explain those challenges from a Reddit point of view and from a social media [point of view], because it seems uglier, more full of lies, more difficult.
For example, if you wanted to say something nasty to me 10 years ago, you would have to find my phone number or my address or maybe my email address, but you couldn’t just do it. Now, if you know somebody’s Twitter username or you know their Reddit username or their Facebook name, or their name, you can get access to them.
It’s overwhelmingly positive when people can communicate without barriers, but the trade-off is you’re communicating without barriers. And sometimes those barriers are insulating.
So for better or for worse, what we see now is a new mechanism of communication. And I think it is overwhelmingly positive. When we’re talking about news and communication, there’s no longer a few gatekeepers. You can see and hear and listen to whatever, or read whatever you want.
Although sometimes those gatekeepers were pretty good at what they did.
That’s a very fair point. But there are trade-offs here. So now, people have access to all this information and all of these viewpoints, and the trade-off is that you’re not forced to hear something you don’t want to hear. So you get this echo-chamber mentality as well.
Right. And so where are we? Talk a little bit about the election. And I do want to hear about the tools that you’re looking at and what you think of harassment.
We’re being led by a president-elect who harrasses people online, who retweets falsehoods, who makes up falsehoods, who’s very aggressive and cruel. It sets a tone. This is on Twitter, his preferred [communication method]. I don’t think he’s on Reddit at this point, is he? I don’t even know if he’d know how to use it.
He’s dropped in once or twice, but he prefers Twitter. That’s fine with us.
[laughs] Yeah, okay, good. So use Donald Trump as the phenomenon. There are people who are now using it, people feel that he used it to his benefit to become president.
He certainly used it to his benefit. The frustration I think when I watched the election was the kind of mismatch of engagement.
You had Trump who was ... I believe he would have won without all of the bigotry, without the nastiness. But you had one candidate who was super engaged, you know, on Twitter constantly.
Genuinely engaged. And for better or for worse showing who he really was. And my suspicion is that people are more gravitated to the authenticity than the actual substance.
I see. So he had a message even if it was an appalling message.
Well, he had flaws, and flaws make you human, and when we’re talking about the electorate that just wants to be heard by another human, I think that’s part of the thing that resonated very much with them.
Because you’d hear this, right? “Oh he’s not actually racist, he’s just saying that to get attention.” And that mentality was prevalent because people just want to be led by somebody they believe is real. And social media allows you to do that, right? Allows you to build a connection with somebody, positive or negative, that’s real.
Well, does it require being an asshole or being more funny or a cartoonish version of yourself?
No, it requires I think some vulnerability and some accessibility. But you don’t have to be an asshole. I very firmly believe that. And I think Bernie Sanders was a great example of this where he had — and we’re talking about Reddit specifically — he had more engagement on Reddit than Trump did before he was out of the race.
I think that’s very important to mention because Bernie wasn’t running that sort of negative campaign but was very good at relating to people and connecting with people on that level. And I think any modern election is going to need to involve that sort of connection.
Right, unless people begin to game it, to figure out what works well and seems genuine and isn’t. Because that’s where I see that going.
Well, that’s politics.
Yeah, right. They’ll figure it out.
You’re probably right, and that’s where it’s fun. Okay, now, just to play hypotheticals, Trump exposed some pretty deep flaws in the election. Would somebody do that in person, invent deep flaws to seem more real? Is this going to become a race to the bottom of who’s the most flawed candidate? I hope not.
It feels like. [laughs]
It seems farfetched.
So let’s talk about that idea. You have Twitter — which to me has facilitated this and has done very little around tools to stop the harassment or, in general, to stop lies, harassment, or the distribution of lies. And you have an electorate or group of people using these online, where facts don’t matter. It’s this post-facts society. I was at an event and I said, “This was a lie,” and the person said, “Prove it.” And I said, “Here’s the actual factual things.” “I don’t believe it.” Then what do you do? I’m like, “But it’s the actual facts.” “I don’t believe it, it’s your opinion.” And I was like, wow, that’s really impossible to do anything after that.
I know, and it’s not a new feeling. I hope we’re at the climax and not still on the way up, but I remember this even when I was much younger in college. In my mind, I associated it with Fox News, the rise of anti-intellectualism. And it was just like, doesn’t anybody care about the truth? And it’s been this ongoing thought in my head for 15 years.
Yes, they do not [laughs]. Just so you know.
It’s scary, it’s scary, it’s scary. And it’s easier than ever now to hear what you want to hear. And I do think that’s a problem.
So let’s talk about that in the context of Reddit. There’s an expression that intelligence has its limitations, but stupidity is infinite. Some parts of Reddit feel that way. And some parts feel really intelligent. It’s a really interesting situation. Wading through it is hard.
Reddit is a reflection of the world. It is very raw and that is what you see.
I assume you want the more intelligent stuff to come out, whatever topic, if it’s on kombucha or it’s on tennis or whatever it is, whatever the topic. It could be any topic, I would assume you would want the intelligent stuff. And I don’t mean the elite stuff, I mean stuff that’s actually meaningful.
Yeah, interesting. And overwhelmingly, on Reddit, that’s what you see. But when you get close to politics, that’s when things get all haywire in the real world and on Reddit. That’s where emotions run high, people just want to win, they stop forgetting why they’re having the conversation in the first place. That us-versus-them mentality, I think, is tearing the country apart. We’re more polarized and divided than ever.
So what do you do on Reddit? What have you banned? Give me examples of things you’ve banned.
Sure. So we have banned things that conflict with our content policy outright. So things that are illegal.
Like, “Here, buy some drugs.”
Yes, “Here, buy some drugs.” What we call involuntary sexualization of adults or minors.
Like, “Here’s a picture of my girlfriend.” That sort of thing.
Doxing, personal information. Any time where we feel like we don’t want something in the online world to leak into the real world and have a real effect on something.
Such as what happened with Pizzagate.
Exactly, exactly. That’s why we banned that.
And then harassment. Now, harassment is tricky, because it doesn’t always happen in front of us and sometimes it’s more subtle. There’s not a crystal-clear line of what behavior is acceptable and not. But it’s something we’ve been working quite a bit at.
I’ll tell you the things that have worked for us. Basic reporting and blocking actually goes a long way if you look at the data, because there’s a small subset of users that can cause an outsized amount of damage. Identifying those users and either banning them or putting them in a box or somehow taking away their vectors of attack is actually pretty effective. It’s very similar to spam in that regard.
So if they’re reported several times for saying harassing [things] ...
Yes. So we look at all of those. Really, we start talking about technology problems for doing that at scale. That’s where it starts to get tricky.
That’s where the difficulty is, yeah.
Difficult but not impossible.
And so we will continue to invest in both the human side, which is setting the community norms and banning users, and the automated side, which is identifying outlier behaviors and keeping them off the site.
Okay, but harassment is determined by those human beings. There was as controversy at Facebook, which got rid of its human news people because they got a lot of pressure from conservatives. What did you think about that?
I can see both sides. We try very carefully to not be in a position where we’re playing kingmaker. I don’t want to choose the news, as it were. And I don’t know all of the details of the Facebook situation, I kind of heard it from a headline level, and I have some empathy for what they’re dealing with because I do think we’ve often wrestled with this notion of letting anything go, but wouldn’t it be better if we editorialized it a little bit? So we’ve been looking for ways to automate the editorialization.
Then people say you couldn’t do false negatives. What’s interesting is I made a joke on Twitter where I said, “Silicon Valley people always tell you how smart they are until there’s a real problem and then they’re like, ‘Oh, it’s a really hard problem.’” [laughs] You know what I mean?
[laughs] It’s a fair criticism ...
They hung the moon until they can’t hang the moon type of thing.
I see that attitude all the time. I’ll give you a different shade of it, also very common. A startup grows and grows and grows and everybody thinks they’re hot shit and they’re responsible for the growth and then the growth stops. And I think the best companies get through that. They have to get disciplined to get through it.
A lot of companies die at that point because they spent two years or whatever thinking they’re super-smart and then it turns out they don’t actually know how to run their business. I’ve seen a lot friends go through that and I’ve gone through that myself. You want to have an increasing humility, I think it’s an important quality.
Absolutely, but when I hear "It’s so hard" from Facebook, I want to slap them silly. Because guess what? You have a lot of money, you got a lot of smarts, you’ve got to figure this out.
How hard is it from a technological point of view to do this? Because that’s their argument, that this is much harder than the other things they do which seem in a similar vein, pedophiles, different things that they do manage, through advertising they manage to technologically solve these problems. But you’re a technologist, how hard is it?
Well, let me talk about it from the Reddit point of view, because that’s a problem I understand better. It really depends. Are we going after conservative news? That’s very hard. Are we going after fake news? Some parts of that are easy, look at the strong signals, this is a domain owned by a Russian company that only became popular in July and all of a sudden has a ton of traffic. Right? You’ve got that. But then you’ve got, like, Rolling Stone just lost a lawsuit for publishing fake news.
Right, one story out of all of them, pretty much.
My point is there’s a gray area in between.
Oh gray, that’s your favorite word in Silicon Valley, but go ahead.
They may have the best of intentions, but they screw up. Or it’s politically tainted, or there’s an agenda but it’s not factually untrue. So when you start getting into that area, I think it’s a little tricky.
But I think for years, media companies have been able to do this. There’s been able to be Fox News and there’s been able to be the Wall Street Journal and there’s been able to be Mother Jones.
So media companies take the responsibility of their jobs. I think Rolling Stone has a record of being accurate except one story. Does that taint all the other stories? Probably not.
It taints them for some amount of time.
Absolutely, they did a bad job on this particular story.
And as we mentioned in the first segment, they’ll earn people’s trust back over time.
Right, but you all know the difference between Rolling Stone and something from Macedonia. I know you do.
We definitely do. That’s what I’m saying. Those are the clear examples. When you start getting into the in-between, it gets a little trickier. First of all, on Reddit, when you’re talking about fake news specifically, it’s less of a problem for us because there’s less echo-chamber behavior because we do have these shared spaces. So we do see the news get submitted, it doesn’t engage nearly as well as the real stuff.
I see, interesting. It does on Facebook, though, which is interesting.
Because Facebook, for better or for worse, they have the echo-chamber problem, which is you choose your friends. And because of that you see the viewpoint of your friends and things can amplify in that respect.
I see, interesting. We’re going to finish up talking about where you think this is going. Is it the worst time for social media or is it just a typical moment in the road?
I’m thinking about Snapchat, which actually is a nicer place to be because they pick the publishers. And even if they made one error, they select them. And so they act like a media company.
You’re a media company or you’re a technology company? Because what technology companies like to do is say, “We’re just a platform.” It’s a little like — I don’t want to compare it to guns, but it’s like, “We just make the tools, we can’t be responsible,” when in fact they do have a responsibility. I think they do and a lot of people do.
What I told the company last week is because we have an opportunity to make a differnece, we have the responsibility to attempt to do so. So while I do think of us as more a technology company than a media company ...
We are a platform, but we are not without responsibility. It doesn’t mean that I want to be editorializing the news and choosing what’s important and pushing my political viewpoints on people, no. But we want people to come to Reddit and be informed, have fun, feel safe, feel welcome, bring their friends in. Right? That’s both good for the world and good for business.
So when things are at odds with that, which we’ve seen, we think of how do we take action? Action doesn’t always mean banning, though. For example, back in 2006, the first community we made on Reddit — either the first or second, I forget — was politics. And Reddit had no communities back then, and election rhetoric started heating up, and I would come to Reddit and I’d put myself in the shoes of a new user and I would just think, “This stuff is so angry. On both sides, just so much anger, it’s making me angry. And that’s not the feeling I want users to have.” And so we made /politics and we said put that shit over there. [KS laughs] If you want to be angry about it ...
Let’s hide it. You’re good at hiding stuff.
But people want that. Some people want the anger and they want to get riled up and they want to have that argument.
You’ve put some things in places that are hard to find, right? Some of the more controversial communities.
That strategy works well. It works well because you’re not turning them into free speech martyrs. You’re not having that conversation. You’re saying, “Hey, quit yelling in my shared space. Go yell over there.” So it’s a general strategy that does work well for us.
This last year has been an interesting one. You know, we’ve seen some different shades to it. And we’ll keep tackling it. I don’t think there’s any overnight silver-bullet solutions. But I believe very very strongly that we will continue to improve.
And you can make money from this, doing this.
The business will do just fine I think, sure.
If you keep it, not clean, I’m not saying clean, but keep it not ugly, I guess.
Well, if you can target content, you can target an ad.
So lastly, where does it go from here? What happens to Reddit? It just makes money from advertising, makes ...
Advertising is our business model of choice. There’s probably more creative stuff down the road, but that’s not where we’re spending our brain power right now. For us, we really think about growth, bringing in more users. Growth for us means making Reddit fast, beautiful, relevant.
Is there anyone like it right now? I can’t think of one. Digg is gone.
I’ve often wondered this.
Digg is still around, isn’t it?
Digg is technically around, but it’s totally different.
There’s Quora, there’s all kinds of different forms.
There are companies that are like a subset of Reddit, but the kind of massive interest group for everything plus this nebulous global community connection, I’ve not seen elsewhere. Not in a long time. Usenet back in the day was kind of like this. There’s this ... I don’t want to say anachronistic, but the drivers of internet growth in the early days are a lot — you get that feeling on Reddit a lot.
Right, right, absolutely. All right, Steve, this is really helpful. So you’re going to stay there now, after you got spanked?
Despite my fuck-up of last week.
[laughs] You can say “I’m sorry” one more time, if you want.
I am very sorry, and at the end of the day, this is my dream job, and I just want everybody in the world to know the joy of Reddit and the fun of Reddit, and we’re going to keep chasing that until we get there.
You still could be happier walking along the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. [laughs]
You know, but then I think of absolute happiness. If I could look back in 20 years and say, “We were a part of that.”
I don’t know, if you created a pot delivery service I think you’d be very happy. I don’t know.
There are many paths to happiness, and this is the one I’m on.
All right, thank you, Steve, I really appreciate it.
It’s my pleasure.
Thanks for coming by.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.