TL;DR: Founder of reddit comes to Rutgers
Students need to learn to be awesome without permission, said Alexis Ohanian, the founder of reddit, in a speech last night.
Ohanian visited the Livingston Student Center to promote his new book, “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed” and advises aspiring tech students.
Ohanian shared his journey from humble beginnings to tech superstardom while rallying the audience for entrepreneurship. He believes students should not only be explorers but also programmers.
“Don’t settle for just having a good idea when the barrier to entry is as little as it is,” he said. “The reason my book is called ‘Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed’ is because it will be run by builders.”
The Rutgers University Programming Association hosted Ohanian’s book tour. Erica Hartsfield, RUPA’s director of the arts and culture committee, said the 450-person capacity room had only a few empty seats.
The Daily Targum had the opportunity to sit down with Ohanian in an exclusive press conference. An abbreviated interview with answers to the Targum’s questions is below:
The Daily Targum: When did you first realize that Reddit was going to be a huge success?
Alexis Ohanian: There’s never one moment where you’re like “Yeah it’s official — success!” The biggest moment that was a kind of ‘wow’ — not quite ‘we’ve made it,’ but look how far we’ve come, was when President [Barack Obama] did an AMA.
DT: What is your favorite AMA and why?
AO: How do you choose just one? I can tell you the ones that I want to see — number one is Jay Z. Number two is the Pope. In that order. Number three would be Snooki, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen.
But I’ll tell you, of the past ones, obviously I have to say the President of the United States. But also Bill Murray proved he is everything we all hope him to be. He’s legendary.
But then you get these sleeper ones. You find these AMAs, these amazing ones. You’ll get these from someone who is like 90 plus.
I have a grandfather who’s 92, and I’ve actually been trying to get him to do an AMA. We’ll see if grandpa will do it. To hear them talk about what the world was like compared to what it is today. They’re not celebrities, but they have an amazing story to tell.
DT: What is your favorite subreddit and why?
AO: Well I have to be fair, [the subreddit] /r/rutgers has been very supportive for doing a little AMA right now. Lots of love. They’re trying to teach me about fat sandwiches, which I guess … they’re like an endangered species because you guys took all the fat sandwich trucks and like dispersed them all over town.
But I was a history major, so I love /r/askhistorians so that’s always a go-to.
DT: As the first non-technical founder in tech seeder Y Combinator, do you think that the reception of non-technical entrepreneurs has changed since you started?
AO: Admittedly, the first class of Y Combinator had four amazing starters, all of whom had no idea what they were doing. Their goal was to find technical people because they knew before most that people who can write code and build platforms would make this century.
And so they were a little skeptical about non-technical co-founders, without a doubt. And so I had to answer a lot of questions like, ‘What does Alexis do all day other than drawing the mascot?’
I think over time a lot of non-technical co-founders have made an example that there’s a way to make it work. Especially when the skill sets complement one another.
The last thing [a non-technical co-founder] should do is settle with just having great ideas. Learning how to code is the most valuable thing anyone can do right now, even if [they] don’t want to be an entrepreneur.
DT: In your book, you give a pretty bleak example of what a commencement address would look like in 2025 if Internet censorship legislation were passed. If legislation like Stop Online Piracy Act were passed 10 years ago, how would that have impacted the formation of reddit?
AO: Well there would be no reddit. If SOPA or PIPA [Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act] had existed, there would be no reddit. I mean that’s the reason I got involved in the fight. ... In fact, user-generated content could not have emerged. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs would have come under fire.
DT: So then, building off that, what sort digital IP legislation would you promote, or would you eliminate software IP altogether?
AO: I’d love to see software patents go away. I have friends in patent office, so I can say somewhat first-hand what a cluster that situation is.
And you see all the time the root of it is this: Patents have a very important role, since they stimulate growth in entrepreneurship, because you get a limited monopoly on your idea. And that works for a lot of things, but it does not work for software, because of the nature of how software is written, it doesn’t exist.
The founding fathers were smart fellows, they missed some things … nobody could have expected the software that exists now. And the system for patents does not promote … innovation when it comes to software patents, and that’s the goal of it. So if it’s not doing that, let’s get rid of it.
Because the only people who are benefitting from them right now are large corporations who gobble them up and use them as clubs to spite, up and coming companies or to get into silly battles with other large companies that don’t actually create any new stuff.
DT: Net neutrality and privacy aren’t the only issues facing our beloved Internet entrepreneurial meritocracy, so what do you think is another great challenge?
AO: Access ...we still have millions of Americans who don’t have broadband internet, because they live in rural America. There are millions of Americans who have to take their kids to McDonalds for free Wi-Fi, because they can’t afford it.
If we believe that every American should have a reasonable right to electricity, shouldn’t they have a reasonable right to Internet, given what a boon it has been for our lives? So, access is still a huge barrier for so many. And then there are the skills to make the most out of it, right? That’s another huge problem.
Looking at the last 10 years, you go down the list of this new generation of millionaires and billionaires. They’re all white. They’re mostly upper class. There are some middle-class kids in there too, but it’s very homogeneous. And so the upside to this new world, which I’m so fond of saying is in the “Industrial Revolution,” if you wanted to change the world you needed to open a factory.
Today, in the Internet age, you need to open a laptop. And that’s empowering — the fact that we can start something that [starts of with] college students and in 10 years have billionaires and people who, I think more importantly, have created tremendous value.
But, … [in] the next 10 years, if it continues to be these same types of people who have historically had access and privilege and ability who are taking advantage of this resource, there is going to be an even bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots.
And there will be outliers for sure, but I think a big part of it is making sure that we get as many people as possible, not only with the access, but also the skills to make the most out of it.