The Complete History of Reddit

This is the complete history of Reddit.

Humans’ need for communities to the principles of free speech.

So if you want to learn the COMPLETE history of Reddit, then this article is for you.

Let’s get right into it!

Table of Contents

Humans Grave for Community

Human beings yearn to be a part of a community. 

Almost as soon as we can walk, we want to belong to something, whether with our immediate family, our clan, our tribe, our village, our city-state, or our nation. 

We want to belong to something because that something becomes our identity. It is why being ostracized was considered the ultimate punishment in the ancient world. It destroyed one’s sense of self. 

As human populations grew and we more easily fit into larger community groupings like a nation or empire, we longed for something more intimate. 

Group of people huddling and smiling together.

So we developed our identity through smaller subgroups often centered around:

  • Religion
  • Class
  • Gender
  • Military warlords
  • Political beliefs
  • Secret societies like the Freemasons
  • Artisan groups like guilds
  • And so forth

Over the last one hundred and fifty years, the groups became even more defined to include:

  • The schools we attended
  • Sports teams
  • Special social clubs like exclusive country clubs
  • Legacy/heritage groups like the Daughters of the American Revolution and the German-American Society
  • Community assistance groups like Lion’s Club or Shriners
  • The associations governing the work that we do.

We want to belong to something that creates an intimate identity, a sense of being a part of something special. 

Free Speech Is One of Our Highest Values

And what these communities provided each and every member was a place to find acceptance and knew that they could safely voice their ideas and opinions within the accepted tenets of that group. 

Yet as humans began to have multiple community identities, speaking outside of their particular community became a radical idea. 

That is why including a Bill of Rights as part of the United States Constitution proved to be a watershed moment in human history. It clearly stated that any human being had a right to express their ideas beyond their immediate identity group. 

Basically, anyone could express their beliefs even if the majority in their society disagreed with it. Ideas should not be silenced. 

With the Good Comes the Bad

As we know, both community identification and free speech are double-edged swords. They both have the ability to change the world for the better as well as to destroy it. 

People protesting in front of police force.

The challenge has always been how to walk down the middle. Or to quote a speech from the movie The American President (1995)

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. 

You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? 

Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.

You want to claim this is the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. 

The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of free.

How can one allow anyone to voice their opinions that are sometimes swathed tightly with anger and fear, whose very words are designed to hurt those not found in that particular person’s identity group? 

That has been the ultimate challenge for democracies worldwide. The World Wide Web entrance (a.k.a the Internet) in 1991 has only exacerbated this difficulty. 

Early World Wide Web

In 1989, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist working at the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN or the European Council for Nuclear Research), “invented” the World Wide Web. 

In actuality, he proposed a radical idea that would take what was known as the Internet and open it up to everyone. 

In an article, “Information Management: A Proposal,” he proposed expanding the already existing scientific and governmental research communication system into a worldwide information entrepot. 

Although not initially accepted, his boss allowed him to work on his ideas. 

By October 1990, he had created three of the foundation technologies that made the Internet possible: HTML-HyperText Markup Language; URI-Uniform Resource Identifier (a.k.a. URL), HTTP-Hypertext Transfer Protocol. 

Close-up of https in address bar of web browser.

He also wrote the first webpage editor or browser called simply, WorldWideWeb.app. In 1991, CERN invited others to join this new web community. It was the birth of the Internet, as most of us know it. 

And, as with all new communication and information technologies, idealism reigned supreme, at least at first. In fact, this new information transfer system introduced some revolutionary ideas:  

  • Decentralization—no central authority; implications for freedom from censorship and surveillance.
  • Non-discrimination—everyone can communicate at the same level; elemental principle now known as Net Neutrality.
  • Bottom-up design—open coding that could be learned by anyone, thus encouraging maximum participation and experimentation.
  • Universality—all computers speak the same language no matter what hardware or software one is using. Anyone anywhere can publish anything, which can break down barriers and encourage diversity.
  • Consensus—creating mechanisms to assist with continuing universality, such as W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) created in 1994 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  

These ideas would continue to ground all activity on the Internet until ugly realities began to raise their nasty heads, with government leaders responding by actively questioning this self-policing system. Reddit.com would find itself at the epicenter of this challenge. 

The Creation of Reddit.com

Two undergraduate students at the University of Virginia, Steve Huffman (computer science major ) and Alexis Ohanian (business and history major) became good friends their freshman year through their mutual love of computer gaming. 

By their senior year, they had developed an idea to create a mobile food ordering app named MyMobileMenu. And Ohanian even went so far as to set up a company called RedBrick Solutions, LLC to promote it. 

However, computer applications were just in their embryo stages in 2004, and no one had a smartphone. It was a wild idea. They struggled to figure out how to make it even work without the elementary tools necessary. 

In 2005, Huffman learned about Paul Graham, who believed in digital entrepreneurship and actively promoted startups envisioned by young people. 

Huffman noticed that Graham was going to give a talk at Harvard University. So, Huffman and Ohanian headed up to Boston, Massachusetts, with their idea. Their goal was to find a way to meet with Graham to pitch their MyMobileMenu app. 

While listening to the presentation in that Harvard auditorium, Ohanian realized that this man was on to something. He liked Graham’s wise yet straightforward tenets for all entrepreneurship. 

Graham plainly stated that all you need for any good startup are: good people, a good idea, and a way to spend as little money as possible getting it started. He also said that good ideas were rooted in results; you do something better than what has been done before. Huffman was starstruck. 

They managed to connect with Graham later that evening. Graham quietly listened to their pitch over drinks and then told them to apply to his Summer Founder’s Program. They did, only to be rejected. Stunned, they asked Graham why. He said it was not a good idea; not feasible, at least not yet. 

However, Graham believed in these guys, and rather than rebuff them, he showed them two websites to hint very loudly at an option: slash.dot and Del.icio.us. 

Both pages allowed users to find and bookmark or download web pages they wanted to save. Graham pointed out that both these web pages provided a utility; however, they did not necessarily provide ways to share information. That was their fatal flaw. 

If Huffman and Ohanian could come up with a way to create a system where users could discover and share information, they would be let into the Founder’s program. 

Huffman and Ohanian came up with a solution. They soon moved to Boston to be part of the 2005 summer class of what would become known as the “Y Combinator.” 

During that summer, they took their idea and created reddit.com. Huffman did the programming using Lisp, and Ohanian focused on promotion, including creating the beloved Snoo, the now-famous alien icon. 

Their tag would be “What’s new on line?” and their emphasis was to become a new social media news hub. 

Cheerful girl reading e-book on digital tablet.

They wanted the site to be self-actuated by user input. Basically, the users would determine what would show up on the front, the main page through what they called upvoting using an arrow icon.

Users could also downvote items as needed. It was an innovative way to think about the democratization of information. 

Reddit Versus the World

As with all startups with a small budget, growth brought problems ranging from insufficient bandwidth to programming glitches to the necessity for product innovation to keep people interested. 

Soon they had two new staffers: Chris Slowe to help with programming and troubleshooting and Aaron Swartz. The latter helped Huffman transfer the Lisp code into Python to make the program more flexible. 

They soon added innovations such as user commenting options. Within a year, Reddit had more than 500,000 clicks daily. 

Some companies started talking about the “Reddit hug of death” whenever their post received a huge amount of upvotes to the point that it would crash their servers because demand for a particular blog post or article suddenly exploded. This level of popularity would make Reddit an attractive acquisition for some corporations. 

Condé Nast would acquire Reddit for about $10 million in 2006. Suddenly, the reddit.com founders were millionaires.

During their time with Condé Nast, some important innovations occurred, including allowing users to create their own subreddits in 2008—basically communities within a greater community—and Reddit would become open-sourced. 

One of the most popular subreddits of this era was AMA, or Ask Me Anything, which allowed users to interact with celebrities, politicians, and other influencers. 

However, once their required three-year commitment to stay on after acquisition was up, both key founders, Huffman and Ohanian, had had enough of corporate life and left Reddit.  

From the start, managers at Condé Nast realized that Reddit was a different beast and had enough sense to largely leave it alone. 

The problem was they also did not realize what a money sink it was. Funding became a major issue. 

However, two uniquely Reddit products came into being during this time: RedditGifts in 2009 and RedditGold in 2010. 

Even so, more flexibility was needed, so in 2011 the Condé Nast parent corporation, Advance Publications, agreed to allow Reddit to function as a subsidiary, thus making it an operationally independent entity with the ability to hire a CEO and to garner funding in its own name. 

The next four years would be painful and disillusioning for many. 

The Free Speech Question

Free speech and Internet Neutrality had already become major issues within Silicon Valley. 

Reddit had functioned with the idea that people, on the whole, were basically good and mostly tolerated any kind of subreddit. It insisted the subreddit moderators, not Reddit, were responsible for controlling their members. 

As Ohanian once explained:

The spirit of Reddit has always been: Let the community do the hard stuff. We can create a great system, and get out of their way.

In 2011, Congress, under pressure to control the free-wheeling ways of the Internet and protect intellectual rights, introduced two bills—Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). 

Both were designed to shore up the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which basically ignored Internet service providers. These two bills wanted to regulate content. 

Ohanian and Swartz were two of many who led protests against these bills. In fact, Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah said during a House Judiciary Committee meeting something that seemed to paraphrase Ohanian’s comments:

We’re basically gonna reconfigure the Internet … without bringing in the Nerds.

The digital community organized a protest to show how important the Internet had become to the economy and to hit home the point that these bills would stifle innovation leading to serious economic repercussions. 

On January 10, 2012, a Reddit blog post stated:

The freedom, innovation, and economic opportunity that the Internet enables are in jeopardy. Congress is considering legislation that will dramatically change your Internet experience and put an end to Reddit and many other sites you use every day.

It then warned the Reddit community that the system will be going dark for twelve hours in protest. On January 18, Reddit and 115,000 websites and blogs went mostly, if not completely, dark.

Man typing on laptop in a dark room.

This action effectively killed these bills. Because Ohanian had become one of the leading voices during this protest, he was declared “The Voice of His Generation.”  

The Rise of r/The_Donald

After a series of well-intentioned but failed leadership attempts since 2011, it was time to bring in the founders to save the day. 

On July 10, 2015, Huffman returned as CEO. He immediately set out to clean things up and updated operations, including the code he had used to create Reddit a mere ten years before. 

Almost as soon as he walked into his new role as CEO, he was confronted with the need to address the problem of offensive or obscene content. 

He said:

Neither Alexis nor I created Reddit to be the bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen.

Yet, as he grew older, he realized that letting things run wild did not help solve the problem, so he instituted new rules and banned certain groups.

He did so not to stifle free speech but to remove groups that “exist solely to annoy other Redditors, prevent us from improving Reddit, and generally make Reddit worse for everyone else.”

Yet, these actions would not save the company from the political storm coming with the introduction of r/The_Donald. 

The 2016 United States presidential campaign and the election was a kick in the gut for most social media outlets, including Reddit. 

How do you control a firestorm when the storm refused to play by the same rules? 

Throughout the experience, Huffman kept to the belief that “I see our role as a communications platform, primarily bringing people together.”

Responsibility for content is on the “them,” not the us. 

After the election, Huffman stated:

I mean Trump won, right? Fifty percent of people voted for him, let’s not pretend that this is some aberration, that The_Donald is some freak occurrence.

During the Congressional investigation into Russian manipulation in the 2016 election, Reddit took the transparent approach and offered up any data they could find to investigators. 

In fact, they found 944 instances of Russian involvement in manipulating Reddit to influence its users. It was a sobering discovery.  

While the demand to ban Trump’s subreddit grew, Huffman’s response was to build upon his efforts to better manage the subreddits and their content. 

He created something called the Trust and Safety Team to establish rules of conduct, evaluate violations of those rules, and enforce them. 

The Reddit legal office became the final arbitrator for decisions to ban particular subreddits. 

Unlike previous attempts to rein in violators, where Redditors screamed, yelled, and threatened, most of them willingly went along with it largely because most now understood that complete openness had some dangerous side effects. 

They also understood that decisions within the new system were not arbitrary ones but instead were made through a carefully designed set of protocols with staged levels of warning and then harsh action toward those who refused to comply. 

It seemed fair, so people followed it. And while Huffman and others at Reddit wanted to remove the Trump players and related groups, they decided to follow that age-old adage of keeping your friends close and your enemies even closer. 

Huffman said:

I think there’s some value to the United States to having Donald Trump’s most vociferous supporters constantly make fools of themselves. 

Why turn them into martyrs when we can let them say racist stuff and be idiots and they can really own that reputation of being a bunch of asshole idiots?

Not Perfect, but, What Is

Reddit has had many more controversies than what was covered above due to space. 

Yet, through it, all the reddit.com creators set out to provide a forum to share information and to disseminate ideas. 

Group of diverse friends social networking on mobile phones.

Along the way, it provided a forum for specialized communities where people could find acceptance for their beliefs. It permitted people to foster their identities and believe in themselves. 

Yet all idealism has a dark side, which led to the suicide of Aaron Swartz in 2013, a strong advocate against copyright and someone who demanded open access to all knowledge without any sort of hindrance. It also led to the rise of the alt-right movement and Donald Trump. 

Even so, which would you prefer: no roses or a rose with thorns? 

Communities and ideas matter even if you personally disagree with them. 

The reality is, someone will always exploit openness for evil purposes. 

So this reality begs some important questions: 

Should the Internet remain free? 

What would be the price to all of us if that freedom was lost? 

This is the paradox of reddit.com.