Alexis Ohanian is many things: a dedicated entrepreneur who is an ambassador for the prestigious Y Combinator program he graduated from; a political and social web activist; the founder of Reddit; the author of Without their Permission; and as it turns out, extraordinarily tall.
Thanks to the McHacks organizing committee, and McGill’s Desautels Faculty of Management, he came to speak to a jam-packed room in the center of Montreal.
Even in a crowded room, you can’t avoid seeing him. This immediately brings to mind his digital presence. His activism on issues such as SOPA and PIPA, and his creation of the “front page of the Internet” have ensured that he cannot be ignored when he talks about how we will build our digital future.
What he has to say about the future stems from the thesis of Without their Permission: everybody can play a part. Alexis stresses over and over again the same message: anybody who learns how to code can play a significant role in building the new digital world. In essence, anybody with an internet connection can change the world.
Indeed, the world is changing. Alexis recounts the story behind the waffle that cost him a chance at being a lawyer. It’s a telling one for our age: right in the middle of the LSAT, he got hungry and decided that a waffle was worth more to him than a shot at law school. Instead of getting embroiled into the structured career pattern of generations past, Alexis founded a website that draws more people than the entirety of Canada holds—every month.
Reddit has allowed him the unstructured freedom to explore other creative ventures. One prominent example is Breadpig, a website that allows for creatives to self-publish and donate their proceeds to charity. Ventures like this give his message of the liberation for creation the weight it deserves.
He is the definition of a messenger who embodies his own message. Throughout the talk he gives to the 200-plus McGill students who have crammed in to hear him, he constantly refers to internet memes. They’re easy signposts for students to follow in his quest to convince them to get out there and create without constraints. He passionately advocates that now, a relatively riskless time, is the time to start, and not later. It’s a bit like seeing a personified version of Reddit, if there ever was one.
Alexis insists that there isn’t. How can you generalize a community of hundreds of millions? He sees Reddit as more of an aggregation of different disparate communities all bound together by one common theme: the need to connect with others.
Reddit represents technology that allows millions to embrace one another, and share stories they never would have had the chance to see without it. It is something that allows people to post what they want freely, without fear of social norms or pressure.
The Internet’s force can be seen in the hidden stories that Reddit unearths. Alexis admits that his favourite AMAs and subreddits of all time are Snoop Lion, and r/trees (something about being in Canada may have tinged this answer), but he’ll also rank the AMA of Without their Permission’s tour bus driver as one of his favorites. It embodies the message he is trying to spread. Anybody can make a difference with the right story, and the right way to share it—from Microsoft founder Bill Gates to a New York subway conductor.
The layer of tools that the Internet has built on top of each layer below is like a mountain being built from the accumulation of rocks underneath. It has led to the creative expansion of possibilities for stories. Alexis is adamant on this point: the Internet has liberated creators.
Tools like Kickstarter allow for miracles such as Pebble to grow from story to reality, a single pebble added to the mountain of the Internet. The mountain shoots higher every day, encompassing with it story after story turning into impactful reality.
It is a bold narrative. But it is his to the core, and perhaps most importantly, it can be all of ours. Alexis wants you to start building. He wants you to build things no matter how crappy they might look at first. In the end, what matters is that you’re building—and in this day and age, you can do that without anybody’s permission.
Photo: Anirudh Koul