For 17 years now, Reddit has been the social network with an anarchic streak – one that it inherited from its co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman. “We created Reddit before ‘social media’ was a word,” he tells me. “But we created it in response to the same idea, which is the media is just lying to us. It’s all fake.” If Facebook was founded as a means for Harvard students to meet women and Twitter started out as a group text service, then “the front-page of the internet” was made so that the 57 million people who now use it every day can decide what’s important to them. Sometimes that means protesting (or celebrating) Donald Trump’s indictment, others it’s a picture of a pheasant with some bulging biceps Photoshopped onto it.
To meet Huffman in person is to understand where all this gloriously contradictory chaos originated. Having first learned to program computers at eight years old, you could easily mistake him for any other web developer in their late 30s with a floppy blond quiff, grey sweater and a Rolex Explorer on his wrist. Despite having created what has become one of the world’s 20 biggest websites, there’s little that’s ostentatious about him. Partly, you suspect, because Huffman still thinks of himself and Reddit as an underdog compared to those social media networks that came after and quickly outgrew it.
The sprightly 39-year-old is talking to us on a dreary London day, just a few weeks before he’s due to be married and hours before he’s jetting off to a blockchain conference in Paris. Once that’s all done, Reddit is finally growing up and going public, just as Facebook (which was founded a year earlier, in 2004) did way back in 2012. “We wanted to IPO the company last year, and the market has not been great,” he says.
Despite this newfound business imperative, it doesn’t take long for Huffman to reveal his combative streak, the same one on display in 2016 when he edited critical comments of him on the r/The_Donald subreddit to instead eviscerate the names of the group’s leaders. So when asked how Reddit makes money out of people stapling bread onto trees and photographing it, the response is reassuringly curt, “Ads. It’s not rocket science.”
It’s this forthright manner that enabled Huffman to rescue Reddit from an existential crisis in 2015. Having left the company in 2009 to start the travel search engine Hipmunk, he returned in 2015 as CEO to a platform that seemed destined to succumb to the impulses of its most toxic users. Ellen Pao, the company’s previous CEO, had resigned after a site-wide revolt, volunteer moderators were struggling to suppress hate speech, and several racist, fat-shaming and other deeply unedifying communities continued to engage in brinksmanship with Reddit’s founding free speech ethos.
Nowadays, both Huffman and Reddit are in a very different place. A more inviting user interface, some much-improved moderation tools and the banning of its most-infamous subreddits mean that derpy animals, dank Formula 1 memes and a seemingly limitless love for the Star Wars prequel series have become its defining traits. While an imminent IPO represents the culmination of this eight-year redemption arc, Huffman still hasn’t lost his edge, not least when it comes to TikTok.
He’s not alone in this regard either, as lawmakers in the US (and some in the UK) are lobbying to ban the app as they fear it passes users’ data to the Chinese government. TikTok, which is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese a company, denies this, and says it is making changes to allay security fears: it is setting up three European data centers (including two in Dublin at an estimated cost of €600 million) to store more than 150 million European users’ data. And in the US the company says it is putting users’ data on the Oracle software cloud and that access to it will be limited to TikTok employees in the US.
Here, Huffman talks about why he thinks TikTok should be banned, this relationship with co-founder Alexis Ohanian and whether anyone in real life has ever asked him whether they’re the asshole.
GQ: Most social media companies tend to go public very quickly. Reddit has spent well over a decade being private…
Steve Huffman: Reddit is unusual for a lot of reasons, but our story is long. We started in 2005 as part of [start-up accelerator] Y Combinator, but we weren’t really behaving like a business. We thought of ourselves as business, we’d say we were but our actions spoke a little differently and I hated ads… It’s been my adult life. I started Reddit when I was 21.
You’ve always said your main takeaway from Reddit is that ‘people are fundamentally good’. Even though some Reddit users have historically not been good at all. Why do you think that?
I didn’t see this coming, but I’ve had a front-row seat to watching people support each other, ask for help, give help and share a few laughs. I relearn that every single day.
How does that culture affect you personally?
There’s a subreddit called r/stopdrinking and it’s for people who want to stop drinking or have stopped drinking. I read it every day as do thousands, if not millions of others. Every day people go on there and will share stories of vulnerability, things they’re struggling with, relapses, and milestones they’ve hit on their journey. And on every single post, you’ll see tonnes of responses that are universally in support. It’s really profound.
Did your decision to go teetotal start with a Reddit or did Reddit validate it?
It started with the thought that I have two priorities in life. I now have a third with a kid. At the time I didn’t have kids, so it was my relationship and my work. The lightbulb moment for me was if I continue drinking, it will compromise both of those things – and then the decision to quit was very easy.
You’ve described yourself and have been described as a troll by nature. Have you grown out of that?
No… The short answer is no.
So how do you still troll people?
I wouldn’t call it a pastime, but I love getting people to say stupid things… Someone will ask, “Have you heard that song?”
And I’ll be like, “No. Can you hum a few bars? Can you sing it? How does the music video go?”
One of the big turning points in Reddit’s history was Digg’s collapse. It was your biggest competitor and imploded almost overnight. Is there anything about Reddit that makes you worry something like that could happen to you?
I think the problem Digg had is that it was a company that was built to be a company, and you could feel it in the product. The way you could criticize Reddit is that we weren’t a company – we were all heart and no head for a long time. So I think it’d be really hard for me and for the team to kill Reddit in that way.
So what’s the greatest threat to Reddit, would you say, today? What’s the thing that keeps you up at night?
Section 230 regulation [the US law that allows web operators to moderate content as they see fit]?
That’s a big one. I’m more worried about this just general trend in western democracies to be extremely anti-democratic. This desire for the government to control speech, which is effectively controlling what people can and can’t think.
What would be an example of that?
Look at the Twitter Files: the government literally controlling speech. I think speech and democracy are inseparable concepts, and Reddit is a democratic platform. It is controlled by voting for other people. I think the trend over the last few years is that, “People have too much power, people have too many opinions… Everything needs to come from central government or media controlled by the government.” That is a trend that is really alarming.
How does TikTok worry you?
Okay, there are two dimensions. One, the app when you make a video on TikTok, it’s recording, not just you, not just the video you think you’re making, but your face, your likeness, your voice, the voices of other people in the room, all the objects you have in the room, maybe where you are, the things in the background and other people going straight to a database controlled by a hostile foreign nation. Maybe the most hostile.
And if when people say that’s not happening, that is a ludicrous take. Or the idea that we’re going to store the data in the United States? That is laughable. Such a head fake, because all the algorithms run the show in Beijing.
That’s one dimension…
I can criticize other tech companies for maybe being greedy or clumsy. But lots of companies are greedy and clumsy. But in many or most cases, their heart is in the right place and they’re trying to do the right thing, which is difficult, and they do their best to live within the laws of the lands. I don’t think any of that is true of TikTok, they’re a Chinese company and don’t care about our laws. There’s zero accountability there.
So do you think TikTok should be banned?
Okay. But you’ve just spent time talking about how free speech is important to you…
You think this attacks free speech? It’s the propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party. What’s free about it? It’s completely censored.
But you’re quite happy with that contradiction?
Social media is media, and the fastest-growing social media app is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
But it would benefit you if TikTok was banned?
Reddit will be fine with or without TikTok, with or without Facebook, Twitter… whatever. We’ve seen competitors start from small companies and turn into the world’s largest companies. We’ve been around 18 years and I’m not worried about competition. The only competition I worry about is our ability to build the best Reddit. We have sacrificed growth for our idealism, time and time again and we still survived. So yes, it’s easy to write what I’m saying off as coming from a self-interested tech guy. But I’m also a somewhat knowledgeable tech guy who can see what’s going on.
So talking about that idealism, I read that when you were working out your differences with your co-founder Alexis you had therapy together. How did that work?
It didn’t really. You know, Alexis and I have had a complex relationship. We’ve had our ups and downs. We managed to patch things together for maybe a year or so there. We have different priorities. I can’t speak for his.
So what are yours?
My priority is that I love Reddit. I want to live up to its mission. I want to let Reddit live up to its potential – it’s what I’ve dedicated my career to.
How often do people ask you whether they’re the asshole?
I’m trying to think whether anyone has asked me that. Nobody who knows me would appreciate my answer to that question. It’s probably not in my top subreddits. r/tools is one of my favorites, where people literally post pictures of screwdrivers and pliers.
As a journalist, I will get asked about once every six months by my editor, “OK, so how do we game Reddit?” Can you do me a favor and give me an answer.
Write good content. It’s funny you mentioned that because I often get questions about manipulation by nation-states and we see it from time to time. What we see every day are marketing teams, media groups and journalists messing with Reddit. That’s where the fight is every single day
…One of the reasons Reddit is naturally inoculated from that sort of manipulation is because the stuff that works best is the stuff that’s generally good. Now, every once in a while, somebody will get the rest of us because they get so many accounts. One of the first successful cheaters on Reddit worked at an ISP [internet service provider], so they had access to an unlimited number of IPs. This was like in 2005, so we weren’t as sophisticated yet, but by and large, “Hey, upvote my stuff” doesn’t work.
You’ve said in the past that Reddit’s gender split is somewhere close to 70/30 (male to female). Is that still true?
It’s almost always a true statement that the gender balance on Reddit is more balanced now than the last time I was asked that question. It’s hard to measure precisely, but there are companies that will do that and I think they’d say we’re like 60/40.
Why do you think more women are joining Reddit?
We don’t think about changing that balance, but it does change in response to the work we’ve done. My theory on Reddit is that we have as many users as the quality of our product will allow. So when we were in the early days, when Reddit looked like Craigslist, that was a product that I think appealed to a few million people: a very online person who will put up with bad UI [user interface]. Mostly dudes.
My belief is that Reddit should probably be majority women, if we nailed it on the UI. If you look at Reddit, and I know it’s a risky time to use gender stereotypes, but it’s about creating community and facilitating conversations and creating a sense of belonging. If we really nailed our mission, it should at least be balanced and probably biased towards women.
What was holding Reddit back originally?
When I left Reddit in 2009, we were six white guys about the same age from pretty much the same background. And so, among other things, I think we lacked intuition about safety, and what experiences people are having online. That led Reddit inadvertently into that era of 2010 to 2015 when safety got away from us. Part of that is a result of the team just didn’t see it coming and they didn’t feel it when it came, which ultimately led to me coming back to the company.
Reddit has been around for such a long time now. So much of the internet has changed since you started it, but you’re still here. That must be validating.
For a while, I had this insecurity of, “What are we doing wrong? Maybe people don’t want the product that we’re building, or maybe there are only a small number of people who like the product.” That was technically true.
I had this thought that, “Don’t people know what Facebook is doing to them? Maybe they just don’t care about privacy. Maybe they don’t care about authenticity. Maybe they like how everybody’s kind of phoney and grandstanding.” But then all the scandals came out over the last five years and we did feel vindicated that our commitment to privacy and authenticity was valued. So there was a feeling of vindication for a while. We’ve been doing our own thing for so long – our goal is to make our product good enough that it reveals the values part of our work more immediately.
This conversation was edited for brevity and clarity.
Condé Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications, is Reddit’s majority shareholder, but Advance has no influence over the editorial decisions made by GQ.
This story originally ran on British GQ with the title “Why Reddit CEO Steve Huffman is finally going public – and thinks TikTok should be banned”