Reddit Hits the Road

Taking its open-Internet battle into the real world, the social news site campaigns cross-country

Launched in 2005, the social news site Reddit has become one of the most peculiar, powerful, and even controversial destinations on the Web. With 42 million unique visitors a month and some 10,000 communities, the site has worked its way into Web culture—even attracting President Obama, who submitted to reader questions in an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) session in August. Recently, too, the site has come under heavy scrutiny for its darker side, which includes smaller communities ordered around offensive and sometimes sexually depraved subjects. For its next phase, Reddit and co-founder Alexis Ohanian are looking to the high road, turning to activism and the fight to preserve an open Internet in the real world. Last week, Adweek tagged along as Reddit set out on its Internet 2012 bus tour. Here’s what we saw.

Denver to Boulder
Thursday, Oct. 4 (30 miles)

Reddit’s Internet 2012 bus doesn’t have an Internet connection. In planning a cross-country trip, Reddit has forgotten to bring a mobile hot spot. The irony isn’t lost on Alexis Ohanian, the site’s co-founder and figurehead, who graciously offers up his personal WiFi to fellow riders. (His network: Americans for Internet Freedom. The password: reddit4life!)

Reddit gm Erik Martin (l.) and co-founder Alexis Ohanian, DenverWe’re about 15 minutes into the trip, heading north from Denver to Boulder, and it’s quiet. The assembled don’t yet know each other yet, and it’s a ragtag group to say the least.

“Dude,” says YouTube comedian and videographer Mike Falzone, smiling from ear to ear. “The Internet bus has no Internet.” From the front of the bus, a voice yells out, “Somebody needs to tweet that.” (Some of us will.) Everyone laughs but only halfheartedly. It feels like the first day of school, and nobody knows exactly what they’ve gotten into.

The WiFi oversight is the kind of the hiccup that comes from operating like a startup, where optimism is boundless, no idea goes unexplored and mistakes are not only routine but celebrated.

The awkwardness among this traveling band of 13 Internet evangelists, startup gurus and journalists fades quickly, descending into the “bro culture” that also pervades the startup world. Soon, at the request of several passengers, Ohanian dials up former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, which recently went viral. Much like the Internet and Reddit, the Internet 2012 bus is not often family-friendly.

Watching a celebrity sex tape with the cofounder of one of hottest websites is surreal, but it sets the tone perfectly. For the trip, Reddit has rented Sen. John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” from the Republican’s ill-fated 2008 presidential run. This is a strange journey for Ohanian and his top-50 site, which attracts a staggering 3.4 billion pageviews per month. Now the culture hub is heading into the heartland via a haphazard, 2,000-mile crawl from Denver to Danville, Ky. The mission: extolling the virtues of a free and open Internet.

For 29-year-old Ohanian, who became a very wealthy man after selling Reddit to Condé Nast, the mock political bus tour further cements his status as the “Mayor of the Internet.” He earned the title in January for his very public fight to block the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), legislation that would have granted broad authority to large content purveyors including record labels and movie studios to censor anything flagged as a violation of copyright. Ohanian went on TV, addressed thousands at a tech rally in New York and helped lead the charge to black out the Web for 24 hours in protest of the bill, which activists argued would undermine the free exchange of information. Ohanian, Reddit and the Internet won when the bill was defeated in January, but Ohanian believes the fight has only just begun. “We won’t see anything as flagrant as SOPA [or its counterpart, PIPA] come around again,” he says. “Next time, it’ll be death by 1,000 cuts rather than one big atomic bomb of legislation.” (Congress, for example, has hinted at slipping copyright protections into a child pornography bill, making it harder for activists to object.)

Ohanian’s answer: bringing the fight to the people—and bringing along a 50-pound scroll of the Declaration of Internet Freedom. Thus, the birth of the Internet 2012 bus tour.

During a sold-out panel at a small utilities startup called Simple Energy, Ohanian breaks from his stump speech lauding the open and collaborative nature of the Web and technology. “Software allows you to stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before you,” he tells the crowd. “It’s so unbelievably inspiring when you realize, holy shit, I can build that.” He suggests an official day for petitioning Congress, dubbed “Geek Day.”

The idea draws laughs and interest from the assembled, who are behaving more like frustrated participants in a political town hall meeting than a conglomeration of Internet entrepreneurs. For this crowd, awash in Patagonia and REI gear, the mood isn’t as lighthearted as most startup gatherings. They are rightly worried that Internet censorship will kill their livelihoods. “Politicians should be here. The president should be here,” cries a woman in the back of the room filled with employees from local companies, including the business development firm Galvanize and robotics gaming company Orbotix. “We’re the ones creating jobs,” she says, as heads begin to bob in agreement. In entrepreneurial circles, such frustration is common but rarely heard as in this echo of the impassioned SOPA protests on Jan. 18.

Pictured (from top): Reddit gm Erik Martin (l.) and co-founder Alexis Ohanian, Denver |
(From left) Alex Angel, Reddit community manager; T.C. Sottek, The Verge; Charlie Warzel, Adweek; Mike Falzone, Waywire; Martin | Pulling into Boulder, Colo. | Matthew Capron (l.), support engineer, and Eric Schweikardt, design director, Modular Robotics, Boulder. | 
"Startups + Politics" panel, Boulder | Signing the Declaration of Internet Freedom


Boulder to Lincoln
Friday, Oct. 5 (489 miles)

Heading east on an eight-hour haul to Lincoln, Neb., rain steadily pelts the bus as we pass an endless swath of drab yellow farmland. The 5:30 a.m. call time has left the crew weary as they try to steal some shut-eye in the plush leather bus chairs any way they can. To the left and right, competing journalists stretch out on olive-colored, geometric-patterned couches. It’s silent except for the sound of fingers tapping out tweets.

After some emails, Ohanian passes out sitting up against the bus window while Reddit general manager and this trip’s surrogate den father, Erik Martin, decides to elevate spirits by playing a D-list horror flick over an elaborate system of TV monitors. The trip is hardly two days old, but it already feels like Day Five. So far, it is unclear what the narrative is. Ohanian and Martin are good guys, fun guys. They take their job as Internet advocates seriously, yet the trip so far feels more like an extended photo-op than a game-changing moment for Reddit.

At a desolate rest stop by a cornfield somewhere near the Colorado-Nebraska border, it is just past 9 a.m. Inside the convenience store/gift shop, Ohanian checks out postcards and packets of homemade beef jerky. When he gets back on the bus, he shares his excitement about receiving the full endorsement of the grizzled cashier. “It’s totally amazing that a guy with anti-Obama stickers who’s watching Fox News can see our bus and say, ‘Yeah, I support the open Internet,’” he says.

Three hours later, the scene plays out again at a truck stop in Elm Creek, Neb. “What happens if we don’t have this free-Internet platform?” a bespectacled older man in a black Navy Seals hat asks Ohanian, rhetorically. “There goes your freedom, that’s what,” responds Mike Leonard, a road-weary truck driver from Chicago who tells Ohanian he wishes he could join the crusade on wheels. Such support reveals the breadth of support for Internet freedom and Reddit’s real clout. At any given moment, 129,000 people are using the site. At this precise moment—around 11 a.m. on a Tuesday—Ohanian reports that 1.5 million people are logged in.


At about 3:30 p.m., the bus pulls into the University of Nebraska’s Lincoln campus where Ohanian and Martin will deliver their standard speech. “The spirit of entrepreneurship unique to this country is just one of the amazing results of our open Internet,” Ohanian tells the crowd, a youthful gathering of college students and roughly 100 programmers and engineers hanging on his every word. Outside, computer science student and Redditor Kevin North speaks earnestly about the talk, though his anti-SOPA fervor seems lacking. “I’m thinking about how I can use technology to maybe build a business of my own sometime soon, so it’s very important to me,” he says. It becomes apparent that the site’s famous co-founder—not Internet freedom—is the big draw. Sure, the students love their Internet, but it’s not clear how hard they’ll fight for it.

Pictured (from top): A truck stop in Nebraska | Ohanian with trucker Mike Leonard | The Reddit team talks to Hudl at a high school football game in Lincoln, Neb. | Ohanian chats with University of Nebraska students


Lincoln to Des Moines
Saturday, Oct. 6 (189 miles)

This is a bus whose passengers (all in their 20s and 30s) know how to have a good time. During last night’s revelry in Lincoln, Ohanian and his fellow riders indulged in beers, whiskey shots and turns on a mechanical bull in a cavernous country-western dance hall. Today, the beleaguered road trippers limp on board for the three-hour run to Des Moines.


Hungover and huddled over coffee, we notice the absence of a distinct presence. Ohanian has left the bus for the weekend to attend a wedding and a Washington Redskins game. As a consolation, we are headed to what we’re told is a major event. Working with Iowa financial startup Dwolla and sponsors including The Des Moines Register, the bus makes its way to the Iowa Internet Uncaucus. Dreaming big, event coordinators have shut down the two-lane Locust Street Bridge spanning the Des Moines River for a series of speeches on everything from voting reform to local farming.


The event fails to deliver the masses thanks to unseasonably cold temperatures (a crowd of just 60 or so turns out). But those present embody the passion that Reddit and the bus tour hope to harness. In her speech, Hannah Inman of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation demands stricter water-conservation standards. Afterward, lawyer Brett Trout teaches the basics of Net Neutrality.


The next speaker, pig farmer Carl Blake, offers a unique perspective. His clothes and manner scream country boy, but his tech savvy might help save his struggling business. Blake is a massive man with a personality to match. Wearing an old leather jacket on top of overalls and sporting shoulder-length hair tied up in a ponytail, he is the perfect poster boy for the tour, which aims to find unexpected champions of technology.

After a speech calling for better oversight of meat processing, Blake shares his struggles raising livestock. “We can’t go to investors anymore,” he says. By now, the sun has set and the wind howls, but Blake doesn’t seem bothered. “They want to own 90 percent of your company. Crowdfunding through things like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are the only things that are going to keep us alive in terms of the small farmer,” he goes on. “The only way we can survive is to get 1 million people to give us a dollar, not one guy to give us a million.” Blake’s story is a genuine one, and happens to dovetail with Ohanian’s mission to frame the SOPA fight as something larger than Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood.

Pictured (from top): In the driver's seat | Passing through downtown Des Moines | Hannah Inman of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation addresses the Internet Uncaucus, Des Moines |
Carl Blake, pig farmer, Des Moines


Des Moines to Iowa City
Sunday, Oct. 7 (114 miles)

Having lost its ironic novelty, the bus’ unreliable wireless signal draws considerable ire as the Iowa sky and miles of I-80 roll listlessly by. “Alexis’ wireless network sure doesn’t seem to support Internet freedom,” says one reporter. After four days in close quarters and a rolling dead zone, the vibe is now akin to summer camp. Playing the role of mischievous camper with great aplomb is Ben Huh, investor and CEO of Cheezburger, the network of wildly successful humor sites including I Can Has Cheezburger?

A pioneer of cat humor and staunch supporter of the open Web, Huh is a replacement of sorts for the absent Ohanian but insists he’s “just along for the ride.” A self-professed prankster and artful schmoozer, Huh can flip his roguish demeanor on and off like a switch. (Over dinner at a quiet Italian restaurant in Iowa City, Iowa, he decides the 13-person table should re-enact Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, then proceeds to put everyone in position to recreate the scene.) Yet hours earlier, he was professorial during an interview with the University of Iowa’s KRUI radio explaining how hard it is to keep the digital commons in the public domain. “It scares us, and we can’t do it alone on the coasts,” he said.

Huh gives the best explanation yet of the high stakes in the Internet freedom fight. “The innovation we’re going to see from here on out will be more collaborative than anything else,” he says, noting that everything from humorous content to advances in digital journalism tend to build off the work of others (think aggregation sites and memes).

Ohanian’s fears are concealed behind his affability, but Huh doesn’t sugarcoat his concerns. Though these guys are clearly passionate and proud of what they’ve done, it appears they may be more nervous about the future of the Internet than they let on.

Kansas City to St. Louis
Tuesday, Oct. 9 (248 miles)

After another series of almost indistinguishable panels, we leave Kansas City at dawn. At Parker Farms in Richmond, Mo., we meet up with Tom Parker, a quiet family farmer who uses the startup AgLocal to supply Kansas City households and restaurants with comestibles. With documentary crew in tow, Ohanian sidles up to Parker near a sheep’s pen and poses his favorite question: “What happens if we don’t screw up the Internet?”

“I am not a tech guy,” Parker stresses. “But the lion’s share—90 percent—of my customers come because they found us on the Internet, and I only pay 12 bucks a year for that site. Where else can you go and see a return like that?” Ohanian’s eyes light up. This is exactly what he’s been waiting for.

While intellectual property law may have little consequence for the farmer Toms of the world, bills like SOPA pose a serious threat to social communities and sites like Reddit and Huh’s Cheezburger network, which are built on letting anybody post anything.

Walking around the farm, Ohanian shares how such stories over the course of this trip have hit home. “This is a whoa moment,” he says. “It’s not just kids poking each other on Facebook. This is an apt way to show off how much the Internet is changing things.”

With the interview over, I turn off a recording app on my iPhone, and Ohanian offers a double take. “Wait, were you recording that?” he says with a laugh. “And I thought you and I were just having a deep conversation here.” Indeed, we were. 

Pictured (from top): Warzel holds court | Ben Huh, KRUI Radio, Iowa City, Iowa