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!)

We’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.