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.

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

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