Alexis Ohanian says he’s a ‘techno optimist,’ despite social media’s impact on society

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Does Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian have regrets over his creation? The entrepreneur and founder of venture fund Seven Seven Six, speaking at an event at the University of Virginia, espoused a fairly negative view of the current social media landscape and the creator economy — an environment where he says, everyone has “been so trained and conditioned now to just get the likes and retweets, get the upvotes…I wish I could be more optimistic about it, but we’re seeing it play out before our eyes.” Still, he ultimately described himself as a “techno-optimist” — an apparent nod to a16z General Partner Marc Andreessen’s recent diatribe where he claimed technology could solve all our problems.

“Guilty as charged,” Ohanian said, during his interview with Kara Swisher. “I do think that pendulum will swing back. I think even swifter than we realize.” The war in the Middle East may even be the tipping point, he theorized, as it’s now “abundantly clear” that we need something better to figure out the world than the platforms we have today.

The founder, as you may recall, notably resigned from Reddit’s board in 2020 over differences of opinion on moderation and wanting to crack down on communities about violence and hate. It was a moment where he seemed to be reckoning with what his platform had wrought. At the time, he asked for his board seat to be replaced by a Black board member. The company agreed, appointing its first Black board member with Y Combinator partner Michael Seibel.

Reddit also later banned several toxic communities, including r/donaldtrup following violence at the U.S. Capitol, and Ohanian says that the site has “gotten demonstrably better,” since, as well as better as a business.

But as for social media as a whole, of which Reddit would presumably play a part, Ohanian said it brings out the “worst parts of our nature in many ways.” What’s more, he expressed worries about the desire for people to be first and win on whatever leaderboard a platform features, which then leads to a situation where misinformation is able to spread.

“Now, there’s so much pressure to be first, and UGC — user-generated content — will always win. It won’t always be right, though. But it becomes the epicenter of where the conversation is. And then I’ll think what percentage of our population really wants to earnestly take the breath and say, let me stop doomscrolling, and let me just wait until people can do the work, synthesize it and then help me react?” he continued.

“We are also so plugged into all these storylines, whether it’s from traditional media, whether it’s from user-generated — someone on their phone, you know, posting to a Telegram group. We are overwhelmed and overloaded, and it’s unfortunately appealing to the worst parts of a lot of our instincts,” Ohanian added.

In part, some of the issues around how social media platforms developed had to do with how the companies were originally developed. Ohanian, for example, shared that Reddit grew out of his running of a forum site in college, when he believed that online community felt as real as offline. He said he never conceived of the influence the site would one day hold — when Reddit became a multibillion-dollar business with hundreds of millions of users. That thought would have been “ludicrous,” he said. And he certainly never could have imagined his startup could have become so successful that it could affect elections and democracies.

“To… think Oh my god, I’m gonna be so successful, it could have a tremendous impact on democracy would take a level of delusion that even I, as a first-time CEO, just couldn’t have,” he noted. “Was that a blind spot? Absolutely,” he admitted.

Ohanian identified that another part of the problem is that there are more people online today than early tech founders may have imagined. Though he’s glad that access to the technology has broadened, that has come with many complications.

“I don’t like the idea that the internet I’m so nostalgic for was actually an ivory tower,” he said, but on the flip side, he said, we’re all exposed to more people, in real-time, than we could have ever fathomed. And that can put people at odds with one another and with everyone’s different versions of the truth — even if their truth is believing in something as far-fetched as the earth being flat, he said, pointing to one example that has a following on Reddit.

Meanwhile, asking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit to be in charge of verifying truth and accuracy is a difficult task, he said. Ohanian also called out TikTok as “an arm for the Chinese government” that’s really good at “feeding us what we want, when we want it” — in other words, not always a fountain of truth, either.

If anything, Ohanian credits Twitter (now called X) with coming up with the best system for moderation so far.

“Community Notes, I personally think is a good — it’s the best measure I’ve seen yet. And frankly, I wish we had thought of it first,” he said.

Still, he called out the notion that a platform, like X, can be a town square.

“The public square [analogy]…falls flat. Because if that then implies that it’s a public square, which means like, what? a town or a city? If you’re the person in charge of it, you’re the mayor. But there’s no democratic election,” Ohanian pointed out. “You’re a CEO. So then you’re like the king? If you want to lean into the town square thing, fine. Just own it and say, yeah, it’s a town square and I am the infinite dictator, tyrant of it.”

Despite the problems with social media and the urgency, in terms of its impact on society, Ohanian believes there’s still some hope. He noted, for example, that the founders his fund 776 invests in are much smarter and more aware of the issues than he ever was at their age. Perhaps the next platforms will still be addictive, but in a way that doesn’t “further disrupt democracy,” he mused.

He also believes that after everything on social media becomes so perfectly curated for us, our brains will start to crave things that are not. “I think we’ll see a rebirth of live gatherings and in-person experiences…the bright side of this is that I hope it then gets us back in touch with our humanity, and the things that no amount of AI can replace.”

“I want to be an optimist about it,” Ohanian added. “And I think there’s still a path forward but we’re fighting against very, very strong human things. And if we can solve it, it will do so much good. It really, really will because we will find out we have more in common than not,” he said.


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