There are few people in the world with the ability to give a presentation covering topics ranging from a humpback whale in the South Pacific Ocean named Mr. Splashy Pants to congressional hearings on Internet piracy, but Alexis Ohanian is one of them. Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit and noted Internet activist, visited the Heights Tuesday night for a presentation sponsored by UGBC and Boston College Venture Competition (BCVC).
After a brief introduction by Brandon Marianacci, UGBC director of University speakers and A&S ’13, Ohanian began his presentation, titled “Don’t Get SOPA’d.”
Ohanian, 28, founded the popular Internet website Reddit with his friend Steve Huffman in 2005 upon graduation from the University of Virginia. Since then, he has focused on developing other Internet startups, like Breadpig and Hipmunk. He began his presentation with encouraging words about the tech sector, despite high unemployment nationwide.
“Startups are all that I know,” Ohanian said. “And even with the economy in a bad state, the tech sector can’t hire enough tech people.”
Specifically focusing on the demand for programmers, Ohanian emphasized the importance for young entrepreneurs to develop marketable, useful skills. Referencing widely popular startups like Facebook and more current developments like Instagram, Ohanian pointed out that many extremely successful entrepreneurs did not have a large amount of technical training.
“There’s a long list of people who have created really valuable things without a background in programming, without spending 15 or 20 years in it, and they’re largely self-taught,” Ohanian said.
Moving from his introduction about the tech sector and the power of small startups, Ohanian began speaking about his love for the Internet.
“The Internet is the most efficient market of supply and demand the world has ever seen,” Ohanian said. “On the Internet, all links are created equal. Everyone has an equal chance. Online, I can truly believe in the American dream.”
His love for the Internet was summarized in the story of Mr. Splashy Pants, a whale named by dedicated Redditors after Greenpeace allowed the name to be selected by an online poll. Ohanian pointed out that although Greenpeace initially resisted the name, they decided “to stop taking themselves so seriously” and realize “the true power of the Internet.”
Ohanian spoke about the founding of Reddit, and its development into a massively popular website with over 2.5 billion page views and 35 million unique visitors per month, despite a $500 advertising budget over 6 years. He then jokingly apologized to the many Redditors present for the distracting nature of his creation. “You must all have terrible GPAs,” Ohanian said. “I’m sorry for all the wasted tuition money, Mom and Dad.”
Yet, the bulk of Ohanian’s presentation concerned the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its close counterpart, PIPA. Though Ohanian called the goal of the legislation (to stop online piracy) “well intended,” he described the language used as “clumsy” and pointed out the extreme danger both bills posed to Internet startups like his own websites.
“Legislation like this threatens every social media site that has made the last seven years possible,” Ohanian said. “If this existed, we never would have been able to create Reddit, and we decided that we had to do something to stop it.”
Ohanian said the bill was the result of massive lobbying by the entertainment industry, hoping to protect their copyright interests on films, music, and books, among other forms of media. Compared to the lobbying budgets of the technology sector, the entertainment spending looks even more vast. The more popular Internet media becomes, the more entertainment companies lose profits. Ohanian gave the example of Louis C.K. and Aziz Ansari, two comedians who released specials on the Internet for $5 with the full knowledge that their product could be easily pirated. “[The artists] now have an opportunity to circumvent massive entertainment companies and connect directly with the people who actually love their creative work-the fans,” Ohanian said.
Ohanian said the introduction of SOPA wasn’t all bad, however, “This legislation brought us to a very important and I think watershed moment in the short history of the world wide web,” Ohanian said. “All of the sudden, a bunch of geeks built websites to fight this thing together.”
In response, Reddit blacked out its pages on Jan. 18 in protest of the legislation, and Wikipedia did the same a few weeks later. “When Wikipedia went down, everyone said ‘Holy sh-,’ something’s going on here,” Ohanian said.
Reflecting again on the power of the Internet, Ohanian found comfort in the fact that a group of people so diverse and so far apart could at the same time be so connected in a cause.
The presentation came full circle as Ohanian returned again to the power of Internet startups. Giving advice for the young entrepreneurs in attendance, Ohanian stressed one concept: giving a damn. “Everything comes down to giving a damn,” he said. “You can really build something that people love. This new economy that’s being created is one that is awe-inspiring. Do it all like you give a damn.”