«You are not in control. And that’s a positive thing»

The general manager of Reddit, one of the world’s biggest websites, has his roots in Basel. A conversation about the power of the masses, Switzerland and how the surveillance state can be averted.

«All of the good ideas, the innovation, the improvement grew out of chaos, out of the community.» – Erik Martin, Reddit (Bild: Nils Fisch)

The general manager of Reddit, one of the world’s biggest websites, has his roots in Basel. A conversation about the power of the masses, Switzerland and how the surveillance state can be averted.

» Zur deutschen Version des Gesprächs

Nobody takes notice of the bearded man in grey pants and a grey shirt, as he walks past commuters in Basel’s train station. Erik Martin is visiting his second home, what he does roughly once a year, to visit his grandmother and other relatives. Few people here know Reddit, a website that attracts 70 million users every month, let alone its 35-year-old general manager who has just arrived from New York.

Reddit is a network of topical forums, called subreddits, all created by users and usually open to anyone to post or comment on anything. Subreddits can have millions of users or just a few dozen. Some are for sharing news or discussing politics, others are all about funny pictures or creepy videos. There are subreddits for people who like the same sports team, who have the same hobby or live in the same city. In some subreddits, people ask for advice on difficult decisions, in others, people help each other learn instruments (this visualisation of subreddits gives a good impression of how diverse Reddit is). No matter how different they are, one mechanism is the same for all: Those contributions that get the most votes, rise to the top of their subreddit or even to the front page of Reddit.

We sit down with Erik for coffee, outside café «Zum Kuss», on this surprisingly warm November morning.

You used to work as a documentary filmmaker. How would you approach a documentary about Reddit in the year 2013?

I think I would start with individual stories, mostly local ones. Reddit is so vast and so big, that it’s hard to capture the big picture. It’s more instructive to show a person who just moved to Toronto or Tucson and who is trying to find people who already live there, who love chess or are into rock climbing. There’s always a subreddit for that.

Reddit has more than 100’000 active subreddits. Do you still see the big picture?

I have a pretty good idea. But Reddit can be so many different things to different people. My best friend growing up is a new dad, so he reads subreddits about fatherhood. And he brews beer and reads the subreddit for homebrewing – that’s it. It really depends, most people go to many different sections.

To most outsiders, Reddit is the site where Barack Obama let himself be interviewed by the crowd and of course the site that organised a manhunt for the Boston bombers. What did they correct about Reddit?

They got correct that the site has a big impact and can reach a lot of people. And can – sometimes – drive whole news-conversations.

What did they get wrong about Reddit?

Even the Obama-AMA was maybe only five percent of the traffic we had that day. So even the most popular thing we ever had is a very small thing compared to the activity we have on the site. We have 20 million votes per day, a million comments per day. Our top 200 subreddits only account for half of the whole traffic. So, most of the traffic is in the long tail.

How do you manage a site in a crisis like Boston?

Our responsibility is to give the people tools to manage it effectively. Boston is a an example where we failed at that. We have a strict rule that there must be no personal information on the site. In 99.5 percent of the cases that’s fine. Actually, when Boston happened, the moderators removed the information about the wrong shooter. They removed it after an hour. Most of the times that’s sufficient, this time it wasn’t good enough, because it had so much attention. We have a responsibility for the whole community and ecosystem, but not for every fact on the site being right or wrong. We give people the tools to create the community that they want.

Is Reddit simply too big to be controlled?

It’s like a wild garden. You can plant some things, you can try to encourage or discourage certain things, but ultimately you are not in control of what is actually happening of what is actually happening. And that’s a positive thing.

It doesn’t scare you?

It scares me a lot. Especially because opinions shift so fast. But all of the good ideas, the innovation, the improvement grew out of chaos, out of the community. It’s our job to find it and add fertilizer to this or that.

No second thoughts after the Boston experience?

It made us realise and appreciate the impact our site can have and made us more sensitive to what can happen. It made us aware of how fragile stories are, how fragile people’s worlds and lives are. But we’re still an open site. You can’t be an open and unfiltered site for some things and not be an open and unfiltered site for some other things.

How is Reddit different from other sites where people share content?

You could have someone sign up today and submit a story in a tiny subreddit and it can be the most popular thing on the site later that day. That’s unique. Take as an example the shooting in Aurora, at the movie theater. It was late at night, there were no news corporations already covering it. So this young guy posted a story and the tiny Aurora subreddit, where he collected all the information about the shooting that he could find. It became the most viewed story that day. That can happen on Reddit – and its more likely to happen here than on any other site.

Reddit users love animated gifs. So it’s only fitting to have one from the interview.

As the general manager, do you sometimes lose yourself on your site?

All the time! I have a meeting with someone, someone sends me a link to something interesting, and I try to look it up…two hours go by and then I ask myself, what the fuck was I looking for?

At least you can claim it’s part of your job to lose yourself on Reddit.

Yeah! (laughs)

What’s your job as general manager really about?

I’m responsible for the community-team, we are three including me. I handle marketing, PR, handle most of the press stuff, any sort of issue that comes up, legal stuff, business stuff. And revenue-stuff, advertising. I manage the sales team as well. Reddit has only 35 employees. We’re juggling a lot of hats.

Two years ago, you said «none of my real friends care much about reddit». What does that say about you or about Reddit?

It changed! More of my friends are using it now.

Why?

I don’t know. I like to think that there are now subreddits on literally everything. We had a lot of subreddits two years ago, but they weren’t all that vibrant. Even my fiancée is on Reddit now. She is a florist and spends a lot of time on a subreddit where people help each other identify plants from photographs.

Has Reddit become more accessible and more understandable for non-geeky people?

I think so, yes. I’m not sure if I could explain Twitter to someone who is not using it. It’s the same thing with Reddit. As more people experience it, it becomes more accessible. You can speak with more people and they know what you’re saying.

Why does it looks so old-fashioned?

Screenshot of Reddit's front page

We never cared much about the way it looked. But also, the rich-text-format just works. We’re not the only ones: Look at Craigslist, Wikipedia, maybe Twitter, maybe Google. Some of them are better designed, but all of them have that kind of heavy text rich format.

How will Reddit develop in the next few years?

It will certainly be more international.

Are you actively working on that?

Actively in our way. We try to encourage and support what’s already happening organically. There are communities in every part of the world, we just try to make them more visible. So if you’re visiting Reddit from Stockholm, you might see an ad for the Stockholm subreddit. Things like that. And there will be more interaction across international boundaries. I also think you’re going to see more apps and sites that utilize the curation-power of Reddit.

Like what?

There’s already reddit.tv, which allows you to watch videos posted on Reddit. Or radd.it for music. You’re listening to music that is curated by Reddit users. For that, you don’t have to know Reddit.

Buzzfeed is a kind of gateway-drug for Reddit.

Same with Buzzfeed, who often turn Reddit threads into image-heavy articles.

Yeah, maybe that’s the way a lot of people experience Reddit.

Isn’t it frustrating to see others cash in on content being created by the Reddit community?

I look at it like a sports-highlight-show. They show you the dunks from the game and the goals. But if you actually want to watch the game, if you’re a real fan, if you want to be there when it’s happening, when the outcome is still undetermined, then you go to Reddit. Buzzfeed is a kind of gateway-drug. If they can introduce new audiences, that’s great.

Do you remember where you first learned about the NSA revelations?

We had sort of known for a while that there was stuff going on. There had always been suspicions. But only when Edward Snowden gave that first interview, it became a big deal.

It’s still not that big a topic in the general public, is it?

I think it’s a huge story. Maybe I’m in a bubble because I’m in the tech world, but if you speak to people on both ends of the political spectrum, it’s still a big deal.

In Europe and especially in Switzerland, there doesn’t seem to be enough concern.

Oh, just wait until it comes out that they’re spying on some Swiss leader. It wasn’t that big in Germany until «Der Spiegel» reported that they spied on Merkel.

Is Reddit a target?

Not really. Most of the stuff on Reddit is public anyway.

Except for the users’ real names. Most people use one or several pseudonyms when posting to Reddit.

Having the ability to be pseudo-anonymous or anonymous is really important. It’s something we’ve always felt strongly about. The younger generation is more inclined to speak about very private things online. But people are also realising that having all that tied to your real identity is not necessarily a good thing. A lot of people don’t feel comfortable talking about politics online. You can’t talk about health issues on Facebook, you can’t talk about sexuality. Are you going to post on Facebook that you’re thinking about switching companies and are looking for career advice? You can’t do that.

On Reddit, you can.

Especially for the younger generation, we see a lot of communities where they ask questions about sexuality, religion, health, all kinds of things that are important and fortunately, we’re able to provide a space to connect with people who have experienced similar things. The willingness and openness to talk openly about difficult as well as mundane everyday things is an amazingly powerful thing. It’s important to have spaces to talk about sensitive issues without the fear of it being tied back to their real identity.

…until the NSA does.

We don’t collect email adresses, so it’s not easy to connect users and what they’ve published to actual persons. I think we’re not that big of a target, just because there’s not that much stuff that we have.

The surveillance system seems unbeatable. What can we do?

Everyone needs to take more control of their data, people need to use more encryption tools, people need to be more aware of what companies are doing. If you don’t like what Facebook or Reddit or whoever is doing, you need to vote with your time and attention and your account.

But does it make sense to switch from one company to another? If Google can’t protect its users from the NSA, who can?

Well, at least it seems like Google was acting very quickly when it came out that the NSA intercepted their traffic. They have now encrypted everything and had some choice words when they announced that. I’m sure you will see Google and others develop applications and tools that will help close some of the gaps. But yes, it makes you realise how dependent we are on Google and Facebook and all the other big companies. People should look for other options as well.

Most options to be more secure are just too complicated for most people.

That is tough. The tools are still difficult. Even I have trouble using some of the more sophisticated tools. All the smart programmers need to create tools that are easier to use and I think we will see that happen. Duckduckgo is an example. It’s a search engine that doesn’t track its users and its usage skyrocketed after the revelations. There’s enough demand and market incentive for those tools to be created.

People no longer trust what we say – and I don’t blame them.

What can be done on a political level?

Even if the system seems unbeatable, there is something happening. In the US, the Amash Bill came really close to passing, which surprised a lot of people.

What was the bill about?

It would have changed the rules for how data can be collected. It would have enforced the same procedures that there are for, say, if somebody wants to search my house. Currently, it’s a lot easier to search someone’s digital house, so to speak. The fact that the bill almost passed – and that it had support from both sides of the political spectrum – shows to me that there is the opportunity for political reform.

What is Reddit’s position?

As a company, our position is that it’s really bad for business. What the NSA has done undermines the whole economic engine that is the open internet. It undermines the ability of almost any internet company to have trust with its users, especially US-companies. People no longer trust what we say – even though we try to be as transparent as possible – and I don’t blame them. That’s how it harms us as a company. As individuals, we have opinions on it being bad for democracy, personal liberties and all that.

But do you communicate this as Reddit as well?

Yes, absolutely. We’re early signers of the «Stop Watching Us» coalition, that put together various rallys and issued various campaigns, and we’re very supportive of the «Restore the Fourth» movement. We ran a lot of free ads for them. Again, we don’t have a lawyer on staff, much less a lobbyist in Washington DC or Bruxelles. There are people out there that are much better at organising and know the details with regard to legislation and policy – we let them do and try to support them the best that we can.

Switzerland a place that’s part of me but that I don’t know as well as I want to.

Reddit is quite similar to Switzerland’s political system, anyone gets to vote on anything. Would you wish for the American system to be more like that?

A more direct democracy? Yes. Our system of representative democracy is pretty amazing, but it’s an artifact of a different time. I don’t know exactly what a more modern system is supposed to look like, but we need to find a way to take advantage of some of the amazing tools that we have.

In Switzerland, we’re also seeing the downsides of that system, with very populistic outcomes like the ban on Minarets.

I definitely think there are some scary parts to direct democracy or increased participation in general. But I think the positives outweigh the negatives and in general, most people are good. You have to design systems that limit the amount of damage and trouble that any one group can create. In general, the more people are engaged civically the better.

How does a Swiss guy become the general manager of one of the biggest sites in the internet?

My father, who is from Basel, went to the US for studying and fell in love with an American women and stayed. He’s an engineer, so I grew up with this mad scientist equipment in my backyard and I thought it was normal to wake up and find six people in your livingroom working on some stuff. So the entrepreneurial part of my job, I definitely got that from my dad.

Did it have an influence on you that you had an American side and a European side?

Well, not that I felt I was different from everybody else I was growing up with, but having a slightly different perspective was helpful.

What is Switzerland to you?

Primarily, it’s where I have familiy; aunts, uncles, cousins, my grandma. (pauses to think) It’s a place that’s part of me but that I don’t know as well as I want to. I definitely came to appreciate the dry sense of Swiss humour.

Are you following developments in Switzerland more closely than other countries?

Absolutely. I follow FCB, I follow Stan and Roger, I pay attention to news, I got to meet the Swiss ambassador in New York. I try to come here roughly once a year. Next time will be for Fasnacht, haven’t been there since I was a kid.

Do you often speak about Switzerland when people in the US realise that you’re Swiss?

I talk about Basel a lot. It’s what I know best. I haven’t spent that much time in Zurich or Geneva, but to me those feel like you could be anywhere in Europe.

And Basel is Switzerland to you?

Yes. The medieval streets, swimming in the Rhine, all those things that feel unique for Switzerland.

A lot of the key people of big web companies have become well-known personalities. Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, Arianna Huffington, just to name a few. You’re not really in that club. Why is that?

We’ve never wanted Reddit to be about us. We’re definitely not hiding from the public, but we haven’t made the site about us like others have. It’s almost like: The better we do our jobs, the more we disappear behind the curtain.

And that’s okay for you?

That’s ideal for us.

Erik Martin
He might be no Zuckerberg and no Huffington, but behind the scenes Erik Martin is an important figure of the internet ecosystem. In 2012, he made it onto TIME’s list of «The World’s 100 Most Influential People», where Reddit users voted him up to second place. In the past, the 35-year-old dual citizen (US,Swiss), has worked as a documentary filmer, ad seller and actor. 2008, he joined Reddit as a community manager. In April 2011, he became its general manager. Reddit, founded 2005, was bought by media enterprise Conde Nast the year after. In 2012, it was spun off and now acts as an independent site again.

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