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5 things learned from Reddit CEO Yishan Wong’s AMA

Will Reddit become the hub of online discussion? Yes, if Reddit’s new CEO has his way.


Kevin Morris

Internet Culture

Reddit’s new CEO, Yishan Wong, held his first version of a fireside chat on Friday. And from his AMA (“ask me anything”), it’s pretty clear that Wong, who was formerly director of engineering at Facebook, is pretty damn good at chatting. He’s smart, honest, and funnyall useful skills, because, as we learned on Friday, he envisions Reddit becoming the platform for discussion online.

Reddit’s never had a CEO, and Wong’s AMA provided a rare chance to glance into the mind of the man in Reddit’s driver’s seat. Here are five of the most important things we learned from Wong’s AMA.

1) Reddit is a city-state. Reddit is a city-state. Reddit is a city-state.

Wong only mentioned this idea about 300 times, but in case you missed, Wong’s guiding metaphor as CEO is this: Reddit is a city-state.

The accuracy of that idea has since attracted some serious criticism, and some have argued using a metaphor to begin with is inherently distracting: Reddit is Reddit, they say, and it’s more useful to base governing decisions on the site’s organizational reality than the imagined workings of a city-state (I agree).

But in a few weeks everyone will forget about all these metaphors, anyway.

So what’s most important is how Wong interprets his idea. And for him, it’s a reason to use a hands-off approach to governing.

“Notably, the city-as-legal-entity does not own the people and communities. It may exercise jurisdictional power for purposes of maintaining civil order (e.g. police, fire, anti-spam), and there is a concept of eminent domain, but morally speaking the city exists to facilitate and steward the messy human goals of the people who live there. This is how I’ve come to think of reddit.”

2) Wong understands the default subreddit system is flawed.

Reddit’s defaults are the 20 or so subreddits you subscribe to automatically when you sign up for an account.

The site’s staff have always envisioned Reddit as a free-market of communities, so that if place is poorly managed you can easily jump to another. But the defaults have a massive advantage, because they automatically absorb every new subscriber. Combine that with the fact that subreddit discovery is clunky, ugly, and, well, a pain in the ass, and you create a group of subreddits that are essentially unchallengeable monoliths.

That’s not a good thing. Reddit is hardly the democracy many redditors believe it to be. The site’s volunteer moderators control the kill-switch on all content in the subreddits they control. And since a small group of moderators controls most of the site’s defaults, that creates a quite unfair concentration of power. Most of those moderators do a great job, but that’s no excuse for the site to maintain a bad system that’s so easy to abuse.

Here’s what Wong had to say:

“The way I’d like to solve it is to structure reddit so that the migration/switching from one subreddit to another (progressivism) is something that can be accomplished without an impossibly daunting energy barrier, while at the same time allow enough conservatism so that if most users of a subreddit like the way it is, it is likely to remain as it is.

“That is, we do not want a tiny minority of users to be able to upend a popular subreddit, but we want to allow a certain critical mass to be able to.”

3) Wong wants redditors to be Reddit’s main source of revenue, not advertisers.

One reason why Reddit has such a good relationship with its users is that it doesn’t sell out their personal information to advertisers, nor does it litter its front page with obnoxious display ads. That’s great for the customers, but not so good for the company’s bottom line. How will Wong bring in more revenue? Get redditors themselves to fork over more cash.

“This might seem awful, like ‘oh no, he’s going to charge us for reddit services!’ but what it really means is that I want to try and make sure reddit is doing things for you that you value so much that you want to pay money for them. …

“While I’m not philosophically opposed to ads, and in fact I’m happy with people advertising on reddit, I feel that if our main source of revenue is advertisers, it means that we are mostly serving advertisers. If our main source of revenue is users, it means that we are mostly serving users.”

4) Wong voluntarily reduced his salary.

When a redditor asked him how much money he makes every year, Wong revealed that a hefty CEO salary is definitely not what convinced him to take the job:

“Not more than the highest-paid developer at reddit, and not more than I made at my last job as a director of engineering. I was originally offered more, but I reduced my salary voluntarily.

“There was a study done awhile ago about startups … where they looked at a lot of variables surrounding startups to try and find out what predicted success. They found that only one variable predicted startup success, which was how much the CEO was paid – the lower the CEO’s salary, the more likely the startup was to succeed.”

5) Wong wants Reddit to become the platform for discussion online.

Facebook is the place online to keep in touch with your friends. Twitter is the place to plug in to news in real time. Will Reddit become the place to discuss that newsand everything else? This idea was buried deep in the AMA, but it may be the most important statement Wong made all day.

“I hope to see a day in the future where whenever someone says, ‘I would like to have a discussion about X’ and whether X is serious or frivolous, the obvious answer to that question is ‘reddit would be the best place to have that discussion.’”

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