Steve Huffman was on his couch when Reddit mutinied. Huffman had co-founded the popular news-ranking site with Alexis Ohanian in 2005 and left in 2009 after selling it to Condé Nast. In the years since, he had watched from afar with a mix of pride, as the site grew into the 11th largest in the U.S.; remorse, for selling too early; and frustration, as Reddit failed to mature and was repeatedly wracked by disruptive forces. Reddit is, above all, a collection of nearly 10,000 bulletin boards called sub-Reddits, which range from the general, like Politics and Technology and Food, to the more particular, like one called Whalebait, where people post snapshots of everyone’s favorite cetacean. Users can vote posts up or down, and through crowd curation the most favored items ascend to Reddit’s front page. In this way, the site has become the web’s foremost meme engine, the place where things go viral, and with 200 million regular visitors, it is able to unblushingly call itself “the front page of the internet.”
But more than other user-generated sites, such as YouTube and Wikipedia, Reddit over the years has developed a culture that can at times be untamable. It is one that venerates anonymity and free speech and the idea that you can find your tribe, however small and marginalized, within the site, and it is reflected in the company’s power structure: The number of people the site employs is dwarfed by the horde of moderators who voluntarily tend to the individual sub-Reddits and make the whole thing run.
The Reddit mob has been responsible for charming acts of mass whimsy (there’s a sub-Reddit for Redditors to send pizzas to each other, unbidden) and semi-regular demonstrations of the uplifting powers of a beneficently mobilized crowd (more than 200,000 people took part in last year’s Secret Santa gift exchange). It has also accommodated some of the most odious content on the internet, including the sub-Reddits Jailbait, Pics of Dead Kids, Fat People Hate, Beating Women, Gas the Kikes, Trans Fags, and Watch Niggers Die — all of which Reddit eventually banned, but only after much fretting over whether doing so would compromise the site’s ethics and drive away its users.
Over the years, whenever crises around controversial sub-Reddits would make the news, Huffman mostly empathized with his successors at the company: Dealing with toxic content was a nettlesome issue, and he was glad he wasn’t the one who had to figure out how to do it. Plus he was busy with his new company, Hipmunk, an airfare-comparison site. But Huffman’s perspective shifted over the July 4 weekend, after he learned that a Reddit employee named Victoria Taylor had been fired.
Taylor had a critical role at the company: She ran the popular Ask Me Anything sub-Reddit, wherein a vacuum-cleaner salesman or, say, the president of the United States fields questions from Redditors. She was also seen by her moderator colleagues as one of the only people at headquarters who understood just how desperately moderators needed better tools to keep the site running smoothly in the face of increasingly provocative factions within the ever-larger community. Though it now appears Taylor was dismissed because she was resistant to innovations like adding videos to the AMAs (Taylor didn’t respond to interview requests), she was fired with no public explanation, and her sudden dismissal brought moderators’ simmering grievances to a boil. In an event that would come to be called AMAgeddon, a rolling blackout began, and by Friday night, moderators had shut off the lights in hundreds of the most popular sub-Reddits in protest. News spread to Huffman. “Seriously, like 50 people texted me and said you need to go back to Reddit,” he says. The next day, he was up in Sonoma for a friend’s 30th-birthday party, and “a lot of the conversation was, ‘What the hell is going on at Reddit right now?’ ”
Huffman had always thought he’d come back eventually. After then-CEO Yishan Wong left Reddit in late 2014, Ohanian had returned as executive chairman, and since then, he’d repeatedly asked his old friend to join him as CEO. Huffman had always declined, citing Hipmunk, but now he found himself scared for Reddit’s future. An insurrection was under way. “I felt like, This is getting out of control, I think it is reparable, but I need to do something now,” Huffman says. “That’s when I finally called and said, ‘Fine, I’ll do it.’ ” It was Sunday, and the first person he could reach by phone was board member Sam Altman.
Of course, Reddit already had a CEO at the time: Ellen Pao, who had stepped in as interim leader after Wong’s departure and who had previously worked at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins. While at Reddit, Pao was in the news for having filed a gender-discrimination suit against Kleiner; though the jury ruled against her, her suit had brought attention to the challenges women face in Silicon Valley, and Pao’s experience over the next few days would play out as a nightmare version of some of those same issues. There was a feeling within Reddit that she wasn’t of Reddit — that it wasn’t a site she would choose to spend a lot of time on if it weren’t her job and that she failed to grasp the importance of managing its relationship with moderators. She became an easy scapegoat for the predominantly young and male Redditors, who, very maturely, had taken to calling her Chairman Pao. A Change.org petition for her to resign quickly gained more than 200,000 signatures.
On Monday, July 6, Pao apologized for Reddit’s negligent handling of moderators, but by then Huffman was waiting in the wings. Altman announced her departure that Friday while simultaneously announcing Huffman’s return. The next week, Ohanian acknowledged that the decision to fire Taylor had been his, calling the company’s general insensitivity to moderators’ needs “a big screwup,” which he took “a ton of responsibility for.” In a good-bye post on Reddit, Pao wrote that she had “seen the good, the bad and the ugly” among Redditors and that “the ugly made me doubt humanity.”
The bile thrown at Pao unnerved everyone. “She did some things I don’t think were particularly good decisions,” Altman says, “but CEOs make bad decisions, and I don’t think the community would have treated her as it did if she were a man.” Wong took to Reddit to suggest a theory that Pao’s exit was the penultimate falling domino in a long con by Reddit’s founders, who had orchestrated a series of events with the ultimate goal of prying the site out of Condé Nast’s control.
If the story line was short on evidence and possibly paranoid, it nonetheless tracked Huffman’s psychic trajectory: The pure-hearted founder had come home to save his wayward corporate child. “It’s kind of an egotistical thought,” Huffman says, “but I felt like I’m literally the only person in the world who can fix this and I had a moral obligation to do so.”
As he says this, we are sitting in a conference room at Reddit’s San Francisco headquarters, late on a Wednesday afternoon. Huffman has been back for only a month and is wearing the non-messianic uniform of a geek plutocrat: jeans, T-shirt, V-neck sweater, box-fresh red-striped Adidas, Pebble watch.
In San Francisco, Huffman has a close group of friends, drawn mainly from Y Combinator circles and including founders of Scribd and Twitch, with whom he rides motorcycles, belongs to a book club, takes swing-dancing lessons, and travels. This summer, that meant flying to Spain for a Twitch co-founder’s bachelor party, where, according to another Twitch co-founder, Justin Kan, “he was dominating Ibiza’s dance floor. He knows how to move that body.” In August, Huffman attended his fourth Burning Man, staying in Kan’s camp Bao Chicka Wow Wow and helping to construct a gigantic iceberg-shaped art car called Titanic’s End. “Steve helped a lot with building it,” Kan says. “He’s pretty handy.”
Kan calls Huffman the most talented programmer he’s known as well as the Reddit community personified. “Steve is the Ur-Redditor, the alpha Redditor. He’s very socially liberal. He has a strong libertarian streak. And he’s a total troll on the internet. He’s the reason all of our friends have lock screens on our iPhones. Because if you left your iPhone out, he’d find your girlfriend or someone else important and figure out something to text them that would cause you a lot of grief. When I use Reddit, I see Steve in it.”
Huffman first met Ohanian at the University of Virginia, where they were freshman-year hallmates and bonded over games of Gran Turismo 2 on Huffman’s PlayStation. They lived together for the next four years, during which Huffman regularly pranked Ohanian. Once, he hacked Ohanian’s political website, eyeswide.org (Huffman: “It took itself way too seriously”), so that outgoing emails would appear to come from a prom-dress website. Shortly after graduating in 2005, they joined the first class of Y Combinator after brainstorming the idea for Reddit with the start-up incubator’s founder, Paul Graham. An executive there, charmed by their boyish enthusiasm, called them “the muffins.”
Reddit was an unexpected hit: Only 16 months after they founded it, Huffman and Ohanian sold the site to Condé Nast for a reported $20 million, though a friend of Huffman’s says it was closer to $13 million. “At the time, we felt, Oh, we’re in over our heads, the economy’s starting to tank, we’re a little dysfunctional internally, so let’s take the money while we can,” Huffman says. “We thought we were failing. Our traffic was doubling every couple months. We’re like, Oh, gosh, how long’s this going to last?”
Indefinitely, as it turned out. But even as Reddit continued its rapid expansion, Condé Nast, which had bought the site as part of an effort to grow its digital side, was retrenching in the face of the financial crisis. It never gave Reddit the resources it needed to keep pace with exploding traffic. Huffman and Ohanian stuck around for another three years before leaving. Huffman felt burned out, tired of waking up to 1,000 emails from angry Redditors in his in-box, tired of having just six employees, tired of having to constantly monitor the site even while on vacation, tired of internal dysfunction.
In recent years, Ohanian, who is six-five and can sell from the stage, has become the public face of Reddit, and Huffman’s contribution has been occluded, but it was Huffman who coded the site. “We used to joke about that,” Huffman says. “I built Reddit, and Alexis made Reddit cool.” Perhaps because of their friendship, they never precisely defined their roles. There was a long period when Ohanian was absent from the company so he could tend to his dying mother, and upon his return, Huffman was clearly the leader. “If you’d asked us who was in charge, and you had asked the employees of Reddit who was in charge, you’d have gotten different answers,” Huffman says. Ohanian says he was surprised to find employees reporting to Huffman, “which made total sense but which I was too immature to realize.”
Becoming business partners had taken a toll on their friendship. “You start a company with your best friend, there’s always going to be a weird dynamic,” Ohanian says. “The ability to disassociate business conflict and discussion from personal conflict and discussion, ten years ago, was very hard.” At Reddit, Ohanian had been the nontechnical odd man out, surrounded by programmers who didn’t always understand the importance of, say, schwag. One time, according to Chris Slowe, Reddit’s first employee and now Hipmunk’s chief scientist, “we’re still treading water, and Alexis wanted to make plushies or action figures, and the two of them had a huge argument over, ‘You’re going to waste money on action figures?’ ”
Ohanian served as Huffman’s best man at his 2009 wedding to a med student (they would later divorce), and together they invested in the Broadway musical Billy Elliot. But the friends grew apart. Ohanian moved back to New York, where he developed his brand as an evangelist not just for Reddit but for online freedoms more generally. (Forbes crowned him “the Mayor of the Internet.”) Huffman got his pilot’s license, bought a 1995 Porsche, and spent the next several years building Hipmunk with co-founder Adam Goldstein and a handful of fellow ex-Redditors who shared their rage over existing travel websites.
Hipmunk brought a wry sensibility to the increasingly widgetized travel business (it rates flights on an “agony” index, a term that came from Huffman). It’s done pretty well — last year, Hipmunk secured a $20 million third round of venture-capital funding, and the site now employs around the same number of people as Reddit — but it never held Huffman’s complete attention like Reddit did.
After leaving, Huffman found that he had a hard time letting go. He still had administrative access to the site and continued tinkering with its code. Once that access was cut off, he found a back door for another six months before finally being locked out. Even then, he remained an avid Reddit user, averaging an hour a day on the site and frequenting sub-Reddits like AskReddit and circlejerk (devoted to Reddit’s most popular inside jokes). Besides ruing the decision to sell the company (“Obviously”) — last year, giving the commencement speech at the Wakefield School, where he’d been senior-class president, his advice included “Don’t sell too early” — he could see from the sidelines that the site just wasn’t evolving fast enough. “I said that many times: ‘What is going on over there? Get to work, get to work, hire, hire.’ ”
Recently, Huffman started thinking about his unresolved relationship baggage with Ohanian, which he describes as “a lot of wounds we never dealt with from the past.” He brought it up with his therapist. “I was talking to him about how I miss having Alexis in my life,” Huffman says. This past spring, he and Ohanian, over a few conversations involving steak and beers, “healed those things remarkably fast, in a matter of weeks.”
On Huffman’s first day back at Reddit, he introduced himself to the community by doing an Ask Me Anything: “I am Steve Huffman, the new CEO of Reddit. AMA.” To the quintessential Reddit question about whom he’d rather fight, 1,000 duck-size horses or one horse-size duck, Spez (Huffman’s Reddit pseudonym) responded: “1,000 duck-sized horses. Since they can’t climb stairs, you can easily get away from them long enough to figure out how to drown them.”
Many of the AMA questions concerned how Huffman would deal with objectionable sub-Reddits. The company had never really settled on a way to handle them. In the site’s early days, the leadership had been paternalistic: “If we saw something terribly racist, we just removed it and no one cared,” recalls Jeremy Edberg, an early Reddit engineer who’s now at Netflix. That became more difficult once the site allowed users to start their own sub-Reddits. In 2011, Condé Nast spun off Reddit into an independent holding of its parent company, Advance, and the next year Wong was hired as CEO. He took a hands-off approach and focused on growing the company. (Late last year, Reddit raised $50 million, at a valuation of $500 million.) Then he left because Reddit’s board refused to move the offices closer to his home. When Pao took his place, she tried to shift to a policy distinguishing overt harassment from simple vileness. But at the same time, Ohanian was defending Reddit as “a bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web,” and whenever a sub-Reddit received even a threat of banishment, a great hue and cry would arise among Reddit’s most vocal power-users. It took a toll on staff morale and also made recruiting harder. Who would want to work at a company taken hostage by its most repugnant users?
Chris Slowe likens Huffman’s return to Reddit to Steve Jobs’s return to Apple. The analogy is grandiose, but Slowe points out that the original departure of Reddit’s founders had left the site without an institutional grasp of the ad hoc reasons many policies had been created. “Things that should be treated as case law started getting turned into the Constitution,” Slowe says. It was Huffman, and maybe only Huffman, who could divorce the site from its worst elements. “The Reddit job comes with a lot of baggage,” Huffman says, “but I think it’s easier for me, because I’m a founder, to say, ‘Screw you guys, this is how I’ve always wanted it to be.’ ” He decided that the toxic sub-Redditors, which he says are only .02 percent of the site’s users, were not free-speech martyrs but just “assholes trying to ruin Reddit.” And so he banned them.
Specifically, he subjected a handful of sub-Reddits to an outright ban and introduced a quarantine system under which broadly offensive sub-Reddits would only be viewable by opt-in subscribers, who would need to sign up for them using an email address.
Unsurprisingly, the .02 percent were incensed. On the site, Huffman has been labeled an “inhuman shitstain” and “racist chucklefuck,” and a new sub-Reddit called Raping Spez was created. A number of those affected by his new content policy, including moderators of Coontown and Philosophy of Rape, decamped to a new site called Voat, claiming Reddit was on the brink of a mass evacuation. A user who goes by the name GreatApeNiggy, who described himself to me as “just a guy that clicked the create button and made Coontown a reality,” told me that the ban will “slow down the spread of truth.” He thinks Huffman “will continue taking out sub-Reddit after sub-Reddit until Reddit is nothing but an extremist liberal hugbox and the average person moves on to something else.” Even moderators of less objectionable content were angry about Huffman’s sudden retreat from being a bastion of free speech. “They can dance around the semantics of ‘That’s not why they created it.’ But the reality is, not long after it came into existence, that’s exactly what it became,” says Daniel Allen, founder of the popular forum Crappy Design. “Not that I agree that there should be sub-Reddits about beating women and racism — those are all distasteful — but you don’t see the government shutting down the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church.” Allen and some other moderators are convinced the decisions were made to make the site more corporate friendly. “The frustration comes from them saying one thing and doing another.”
For now, though, the ban appears to be working — there hasn’t been another big flap over terrible behavior, and the site is still attracting more users. Huffman says his focus is to repair the relationship with moderators and build out Reddit’s infrastructure. “For better or for worse,” he says, “Reddit is very similar to the way it was back then.” He plans to at least double the “comically understaffed” site over the next year, and to pluck the abundant “low-hanging fruit,” like creating a proper Reddit-branded mobile app and redesigning the desktop homepage, which is still a schizoid jumble. Two of Huffman’s great interests are motorcycles and ballroom dance — while undergrads at UVA, he and his sister Amanda entered intercollegiate competitions as partners — but he says that not only does he not subscribe to sub-Reddits about them, he isn’t sure whether such sub-Reddits exist. (They do.) Huffman knows this is a problem. “Reddit has this incredible breadth that most people aren’t even aware exists, and even if they are, like me, it still hasn’t even occurred to me to find some of those.”
He also professes not to be nearly as daunted as most outsiders by the eventual need to deliver the company’s investors a profit. Given Reddit’s sheer size, “we could monetize with half the efficiency of one of our competitors and make oodles more money than we’re doing now,” he says. Even in the face of user anonymity, advertisers can still do click-tracking, and the list of an individual user’s idiosyncratic sub-Reddit subscriptions is nothing if not a precise psychographic profile of his interests. It’s not hard to imagine Reddit doing a lot more with native ads, which it has been experimenting with since 2009.
Huffman says that mere advertising is “the most naïve” way to make money: “There are a thousand ways of making money on Reddit that are far, far more interesting.” He suggests, for instance, that future revenues could lie in positioning Reddit as a fee-based middleman for transactions already taking place on the site and in selling data to celebrities and brands. “Wouldn’t they love to know what’s being said about them on Reddit? Certainly, they pay a shit-ton of money to Twitter for that, and you only get 140 characters at a time.”
In the short term, Reddit’s boldest effort to grow may lie in a project, overseen by Ohanian, called Amplify. The idea is to surface, curate, and publicize Reddit’s best content, which for years has been lucratively pillaged by the likes of BuzzFeed. Ohanian has led the launch of a weekly podcast called Upvoted and an email newsletter called Upvoted Weekly, both of which focus on the most popular Reddit content. (Reddit has already launched a site within the site, also called Upvoted.) Ohanian also wants to change the way celebrities interact with Reddit, so that, instead of it being one more stop on a publicity tour, it becomes a platform where they feel they have to maintain a continuous presence, the same way they have to be on Twitter and Instagram. “Reddit’s already very, very large,” Huffman says. “I think we can be ten times larger.”
Huffman needs to be right. He is no longer a significant owner of the company, and though Advance treats Reddit as a passive investment, he now reports to a board with high expectations. If he is looking for any reminder of the vagaries of growth on the internet, he gets one daily, walking past the hand-drawn “Map of Online Communities” in 2007 that hangs along a corridor in Reddit’s offices. MySpace is a giant landmass, Friendster and Xanga respectably large nation-states, Facebook a middling duchy no larger than the adjacent LiveJournal. Twitter isn’t even on the map, and Reddit is a speck, overshadowed by considerably larger Digg. Only a few years later, Reddit would eclipse Digg, in part thanks to an event known as the Great Digg Migration, when Diggers alienated by a sudden and unwelcome redesign left en masse for Reddit.
Huffman insists he’s not worried about a Great Reddit Migration, now that Voat is holding itself out as a truly uncensored alternative. “Voat is just a copy of Reddit,” he says. “I wish them the best. I know their subscriber numbers are totally bogus, that’s obvious to me. We used to fake those numbers, too, when we were little, so I can’t blame them for that.”
Spoken with the blithe confidence of a chief executive. But Reddit wore on Huffman the last time around, and though he may have forgotten this during the excitement surrounding his return, the anxiety has returned. “To say he has thick skin — absolutely not,” says Adrienne Plaskett, his girlfriend, noting that, since returning to Reddit, Huffman has vomited from stress several times.
*This article appears in the October 5, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.