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Reddit's road rules: trolling America's heartland, one startup at a time


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13 strangers. 6 wheels. John McCain’s bus. A parade of startups among infinite cornfields in America’s heartland. 10 days, 2,000 miles, and a goal to promote open internet policies in the United States. A documentary crew filming every waking moment. Throw out your rules — these are Reddit’s Internet 2012 road rules.

True believers file into St. Louis’ “T-Rex” communal startup space: a gargantuan, brutal looking structure renovated with only the bare essentials like plastic plants and internet access — a place “oriented to the nascent IT startup entrepreneur.” After a late arrival to this campaign pit-stop, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian seizes the podium. He gives his now-perfected stump speech on SOPA and PIPA and internet freedom — the impetus for Reddit’s tour — but the crowd is most riled by his insidery rant on a particularly “boring” part of Northern California. “One of the things I cannot shut up about,” Ohanian says, “is that the myth of Silicon Valley being the only place for tech innovation needs to go away. It really needs to go away.” The audience claps before Ohanian can finish his sentence; one man decides the line deserves a standing ovation. “I think we should completely get rid of software patents,” Ohanian says a few minutes later. The crowd eats it up. It’s the same in every city.

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"The myth of Silicon Valley being the only place for tech innovation needs to go away."

Of course, memes about Silicon Valley’s inevitable decline and gripes about software patent law don’t carry much weight outside the wonky confines of Club Startup, where rosy outlooks in a struggling economy are scarce. It’s easy to think anything’s possible on the internet when you’re convinced that someone in the next room over — or maybe even you — might build the next billion-dollar company. There’s a fine line between startup and scheme, and some of the hopeful faces along the tour are hard to miss: there’s a wide-eyed confidence from thinking your success is only beholden to the merit of your ideas, and not some cosmic lottery outside of your control. It’s the same wide-eyed confidence that comes from convincing yourself that you’ve won that cosmic lottery as, say, Amway’s newest "business owner," or the next great internet marketer, or the next Mark Zuckerberg.

That affirmation of unlimited possibility is enshrined in Reddit’s ethos. The site’s underwire can stretch to accommodate a community fabric of any size, and its owners let users run free with just five basic rules including "no spam" and "no child pornography." Reddit’s core functionality — the ability to "upvote" or "downvote" any of the site’s content or user comments — gives people the seductive power of direct democracy. The front page of Reddit is an ordered list of the community’s popular will, and maybe that’s why it has the audacity to call itself "the front page of the internet." "Everyone thinks they have the best idea," Ohanian says, "and the internet allows the best idea to rise to the top."

Volunteers on Reddit create and manage their own sections of the site (subreddits), exchanging their free labor for nearly unlimited control over their communities. Since it launched in 2005, the site has grown to host more than 40 million unique visitors a month, with thousands of active communities, and a foothold of mainstream recognition. (In case you haven’t heard by now, the President of the United States used Reddit’s "Ask Me Anything" forum to field questions from the public — which by all popular accounts makes the site a Big Deal). And Reddit’s leaders take their platform, and by extension, the platform of the internet, very seriously: in a leaked memo published this week, responding to a recent censorship and content controversy, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong wrote that "all of us at Reddit work here because we think that Reddit is a community like none other. We think it can be a powerful force to change the world for the better."

Changing the world is tall order, but having spent more than a week in close quarters with Reddit’s top brass, it’s something the company really believes in. As Reddit GM Erik Martin explains, that means increasing the company’s political presence and vying for mainstream spotlights. "We purposefully drove between the debates to tie it into the big media story," Reddit GM Erik Martin says, "but there’s no debate in the abstract sense about the biggest question of our time: what are we going to do with the internet? Can we use the internet to impact education, access to capital, social justice — are we going to support it and help it or are we going to hamper it and put shackles on it?"

Two of the shackles Martin is referring to are SOPA and PIPA — bills that critics say would have disrupted the fundamental structure of the internet. Reddit fought against them, and helped defeat them, but now it’s turned the question on internet freedom around: what exactly is so great about the internet that needs protection? The big question — the one that Reddit and Ohanian want to answer on this road trip — is whether the internet can be a massive engine for future economic growth. An engine that provides the world with more than frivolous app clones and overvalued tech IPOs, and helps people who make actual things get better at making them and selling them.

To be fair, Ohanian’s Silicon Valley message isn’t just a cheap grab for political points: his strategy is to leave the echo chambers in New York and California in order to hear stories from people who are trying to make a difference in their local communities across the country. And in Lincoln, Boulder, Des Moines, and a handful of other cities in middle America, people who make a living by the internet eagerly offered up those stories, along with earnest hopes for a better future. "This bus tour started like a lot of great ideas, just out of casual conversation," Ohanian says. "Wouldn’t it be cool, just for the sake of getting a bus, to wrap it, make it half red half blue to show just how bi-partisan the internet is, and campaign on behalf of the internet for internet freedom?" And just like that, Reddit’s Internet 2012 bus tour was born.

Just don’t expect Reddit — which plans to carry those stories to D.C. to promote the platform that enabled them — to button-up alongside the rest of Washington’s lobbyists. A few minutes after prompting cheers for Silicon Valley trash talk in St. Louis, Ohanian pulls out his phone to drunk dial one of the supporters who contributed to Reddit’s road trip. "Today is your lucky day," he says to the stranger on the line. "We’re in the beautiful city of St. Louis, and we’ve got a dope jam just for you. We got a hundred people here ready to get you hot." Nelly’s "Hot in Herre" plays in the background, as Ohanian’s audience belts out the chorus in unison. "It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes," they sing. Welcome aboard.

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Straight Talk Express

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"What was that? Edit what? Red what? Oh, it’s a website."

Internet 2012 bus stops

October 3 - Denver, Colorado
Panel: "Politics: Why you should give a shit" (University of Denver)
Presidential Pub Quiz + Debate watching party

October 4 - Boulder, Colorado
Panel: "Startups + Politics: Why you should give a shit" (Simple Energy)
Meetup with Foundry Group

October 5 - Lincoln, Nebraska
Panel at Raikes School of Computer Science and Management, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
High School Football game with Hudl
Hudl office meetup

October 6 - Des Moines, Iowa
Meetup with Dwolla
Iowa Internet Uncaucus 2012

October 7 - Iowa City, Iowa
Startup Weekend Iowa City

October 8 - Kansas City, Missouri
Panel on entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation

October 9 - Columbia, Missouri / St Louis, Missouri
Meetup with Ag Local farmer
Downtown St. Louis business crawl
StartLouis Meetup at the Downtown Tech Incubator

October 10 - Lexington, Kentucky
Panel with Fark: Future of local communities

October 11 - Danville, Kentucky
VP Debate watching party

The Reddit bus is a physical example of the weirdness of bringing the internet into to the real world — a place where people give you strange looks for uttering words like "Reddit." (What was that? Edit what? Red what? Oh, it’s a website. Okay). In 2008, the very same bus was commissioned to drive across the country with different colors — as John McCain’s Straight Talk Express. This wonderful nugget of political lore proved to be a bus rider’s greatest defense against the glazed-over eyes of non-internet folk (do we have a word for them yet? Muggles?), who sometimes stood, eyes lost in the middle distance, desperately trying to recognize any of the noises from the mouths of a bunch of nerds that just rolled off a gigantic tour bus to meet them. "Have you heard of net neutrality?" Net neutrality? "Yes, it’s about internet freedom." Yeah, I barely get any internet out here. "We’re on John McCain’s bus!" Well I’ll be darned!

The mechanical behemoth beneath the bus wrap — a million-plus dollar spaceship on wheels with computer-controlled doors, TVs, and other widgets — is about all I can imagine John McCain’s road trip had in common with this one. Reddit’s balance of serious business and frivolity emerges as a tour theme, when long days of traveling across hours of flat, endless land are capped with heroic drinking marathons. Some bus riders came prepared, like a startup rep who brought along "flabongos" — decapitated flamingo lawn ornaments converted into bright pink beer bongs. (He quickly earns the nickname "Swag Local" from bus riders). At times, it was hard to keep up with Reddit’s party crew. On a freezing night in Lincoln, Nebraska, I caught Reddit’s core contingent sneaking away from a startup-packed bar. "Where are you guys going?" I ask. "To the mechanical bull," Martin says.

Much of the campaign’s irreverent spirit comes from its leading man. "This isn’t your granddaddy's political tour" took on serious meaning in the opening moments of the voyage when, without hesitation, Ohanian spun around his laptop to share the recently leaked Hulk Hogan porn video with a press corps he’d just met. Having met Ohanian a couple times before, I’m not sure what I expected instead, but I was surprised early on how eerily similar he is to his own creation in day-to-day life: he’s a perpetual machine of link sharing, giggles, and r/WTF moments. His personal Twitter feed often resembles the front page of Reddit. His cat is named Karma. He’s a nerd’s nerd, who credits his EverQuest guild with giving him early lessons in leadership. He’s the same guy he says he was when he created Reddit with co-founder Steve Huffman back in 2005 — just a dude looking for the best links to share on the internet. Except now he’s a 29-year old multi-millionaire venture capitalist and internet advocate looking for the best links to share on the internet.

More than just a purveyor of cat photos, bacon recipes, and awkward night vision clips of Hulk Hogan

In public, Ohanian is more than just a purveyor of cat photos, bacon recipes, and awkward night vision clips of Hulk Hogan’s extracurriculars. He was described by Forbes as the "mayor of the internet" in a profile following SOPA, a title that others now use to refer to him, and one he’s learned to blush and smile at with masterful consistency. But in reality, Ohanian would probably shudder at a real mayorship. While he’s clearly grown accustomed to hearing people suggest half-jokingly that he should run for political office, he insists along the 10-day journey that he prefers to work from outside the government — a place where you can say things without having to worry about what voters think. That sentiment is reflected in his ongoing business ambitions: since leaving Reddit in 2010 he launched Breadpig and Hipmunk, personally invested in over 50 startups, and now meets with promising startups as a Y Combinator "ambassador." The first two words in his 140-character biography are "startup guy." In the same sentence he says he’s also a guy who wants to make the world "suck less." The two seem to overlap considerably.

Ohanian has already gained some impressive bullets on the "making the world suck less" part of his resume: the notches named "SOPA" and "PIPA" are deeply carved in his internet advocacy bludgeon, and he’s not shy about brandishing it in front of any audience. On any given day, he’s pitching people about their own underutilized power: "On January 18th, more than 18 million people stood up to Congress and the entertainment lobby to say ‘no’ to these bills," he says, as a confident general with legions of battle-ready minutemen might. "It was a big day, January 18th. On that day, sites went dark," he says, "but people all over this country, some of them for the very first time, contacted their elected officials, and called them, and said ‘vote no, this is wrong.’" He’s rolling now, and I half expect him to round up the room to go take on Dean Wormer and that damn Neidermeyer.

"Something unprecedented happened in Washington," Ohanian says to his audiences on the tour. "$94 million in Hollywood lobbying, which was spent last year basically to get those bills written, was defeated by a bunch of Americans, by a bunch of American voters who didn’t have a lobbyist, who simply said no." He’s rolling up his rhetorical sleeves now, emphasizing the word’s flyover letters: "A-mer-ica," he says with guttural enthusiasm.

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After boarding, we discovered the Internet 2012 bus had no internet

His message isn’t complete without a swipe at the establishment. "That’s probably a bit of commentary on the state of government right now, and Congress’ approval ratings might indicate that," he says with a smirk. But his message is ultimately optimistic. "What was so empowering was that we saw 13 senators switch sides over the course of 24 hours — five of whom were cosponsors," he says. "Now that’s some serious legislative whiplash."

That legislative whiplash — evidence of political conquest — has fueled internet advocacy efforts since the battle over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), companion bills that would have flown through Congress with bipartisan support if not for the web’s vocal objection to overbearing copyright regulation. Reddit and Ohanian helped the organic movement against the bills reach a critical mass with its unprecedented internet blackout, to demonstrate what might happen if they passed. The cause gained mainstream legitimacy when sites like Wikipedia, Mozilla, and Google joined the blackout effort. And broad participation in the blackout day from regular citizens who called their representatives in Congress ultimately killed the bill.

Following the internet blackout day, Ohanian and a group of net advocates, entrepreneurs, and academics teamed up to ride public momentum and promote a free and open internet. The group issued a "Declaration of Internet Freedom," a set of five broad principles mild enough to secure a consensus from a politically diverse group. (The Declaration calls for "expression, access, openness, innovation," and "privacy," though it leaves out specific policies like net neutrality). From city to city on the tour, Martin carried a novelty-sized physical copy of the Declaration on his shoulder, unfurling it for locals to sign along the way.

Future bills that mess with the internet probably won’t be big stationary targets for advocates to aim at. SOPA’s chief architect, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), also faced criticism earlier this year for planting broad surveillance measures in an anti-child pornography bill — legislation that would have required ISPs to track and store all of their subscriber’s actions for up to a year, for use in the event that the government suspects you might be a pedophile. Ohanian acknowledges the broader challenge provided by Congress’ array of sneaky legislative maneuvers, and the persistence of certain regressive industries in promoting them. He says that next time "it’ll be death by a thousand cuts."

As the battle becomes more complex, Reddit will need help. For one thing, many aspects of the bus tour revealed that Ohanian and Martin were, to a noticeable degree, winging it. They were saved in the final hours when a random designer from Reddit asked if they had completed the graphic wrap for the bus. They hadn’t — and the designer provided the half red, half blue design, free of charge by the next morning. Other little examples started to pile up. After boarding for the first time, we discovered the Internet 2012 bus had no internet, forcing the riders from Adweek and The Verge to (politely) kick one another off of Ohanian’s personal Mi-Fi during precious moments of connectivity in the wireless badlands. And in the final moments before their talk to startup folk in St. Louis, Ohanian and Martin hacked together a slideshow of the trip’s progress — which turned into a meandering hour-long caption reading performance. But while Reddit doesn’t fully know what it’s doing yet, it did succeed in talking to people with the right kind of stories for Congress to hear.

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Startups and Storytellers

r/startups_and_storytellers

"I’m just here for the pizza. Is that legit?"

Appealing to the Base


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My hopes for a rich narrative of the Internet 2012 tour are nearly dashed early on, when a talk at Denver’s Auraria campus draws a measly handful of students — probably no more than would have wandered into the room by accident on any given day in the sprawling student center. I assume there’s a weird chicken / egg situation going on here, since students who have never attended a panel titled "Politics: Why You Should Give A Shit" may lack the minimum level of shit-giving that having attended such a panel would enable. My worst fears, and yet, my greatest hopes for future generations are confirmed when a spitting image of Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli materializes in the doorway. "I’m just here for the pizza," he says in a prototypical surfer-bro voice. "Is that legit?"

Other meetups along the journey are more successful, but then, I never doubted Reddit’s ability to cram a couple hundred students into a bar or a big university hall to discuss any topic remotely related to Reddit, and several students confirm they’re just here to see Alexis. And Ohanian knows exactly how to woo them. Speaking at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he’s in full hivemind mode: he extols the virtues of bacon, references popular memes, and drops no fewer than three mentions of Reddit’s power as a platform for sharing cat photos as a Trojan horse into a serious discussion about the site’s potential for communication and collaboration. To show how easy it is to move beyond giving a shit to taking political action, he whips out his phone in front of the crowd and calls up Nebraska Representative Jeff Fortenberry, a supporter of SOPA. "My name is Alexis Ohanian. I don’t actually live in your district, but I’ve got like a hundred people who do here at the University of Nebraska," he says. "Are you going to do what it takes to defend our online rights? And why oh why did you support SOPA?"

Despite their ability to lock in the attention of college students and Redditors, Ohanian and Martin know that appealing to the base won’t broaden their political senses. Martin says they wanted to avoid just having a series of routine Reddit meetups on the tour (otherwise, they might have to bring messages to Congress from Reddit users like "Potato_In_My_Anus"). The real prize they have their sights on is a juicy small-business story that can be dangled in front of constituent-obsessed lawmakers.

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Startup Nation

Most of the tour’s itinerary involved startup panels, or meetups with startups, or office visits with startups. The word startup was uttered so many times that it began to lose its meaning, becoming a menagerie of indecipherable noises. I wondered, as I yawned through a panel on the tour that was indistinguishable from the last, what makes this more than a hellraising TechCrunch Disrupt on wheels. Why do startups matter to people who aren’t in startups?

There’s a big difference between hearing someone try to reverse-engineer their success for an audience and visiting the people who are actually working to make that success a reality in their hometowns. The message starts to come together when the bus group dons hoodies and jackets, and files off the bus to watch the end of a high school football game in Lincoln, Nebraska. The startup we’re visiting today is Hudl: a company founded by a man who graduated at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Raikes School, a computer science and management program with an elite startup component that we’d just visited earlier in the day. Hudl’s mission is to "help coaches win," and since it launched in 2006, its cloud video annotation tech has been adopted by over 10,000 high school football teams, some professional teams, and as an excited employee tells me at its hip Haymarket office, "even a debate club." Later, after hearing Hudl’s story, Ohanian tells an audience in Missouri not only about how Hudl is using the internet to change sports and help coaches win, but also how it gives them more time with their families. "It’s saved marriages," he says.

Two of the most exciting startups I meet are actually riding along with the tour. One of these companies, Chandler, Arizona’s Local Motors, rides alongside the bus in its insane Rally Fighter: a custom 430 horsepower car modeled after the P-51 Mustang. It appears to run on pure testosterone. The car is like a prized unicorn at every stop along the way, drawing in random passersby who are confused and yet titillated by this thing’s very existence. "Look at the Toyota Camry," says Local Motors sales man Adam Keiser, "Ten years, one billion dollars. The Rally Fighter? 18 months from concept to finished car, three million dollars."

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Ohanian’s eyes roll back in his head... as if he can now taste the power of the open internet

Of course, the $75,000 custom ride — limited to just 20,000 units due to federal regulations — isn’t going to dot American highways like the Camry. But Local Motors hopes to utilize its online community of over 30,000 fabricators, designers, and engineers to design custom cars for local markets around the world. Think Etsy for cars, but with the designs selected in open competitions, and the winners receiving a prize ranging from $1,500 to $10,000. It’s a bargain over hiring in-house designers.

The other startup represented on the tour was founded by Nathan Jones, a man with a story fit for a Hollywood script about the American Dream. Over drinks in Kansas City, Jones shares his rags to riches story with an utterly rapt Ohanian, explaining how he rose from sleeping in his car to founding an Andreessen Horowitz-backed business. His company, Ag Local, aims to help America’s small meat farmers, who he says are getting snuffed out by low-quality conglomerates, by connecting them to distributors and restaurants over the internet. "I don’t have a college degree, and I can’t write a line a code, but I’m CEO of a tech company. That’s because of the power of the internet as a platform." Ohanian can barely keep still, he’s so excited.

Still, after a week of hearing Ag Local’s Robert (aka Swag Local) talk about his magic meat app, the meaning of it doesn’t really sink in until we visit one of the startup’s clients. As the bus arrives in Richmond, Missouri, we meet family farmer Tom Parker and his livestock. Parker explains how Ag Local is poised to help him sell more meat locally — something he needs to stay in business. "Ninety percent of my customers come because they found us on the internet, and I only pay twelve bucks a year for [Ag Local]," he says, raising Ohanian’s eyebrows. The rest of the sleepy scene is a healthy dose of Americana: Martin stops and mingles with a gentle cow; sheep dogs in a field growl skeptically at the strange new humans. Soon we are served breakfast with Parker’s own meat and dairy. Ohanian’s eyes roll back in his head, verklempt, as if he can now taste the power of the open internet.

As with Parker’s farm, the best stories on this trip aren’t from the internet startups in hip downtown offices with orange accent walls and edgy furniture. In St. Louis, we visit two local companies handmaking making their own goods and keeping afloat thanks to the internet. At Scarlett Garnet jewelry, owners Garnet Griebel and Katie Miller explain how they built their business on Etsy, allowing them to later open a physical store. A bus ride away at STL Style on Cherokee street, owners Jeff and Randy Vines share a similar story. "We would not exist if not for the internet," Randy Vines says. "We started hucking t-shirts out of our car, and grew incrementally over the years by riding the wave of technology."

Ohanian finishes describing exactly how boring Northern California is, and strokes his captive St. Louis audience. "I hope y’all are clapping for yourselves, because the reason the myth will go away is that there will be other thriving startup communities. We’ll do our part to tell stories on this little trip, but we’re going to continue on our way tomorrow," he says. "And you’re going to keep kicking ass here."

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Peepers and Presidents

r/peepers_and_presidents

"TL;DR: We stand for freedom of speech."
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Ohanian plans to share these stories with decision makers, but he can’t save the internet by himself, not even with the power of the Straight Talk Express. Reddit’s continued relevance — which will help determine its political clout — will be based both on the size and quality of its community, which has recently been unpredictable and difficult to control. After one of the site’s most controversial members had his identity revealed last week by Gawker — a serious taboo within Reddit’s inner sanctum of admins and moderators — the site experienced a massive outbreak of censorship.

After learning of Gawker’s plan to reveal the identity of Violentacrez, Reddit’s moderators scrambled to censor all of the network’s content, third party sites linking to Gawker, and even meta conversations about moderator behavior. At least one user was banned, then unbanned, just for submitting a story from The Verge about the situation — leading others to come out of the woodwork to complain about being slighted by aggressive moderators over the years. Last Tuesday, when rumors of Gawker’s report surfaced, the ordeal quickly became a distraction for Martin and Reddit’s freshly hired community outreach manager.

After speaking to Martin about the controversy last week, he stressed that the systematic censorship from Reddit’s mods were essentially just a case of mods moddin’ — "moderators can moderate their subreddits however they want," he said, later telling Betabeat that "moderators can ban all usernames that start with the letter g if they want." Because Reddit’s admins only enforce a set of five rules, including "no posting personal information," their defense of speech seems problematically asymmetrical: how can they protect r/creepshots while allowing moderators to ban journalism they find inconvenient?

It’s kind of like the internet: cute bunnies in one corner, and weird Hulk Hogan porn in the other

Part of this, I think, has to do with Reddit’s general attitude towards its community. So far, Reddit has largely been an engineering problem, with a bare-bones staff that works to cope with the site’s exponential growth. Reddit still relies on just 23 employees to manage 40 million monthly readers and more than 10,000 subreddits — making expanded rule enforcement a logistical improbability for the current team. Martin’s attitude about the Gawker controversy towards the tail end of the trip suggests he’s more annoyed by having to deal with with the inconvenience than anything else. When something goes wrong, the company seems to view its community content in the same way Google views its search results — not my problem. That attitude doesn’t line up with Reddit’s political ambitions, at least if it wants wants to work on developing broad consensus and protect its image with a public that seems just as likely to hear about r/jailbait in mainstream media outlets as they are about the President’s AMA.

But Reddit may have realized that it needs to do more to keep its values consistent with its platform. In the leaked memo to power moderators, CEO Yishan Wong held the line on protecting user privileges while insisting that the company values free speech. "TL;DR: We stand for freedom of speech," Wong writes. "We will uphold existing rules against posting dox on Reddit. But the reality is those rules end at our platform, and we will respect journalism as a form of speech that we don’t ban." That’s all well and good, but what about controlling censorship from the moderators? "We believe further change can only come from example-setting." Oh.

Reddit may face a difficult time balancing control with quality in coming years, especially if the company looks into additional ways to monetize the site, or tries to become a mainstream political voice that's subject to broader public scrutiny. But Reddit’s owners keep prominent lessons of failure in the rear-view mirror. Ohanian’s repeated reference to Digg’s fatal transgressions — he attributes the site’s downfall to power-grabs and force-fed changes — hint that they’d like to prevent the same end game. To be fair, Reddit’s problems seem structurally different than Digg’s, and given Ohanian’s position on Reddit’s board it seems unlikely that the site’s commitment to its users will go away soon. And the fact that Reddit was spun off by owner Conde Nast in 2011 into its own autonomous subsidiary could help the co-founder keep his vision for Reddit alive. That vision is kind of like one for the internet at large, except in a discrete and tangible package: something that ties the places of the internet together, with cute bunnies in one corner, and weird Hulk Hogan porn in the other.

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Geekbomb

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"There's no sense in going the lobbyist route."
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So what’s next for Reddit’s open internet crusaders? While the rest of us nurse hangovers, Ohanian’s campaign continues: this week he flew out to San Fransisco to give a CEA Keynote on the Internet 2012 bus tour. And Martin tells me they’re serious about eventually heading to D.C. — they say Ohanian’s spontaneous proposal to "geek bomb" lawmakers is really going to happen. First they’ll beta-test a lobby day at the state level, then head down to Washington. "Oh yeah, it’s happening," Martin says. He plans to lug that gigantic hand-written scroll containing the Declaration of Freedom down to Congress next year, to let freshman lawmakers know that "the internet is watching."

Whether they know it or not, Reddit’s leaders are already becoming lobbyists. "There’s no sense in going the lobbyist route because that leads down the same broken problems that you see the same people are frustrated with in Washington," Ohanian says. Of course, there might be nothing more like lobbying than getting a bunch of people to storm the capitol building to meet with lawmakers and ask for change.

At the Iowa Internet Uncaucus in Des Moines — an event where Reddit, Dwolla, and local Iowans shut down a bridge and ban politicians to talk about the issues without partisan strife — I receive some unexpected perspective on the whole tour from Cheezburger Network CEO Ben Huh. Like Reddit, he presides over an empire of puerility, including I Can Haz Cheezburger, Failblog, and Memebase. But Huh also knows how to play grown-up, and he takes the tour’s objectives seriously. "Tech entrepreneurship is a blip in civilization, we are a fucking anomaly," he says. "You need to affect both sides of the fence. How can I help government to do that?"

Huh also has an idealistic view of the internet, but he anchors it with an analogy rooted both in philosophy and policy: "It’s not a partisan thing, it’s like the national parks. Something to be protected, not split off and sold off." And he’s joined the tour for a couple of days to get out and talk to "people with real lives and issues. I realize politics is local, not just on the coasts." When I ask him how he might explain internet freedom to an Iowan on the frigid bridge outside, he pauses to think. "You might not use the internet every waking moment," he says. "But your children will."

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