Moral authority. It’s a phrase that’s become fundamental to Steve Huffman over the past two-and-a-half years.
Huffman co-founded Reddit in 2005 when he was fresh out of University of Virginia, at age 21. He and his close friend and co-founder Alexis Ohanian, along with hacker wunderkind Aaron Swartz, sold Reddit to Condé Nast in 2006.
Huffman departed the company three years later, during which time Reddit grew into one of America’s most popular websites, with message boards about everything under the sun: from kitesurfing to finance to Photoshopping bicycles out of photographs of humans riding bicycles. But Reddit also grew into a site that harbored an unsustainable tension. Its ethos was freewheeling, and held dear the idea that free speech trumps all. After one of the company’s interim leaders, Ellen Pao, attempted to quell some of the hate speech on the site, and after the mishandled dismissal of a popular employee, volunteer moderators turned their Reddit sections off, crippling the site. An online petition called for Pao’s ouster. She wrote in her 2017 book, Reset, that she submitted her resignation after pressure from the board.
Huffman wasn’t entirely ready to return to Reddit. He was building the travel-search startup Hipmunk, leading a team of engineers and helping to secure funding. But when he saw Reddit’s website blacking out as moderators protested against the company, he knew what he needed to do: save Reddit. Perhaps he was the only person who could, and not because he was an experienced leader or a skilled programmer. As Reddit’s founder, though, the one who wrote the site’s original code, he had the moral authority to do so.
When Huffman walked into Reddit’s office one Friday in July of 2015, he was met by a couple-dozen shell-shocked employees, few of whom were happy to see him. Most of those staffers didn’t make it beyond year’s end.
Reddit wasn’t just an ailing company; the Reddit community needed help, too. The hundreds of far-flung volunteer moderators had been deprived of updated tools for years. Hate speech was rampant. Huffman would need to tame the trolls, and deliver a better site to loyal users.
Huffman leaned on his moral authority particularly heavily in making announcements online–when, say, banning communities that trafficked in inciting harm or fear. One of Huffman’s first major actions as chief executive was cutting off overtly racist communities. This time, the communities on Reddit did not revolt. By fall of 2017, he announced even stricter content standards: Anything glorifying, encouraging, or calling for the harm of a person or animal would not be permitted on Reddit.
Still, there were content questions dogging Reddit: certain corners of the site were havens for distribution of conspiracy theories and “fake news,” and Huffman had admitted in March that his teams had pinpointed a “few hundred” fake accounts spreading propaganda and sowing discord in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
Reddit, the company, is far healthier today. In 2017, Huffman brought in $200 million in new venture capital funding, valuing the company at $1.8 billion. Reddit.com was the fourth most popular site in America, according to data from Alexa, Amazon’s Web analytics arm. Huffman has in many ways rebuilt Reddit, having added 300 new staffers and moving the company to a spacious new office on San Francisco’s Taylor Street.
On Monday, March 12, Christine Lagorio-Chafkin will interview Steve Huffman at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas. He’ll tell the story of his dramatic return to the company he founded–and explain what moves he’s made to turn around both an ailing company culture and usher in a new era for the sprawling Reddit community. Check back next week for excerpts from that conversation.