Creatively Speaking: Alexis Ohanian

You'll love today's Creatively Speaking interview with co-founder Alexis Ohanian. I mean it. Even if you don't yet know what reddit is"¦ the kid is pure genius. And, apparently, a musician (and natural wit), as well.


Reddit founders: Chris Slowe, Alexis Ohanian, the alien, Steve Huffman

DI: I guess i should lead with the absolute most important question--the one on every reader's mind: what's the deal with the little reddit cartoon character? Is there a story behind him/her/it? A name? A history worth sharing?

AO: I was bored in marketing class one day and decided our yet undesigned website needed a mascot -- one from the future. That way, we knew the startup would succeed. How else would it have been able to travel through time?

Otherwise, there's not much of a history to it (yes, "it" this alien has no need for gender. The sex life of the future isn't very alluring. Be warned.) My first version looked like something from Soviet propaganda, but the third version is basically what you see today. I still can't believe Steve let me talk him into that...

Oh, and there is a name, but I never tell on the first interview.

DI: How did you guys hit upon the idea for the site?

AO: Actually, we stumbled into it. It hit us after we'd gotten rejected by Y Combinator (the seed stage venture firm that ultimately invested in us). We were called back and told we'd be accepted as long as we changed the idea we'd applied with.

It was later that afternoon when Steve and I realized we had a common problem with finding new and interesting content every morning (and again when we were bored at class during the day, or in the library, or...) I was the one with about twenty tabs open and Steve had long been a Slashdot user and student of great community content. Somehow it became the problem we'd solve, Paul Graham seized it and aptly titled our quest, "building the front page of the web."

DI: As i understand it, there have been a lot of mergers and acquisitions since you guys went live in 2005. Has it been hard maintaining your quiet, simple footprint and design as larger and larger companies get involved? Probably not the best comparison, but Kiehls just isn't the same since L'Oreal bought them out - nary a free sample in the store these days.

AO: Those capitalized words look awfully foreign to me. Fortunately for us, our acquiring company (Wired Digital) has gone out of its way to give us a ludicrous degree of autonomy. Really, ludicrous. I'm writing this on a beach in Costa Rica, where I've been for the last four months.

OK, that's not true. But having Conde Nast (of Vogue and GQ fame) as a parent company has made us all much better dressed.

OK, that's also not true.

DI: So what's the biggest difference between you guys and, say, Digg?

AO: We covered that with the first question: the mascot. I've confirmed that their mascot, a featureless humanoid armed with only a shovel, wouldn't stand a chance against our alien.

That, and I believe our communities are very different. You won't have to try hard on reddit to find an expert on some subject -- no matter how obscure (Erlang redditors, I'm looking at you). Some of the best content on the site comes from the comments of users either fact-checking, debating, or just being witty.

Our sites are also fundamentally different. reddit is unique in that the links on the front page are constantly rising and falling. Hit reload every few minutes on reddit and you'll see popular stories floating up while others fall down. You'll also be helping us hit our revenue goal (thanks!).

We're proud to say that we didn't do our research when starting reddit and hadn't heard of digg until a few weeks after we launched. They'd already been around for over half a year at that point, but we had the advantage of ignorance, which I believe is why we've always been so different and thus stayed so competitive.

That said, the celebrity of Kevin Rose and digg did us a lot of favors by educating folks about the concept of a news website that was edited by its readers.

DI: Okay, so now for the programming geeks in the blog: can you talk about the nitty-gritty? How did you build the site and how do you maintain it?

AO: Wrong interviewee. Steve restricted my Subversion access after 2 months. We originally wrote the site in Lisp, gaining us worldwide fame within the Lisp community. This pushed our traffic numbers to around 100 users a day.

Sadly, we switched over to Python within six months. Until around that point when we made our first hire, Steve did all the development and I did the mascot doodling (and the other non-programming things). We'd discuss features, I'd design them in my cracked shareware copy of PSP 5.0 and he'd implement. I don't know what he does in Emacs, but it's magical.

Nowadays our team has exploded to a total of five. Maintaining the site has become a bit easier now that Steve no longer has to sleep with his laptop (Not out of loneliness, but because the site was so unstable in those early months).

DI: What do you like to do when you're not redditing?

AO: Read stuff printed on dead trees bound with glue (paperback, please). Or my Kindle. I also play more video games than a 24-year-old probably should, but my gaming habits have curbed significantly since I quit my level 60 paladin. Oh, and did I mention that I'm in a band? ( - more on that later)

DI: If you could have lunch with any dead person from history, who would it be and why? And it better not be the alien dude.

AO: I knew that history major was going to come in handy. I should probably toss out the name of some esoteric figure, but I primarily studied German history around the Second World War -- most of those folks ought to stay dead.

Wouldn't that be an awkward conversation: "Well, hi, welcome back. Want to get a sandwich?"

Instead, I think I'd have lunch with Jesus. Because if I could resurrect him for lunch, then that would make me...

DI: Working on anything new?

AO: I've been investing a lot of free time in breadpig lately. Breadpig, Inc. It's a pig with bread wings and deliberate attempt to create a company that forgoes making a profit for doing interesting (and vaguely charitable) things. I basically wanted to design and do geeky things that people wanted to buy, but none of the money.

Although I don't personally want the profit from breadpig, I want the opportunity to try and come up with clever things to do with it (that don't involve pimping rides or filling pools with chocolate sauce).

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy

Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up,

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

A chat with Jeff Garlin

Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.


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