When Alexis Ohanian (Com ’05) was a UVA history major with dyed “iguana-green” hair who loved Metallica and video games, it may have been hard to imagine that in just a few short years Forbes magazine would dub him “the mayor of the Internet.”

But since launching Reddit.com in 2005 with his dorm-mate Steve Huffman (Engr ’05), then selling it the next year to Condé Nast for millions, then shepherding Reddit’s followers into a political force, the 31-year-old Ohanian has emerged as the face and voice against government restrictions on the Internet.

Today, Reddit, where millions of “redditors” vote up or down the most interesting Web links to share, is one of the most popular sites on the Internet—it averages 15.2 billion pageviews per month. Ohanian maintains close ties to the site—he serves on its board of directors. Under Ohanian’s guidance, users of Reddit rallied to block two Hollywood-supported bills—the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA)—which they argued would stifle innovation and job growth in a poor attempt to address Internet piracy.

“These bills were really infringing on the ability for people like me and Steve, or really anyone, to create platforms with user-generated content,” Ohanian says in a phone interview from his home in Brooklyn, referring not only to Reddit but Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogs and Web forums. “It was basically a ham-fisted attempt to curb piracy, and what was going to happen instead was a massive censorship of websites, because these two bills, SOPA and PIPA, were both written so terribly and so clumsily, and thankfully millions of people rose up to stop it.”

“Alexis and the movement he leads were hugely helpful in winning the battle against SOPA and PIPA,” says Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon. 

Start Me Up

The online adventures of Ohanian and Huffman

Huffman and Ohanian found Reddit.com, a site they envision as the “front page” of the Internet, where readers can submit content. This past July alone, Reddit had 114.5 million unique visitors. Vanity Fair calls Reddit “likely the origin of every important meme on the Internet.”

Ohanian and Huffman describe Breadpig as “a sidekick-for-hire, offering a variety of handholding services to creators who want to self-publish, make something nice or take a risk on something crazy.” The two bought the domain before starting Reddit, when they were searching for expired domains for their yet unnamed website that had the word “read” in them.

Huffman founded Hipmunk, a travel website, with engineer and entrepreneur Adam Goldstein. Ohanian says he “joined a week or so before launch to do a bit of design, prepare the launch marketing and doodle a logo.” The site compares travel sites for the user and ranks flights by price, schedule and “agony,” a score based on factors such as duration of the flight and number of stops.

The origins of Reddit

From an early age, Ohanian enjoyed building websites—perhaps as much as he enjoyed making a case.

A native of Columbia, Md., and son of a travel agent and a night-shift pharmacy technician, Ohanian came to UVA in the fall of 2001 with thoughts of becoming an immigration lawyer. But his future career path took a turn on the very first day of college, when he met Steve Huffman in Hancock House.

Huffman, who grew up in Warrenton, Va., and started programming computers around age 8, applied to UVA early-decision, hoping for admittance to the Jefferson Scholars program. He didn’t end up a Jefferson Scholar, but thought he lucked out in another way, with a co-ed dorm floor, when he arrived and saw the name “Alexis” across the hall. It wasn’t a co-ed floor, of course, but he and Ohanian hit it off immediately, bonding over video games, humor and “computer stuff.”

“I made Reddit and Alexis made Reddit cool.”

—Steve Huffman

“He did not look like he looks now—he was more grungy,” Huffman says of Ohanian in those early days. “He had this neck-beard thing. There’s a bassist in Metallica, Jason Newsted—Alexis tried to look like him, I think. Right now he’s kind of suave. He was definitely not like that first year of college.

“But,” Huffman says, “he was very charming. He’s always been very charming, for as long as I’ve known him.”

Huffman recalls how some girls came into his room and amid the introductions, Ohanian walked in offering warm cookies, which he had heated up (in the microwave) to impress the girls. “It was very funny,” Huffman says. “I remember thinking that with Alexis there’s no bar too low, there’s nothing he won’t do to impress somebody or just play into his character.”

Thus began a partnership between a natural-born engineer and a natural-born entrepreneur.

Years later, Huffman would sum up their breakthrough endeavor like this: “I made Reddit, and Alexis made Reddit cool.”

“He’s always been a rainmaker,” Mark White, associate professor in the McIntire School of Commerce, says of Ohanian, whom he selected as one of five undergraduates to travel to Singapore to compete in an international “technopreneurship” conference. “He’s very much a creature of his generation. I think that’s what made Reddit so successful. He saw a problem that he wanted to solve for him and his friends.”

Ohanian and Huffman trace the origins of Reddit to Huffman’s earlier idea of ordering takeout food by mobile phone rather than waiting in line. Ohanian pitched the idea to White while they were in Singapore and, bolstered by his positive response, the pair then pitched it to tech entrepreneur Paul Graham. Although that idea ultimately was rejected, Graham invited Ohanian and Huffman to meet to brainstorm a better idea.

That’s when they came up with the idea of a website that would sort the most popular links for sharing. As Ohanian describes in his 2013 memoir/startup-advice book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century will Be Made, Not Managed, Graham said in that meeting: “That’s it! You should build the front page of the Web.”

Graham’s partners at “incubator” investment firm Y Combinator agreed to provide $12,000 in seed funding to the then fourth-year students. In his book, Ohanian recalls how he then came up with the name “Reddit” (as in “I read it on Reddit,” he says) while in the Alderman Library one day.

“Steve and I set out that June to build a website where readers, not editors, would determine the front page of what’s new and interesting by submitting links to be voted on by the community,” Ohanian writes. “We had no ambitions to have the president of the United States conduct a real-time interview with millions of people on our site, which he (President Obama) would end up doing—from Charlottesville, no less—seven years later; we just wanted to create a place where anyone at any time could find what was new and interesting online.”

Fighting for an open Internet

Over the years—since the acquisition by Condé Nast, becoming a millionaire at age 22 and recently a partner at Y Combinator—Ohanian has repeated his story in an effort to defeat legislation such as SOPA and PIPA, which he says threatened to undermine the free and open Internet that made his success possible. He’s repeated it on national TV news programs and to members of Congress in person.

In May 2014, Alexis Ohanian presented Lawrence Lessig with the Webby Lifetime Achievement Award. “[Lessig] has spent his career fighting to maintain the open spaces of the Web so that all of us can make and share our work,” Ohanian said. “Steve Huffman and I never could have started Reddit if not for the work he has done and continues to do.”

“It’s a really big issue, particularly for his generation,” Professor White says. “For the millennials, the notion that anyone would try to restrict what they’ve grown up with is something akin to the American Revolution of 1776. They’ve come to expect the Net needs to be free. He’s definitely front and center.”

SOPA and PIPA would have resulted in a de facto burden on website administrators as well as search engines and content-hosting sites to police what users are doing and allow the blocking of an entire website, even for just one or a few acts of infringement, says UVA law professor Dotan Oliar, who specializes in intellectual property and cyberlaw. Under current law, website administrators and Internet intermediaries only must take action if given notice of copyright infringement by the owner. But sites such as Google and YouTube link to and host content that is constantly uploaded by users. “Google and YouTube cannot reasonably be expected to examine each and every clip as it’s being posted and tell whether it’s infringing or not,” Oliar says.

In protest of SOPA and PIPA, the Reddit administrative team blacked out the entire website for 12 hours on Jan. 18, 2012. Wikipedia followed suit, and Google changed its logo for the day. Among others that protested were Mozilla, Tumblr, WordPress and Cheezburger, a front-page humor site.

Although he no longer owned Reddit, Ohanian “stepped up to the plate as being the face of Reddit in terms of Internet freedom,” says Ben Huh, founder and CEO of Cheezburger. “There’s this credibility he gets by being able to take complex issues and simplify them, and being passionate about it. He represents the idea we have about young, smart people doing good things on the Internet, and making money while we’re doing it.”

Ohanian argues that requiring startups to police their sites for copyrighted material would thwart them from ever getting off the ground.

“It was going to make it impossible for any one of us to create one of these platforms, let alone run it,” Ohanian says, “because we would’ve needed an army of lawyers just to make sure that at any given moment there wasn’t some content that was somehow potentially, or even leading to potentially, infringing on some right.”

Members of Congress received millions of calls, emails and petition signatures.

After the two bills died, Ohanian, Huh and others set out on a bus tour to the American heartland to gather stories about Internet businesses that are popping up far from Silicon Valley as well as traditional businesses that have adapted and are thriving due to their online presence—and then posted the resulting 22-minute film online as yet another vehicle for furthering their message.

Of Ohanian, Sen. Wyden says, “I greatly value his counsel and will certainly be calling on him in the days ahead as the fight for the free and open Internet continues.”

In July, Ohanian spoke before the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., urging lawmakers to adopt a rule against discrimination, access fees and paid prioritization on the Web. “We need the FCC to keep the level playing field that let me—and so many others—succeed as entrepreneurs. The reason so much innovation and wealth creation has happened in tech over the last decade is that any American with her laptop and Internet connection could build a startup … without a team of lawyers and without a large budget to pay for priority from Internet service providers.” 

He remains steeled for the fight, as any good “mayor” would. So how does Ohanian feel about that made-up title, anyway?

“I certainly don’t mind—as far as I understand, it’s a nice thing,” he says, laughing. “The one thing I chafe at, though, is of course the reason the Internet works is because there is no hierarchy—because there is no mayor or president of it—but I certainly appreciate the sentiment.”