Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman sheds light on decisions in SXSW interview

Chris Duncan

In an interview at South by Southwest conducted by senior writer Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, reddit co-founder Steve Huffman, aka u/spez, addressed controversies across reddit’s history and coming back to the company he founded while in college.

After selling reddit to Conde Nast in 2006, Huffman stepped away from reddit in 2009, only to come back in 2015 to a company without direction. Since, Huffman took over as CEO and brought the website back in line, but certainly not without controversy. Reddit’s latest debate revolves around Russian influence in political posts, but Huffman assured the audience from the start that reddit is working hard to make everything right.

“It is an ongoing investigation, so we can’t share everything we know and everything we’re doing,” Huffman said. “Since the beginning of reddit, we’ve cared about the authenticity. Reddit is the most human place on the internet, and with politics, reddit is… there are always fireworks. To see the integrity of reddit attacked, that’s a top priority for us.”

Huffman said the main issues come from a few hundred accounts they would classify as “inauthentic.” Most of these accounts were already banned by moderators, but the ones left, one made public, were deactivated. Addressing the issue of fake news on the site, Huffman said his company’s website is a space for discussion on everything, but it’s users’ jobs to figure out fact from fiction.

“You can’t have a view on reddit that isn’t questioned or beat up,” Huffman said. “In the current political climate, I think they burden is on all of us to pay close attention… Reddit’s role is to be a platform for debates, and as it relates to fake news, I think the burden is on all of us to be discerning and assign significance to certain pieces of news.”

Pivoting the conversation toward Huffman’s return to reddit in 2015, Lagorio-Chafkin asked Huffman what his first day back was like. He said after leaving reddit in 2009, the company increased ten fold in size, and the company had to completely change direction. Referring to certain racist subreddits without naming them, Huffman said the decision to ban the communities was difficult but ultimately the correct choice.

“The mistake we made was being tied to a notion that there is a right and wrong,” Huffman said. “In reality when you get to that line, it’s quite flexible. If we played it all over again, I’d want to accept that there’s no certain one way, but we need to do what’s best for the community.”

Lagorio-Chafkin brought up r/The_Donald, a pro-President Trump subreddit widely known in the community for its strong support of President Trump. Huffman joked, pretending he didn’t know the subreddit, but then dove into a direct answer.

“Foremost, it’s a political community,” Huffman said. “It’s crass and offensive, and that’s part of their identity. We watch them fairly closely, and we hold them to the same standard that we hold the rest of the community. We’ve had our challenges, and we’ve had to remove moderators before. Places like The_Donald conflict with our values, but live within our content policy. I was talking about people challenging us, and there it is.”

Now with a staff of over 300 people, reddit is the fourth most-visited website in the world, but Huffman says it wasn’t without a complete reorganization. He said of the 70 that were working with the company when he rejoined, about 20 are still around. Labeling it as “natural selection,” Huffman explained that as reddit changed its direction and re-thought the platform, some people just didn’t want to stay around.

Addressing the website’s upcoming redesign, Huffman said that reddit’s 100,000-200,000 active communities give users a home. He said that the reason reddit has a fanatic loyalty is because it plays a role in people’s lives, building a cross-section of humanity. Huffman wants reddit to be accessible to everyone on the planet, giving the best experience possible to everyone through a new design while keeping the company’s core principles on its mind.

“We’re basically rebuilding the entire UI of reddit,” Huffman said. “But identity is your choice. Your identity at work is different from your identity at home. We will never require you to use your full, real world identity. People come to reddit to talk about themselves or ask questions about things that might be deeply personal. Other times, people come to do a Q&A, and the claim they’re president and need to identify themselves.”

Wrapping up the talk and taking questions, Huffman boldly said he knows he made the right decision in life to leave the company he founded HipMunk and steer reddit in the right direction.

“When I look back at my life and ask what I regret, there aren’t many regrets,” Huffman said. “Just a lot of learning moments.”