Ohanian discusses the Internet revolution
Revolution: It’s a term that comes to mind when thinking about the world today. Regimes are overthrown in the Middle East, and forces like the Tea Party and the Occupy movement call for dramatic changes to our own government. Even from a non-political perspective, we live in a time of great change, with smartphones, Twitter, and a whole array of social technologies that change how we get and share information.
This idea of revolution is the thematic core of Without Their Permission, a memoir by Alexis Ohanian, the 30-year-old co-founder of popular viral-content website reddit. Throughout the book, Ohanian discusses the origins of the companies and websites he helped create, gives advice for those also interested in entrepreneurship, and emphasizes the importance of the open environment that helped facilitate such growth in the tech sector.
Ohanian starts off with childhood stories about his family, where his entrepreneurial spirit takes root. The anecdotes are often humorous: Ohanian describes pitching software to uninterested customers at CompUSA as a 14-year-old and recalls fellow reddit co-founder Steve Huffman’s disappointment that the Alexis across the hall in his first-year dorm was, in fact, not a girl.
Throughout the book, Ohanian imbues his stories with a sarcastic humor that helps portray him as a fully fleshed-out individual. When reprinting an email he once sent to Huffman, he apologizes that the keyboard he used to type it must have had a broken button that inserted “bro” throughout the email. It’s self-deprecating, and it’s good to see such a successful entrepreneur make fun of himself.
Ohanian focuses heavily on the concept of gatekeepers: how media for art, products, and creativity once had to go through a middleman before reaching public exposure. Musicians had record labels, filmmakers had studios, and software developers needed distributors. But now, in an age when musicians like Macklemore and Ryan Lewis can release an album independently and have it go platinum, there is no gatekeeper. Distribution is as easy as posting something online, and public exposure depends on whether the masses deem it worthy of their time.
He emphasizes how this environment of an open Internet was crucial to the founding and continued success of reddit and nearly every other web giant out there. On this note, he heavily discusses the threat to this Internet openness that reared its ugly head last year through deliberations over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).
It would have been interesting if Ohanian had tackled the issues that SOPA and PIPA created from a technical or entrepreneurial perspective. The truly compelling point to his discussion, however, is how non-technical people have taken advantage of an open Internet to change the world for the better. One example is that of Debby Guardino, a special education teacher from Virginia who utilized crowdfunding website DonorsChoose.org to raise over $800,000 for schools in Joplin, Mo., after it was hit with an EF5 tornado in May 2011. Ohanian emphasizes that without an open Internet, one of the only job sectors that saw growth throughout the Great Recession — technology — would be crucially hindered, and an entire medium for global humanitarianism would be rendered inoperable.
Without Their Permission is a good read, whether you are a budding tech entrepreneur or just have a passing interest in the Internet (which in this day and age should include everyone). Though at times Ohanian may come off as cocky — as evidenced by the title of the book and his unnecessarily repeated emphasis that you don’t have to ask for permission to change the world — Ohanian’s stories are earnest and inspiring. Whether it’s his advice on how to get your startup company going, or how one act of kindness can have such a ripple effect on the Web, the reader walks away understanding what the Internet ultimately is: a revolution.