How Reddit Got Started

Had a surprising moment on r/MildlyInteresting Reddit today--it seems Snoo ended up on this children's toy.

I got started chatting with Redditors and answering questions about the early days and how that doodle I made while bored my senior year at UVA ended up on a fake plastic credit card.

Here's an excerpt from my book, Without Their Permission that covers how Reddit got started. Since I've already typed it out before, I figured I'd just share it online.

Early Decisions

Once we were accepted into Y Combinator, we got back to studying for finals and enjoying our last weeks of college.

On 4/14/05, Steve Huffman wrote:

Paul said it would be nice to whip up a prototype. We don’t need to make anything work, but a quick page to show what our site might look like could be cool. Do you have any time this weekend?


To which I responded:

yeah man,

sat afternoon or sunday—all day sunday would work well. i have some ideas, but i’ll need to sit down and sketch some things out with ya.


There it is. Were you expecting something more dramatic? Two college seniors just agreeing to get together over their laptops one weekend. That’s how mundane starting what would become the 9th largest website in the USA is. There’s no parting of clouds or springing from foreheads—just deciding to set aside some time on a Sunday to get some work done.

We did start thinking about reddit a bit, although I didn’t come up with the name until a couple of weeks later. I promptly registered it on April 29, just a few days after my twenty-second birthday.

After graduation, Steve and I started working in earnest in a rented apartment in Medford, Massachusetts, a quiet neighborhood outside Cambridge. I’d found the place, which was subleased by some Tufts students, on craigslist; all I knew was that it needed to be on the MBTA Red Line and it had to be cheap. We’d shown up with a month’s worth of clothes (it was already furnished), our laptops, and some sketches in our notebooks, including one of the logo and one of our alien mascot (in truth, I’d created these months before we’d even figured out how the site would work. Priorities!).

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. 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 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. These could be links to an article, a video, or even a photo of a cat; if users like it, they vote it up (and vote it down if they don’t). Neologisms like upvote and downvote came into existence without any forethought—I just liked the way an up-and-down arrow looked.

The first version of the site used two words a user could click on, interesting and boring. We even debated dropping the “negative vote”—whatever it’d end up being called or looking like—in favor of a binary “I like this!” button, perhaps in the shape of a star. Fortunately, we’d already had a taste for how good it felt to bring a bit of retribution to the submitter of a bad link with a click of the downvote button, so it stayed and I got back to redesigning exactly how those arrows should look—down to the pixel.

We didn’t anticipate how much people would adore getting these upvotes, but we did know that the karma score (your total upvotes minus your total downvotes) would be a great incentive, especially early on, for people to submit. And when you’re trying to build a community from scratch, you need a simple system to encourage participation. The point system was neither novel nor fancy; it just worked. Steve engineered a clever algorithm to keep links rising and falling based on their votes and time, producing constant freshness.

The most pivotal product decision we made seemed much less important at the time but was our first big fight. I really wanted “tags” as a way to categorize content, and Steve insisted we let users launch their own reddits within our network (we’d call them subreddits). Just like WordPress was a blogging platform for online publishing, reddit would be a platform for online communities. It didn’t seem important at the time, but Steve was absolutely right and it’s a damn good thing he won because that decision would ultimately drive reddit’s success where all of our then competitors failed. We combined this simple point system with the ability for anyone to create a forum for an online community to share and discuss links—from NFL fans (r/NFL) to corgi lovers (r/corgi). The resulting network is a black hole of productivity worldwide.

We applied essentially the same model to our commenting system, which as a result generates the best discussions on the Internet. We added that commenting system a few months after we launched and I still remember Steve promising “something awesome” as he dashed off to get started building it—boy, did he deliver. I wish more people copied the reddit commenting system so I wouldn’t have to question my faith in humanity every time I watch a YouTube video and glance at the comments. But we started, as all startups do, with only ourselves as users.

I came up with the name reddit (as in, “I read it on reddit”) while I was in the Alderman Library at UVA one day, but we didn’t settle on it until just a couple of weeks before the launch. It was almost reditt, but fortunately I asked my friend Melissa Goldstein which bastardization made more “sense.” She chose wisely, and I stuck with reddit from then on. Yet it nearly became something else. Thanks, Melissa.

Excerpt from my bestselling book, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.