UVA grad and Reddit founder talks about the Obama interview that shook the Internet

President Barack Obama tweeted this photo of his Reddit session Wednesday afternoon in Charlottesville. President Barack Obama tweeted this photo of his Reddit session Wednesday afternoon in Charlottesville.

For a lot of locals, Barack Obama’s arrival in Charlottesville Wednesday overshadowed another significant appearance the President made: his half-hour “Ask Me Anything” interview on the crowd-sourced news and information site Reddit.

Reddit, which bills itself as “the front page of the Internet,” is a powerful force on the web, a meme factory where news stories, design concepts, and, yes, funny cat pictures are born, shared, and then bounced around the Internet. If that sounds trivial, consider this: According to the site, it passed 3 billion monthly pageviews this summer.

The “Ask Me Anything” subfeature, which allows Redditors to pose real-time questions to an interviewee, has become increasingly popular. It’s a remarkable coincidence, then, that the most prominent AMA host ever logged on just a few miles from where the idea for Reddit was conceived.

“I was in Alderman Library when we came up with the name Reddit,” a mashup of “read it” and “edit,” said co-founder Alexis Ohanian, a 2005 graduate of UVA. The former pre-law student had recently walked out of an LSAT prep course after realizing he wanted to go after bigger things. (Or maybe he was just craving waffles, but that’s another story.)

Ohanian said he was thrilled that Obama agreed to talk directly to the Reddit community, and marveled at strange fact that he conducted the interview in Downtown Charlottesville, backstage before his Pavilion appearance. It was a wildly successful half-hour in terms of site traffic. Still, some have pointed out that it was a reasonably safe appearance for the President. Slate ran an article entitled “The Ten Reddit Questions That Obama Should Have Answered,” saying that “the queries he fielded—on Internet freedom, the space program, beer, and basketball—were a lot less interesting than the questions he dodged.”

But Ohanian said crowd-sourcing interviews is a good way to gather up the questions that people really want asked, so that people can put the screws to public figures further down the line.

“I’d assume the debates we’re going to see in October are going to be very similar in the sense that we aren’t really going to get the questions answered that we would like,” he said, and most interviews with politicians these days remain pretty unsatisfactory. “But the good news is when you have a format like Reddit that can source the diverse opinions of a lot of people and see what’s most important among them, then we at least have the questions to ask. But let’s use these questions as our ammunition for when we have a camera on an official, or when we have a more traditional interview format. And then let’s actually ask them when we have the opportunity to do it and hold them accountable. The crowd source model isn’t the end-all solution, but let’s use what it’s best at.”