Students and faculty gathered on Thursday, Dec. 5 for a talk given by Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of the popular social news site Reddit. The talk was sponsored by the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the online textbook exchange company Texts.com, which was founded by Peter Frank ’12.
“I sent Makaela Kingsley [Director of the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship] an email […] the same day Alexis posted his plans for the tour,” Frank wrote in an email to The Argus. “[I] explained that I’m a huge fan of Reddit—I met my co-founder on /r/NYCJobs [and] recruited my college rep team from /r/Entrepreneurs […]. We often hear that Wesleyan students see the world in a different way, and I think that harnessing technology gives us the ability to act on those insights and affect a change with dramatically more power than playing by yesterday’s rules.”
Ohanian is currently touring to promote his new book, “Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed.”
“I think that the messages in [“Without Their Permission”] are totally relevant and important to the Wesleyan community,” Frank said. “Capped in one sentence, across generations, Wesleyan students and alums have truly strived to ‘make the world suck less’ […]. I’ve personally embraced many aspects of Alexis’ ideology, which hold some crossover with the lean startup movement. We absolutely embrace operating ‘without their permission.’”
Attendees of the event were able to submit questions for Ohanian in advance via the Wesleyan subreddit, /r/Wesleyan, but Ohanian did not address them during his talk. Rather, he delivered an hour-long presentation during which he discussed his experiences with and thoughts on the start-up business, the changing face of entrepreneurship, and the future of the Internet.
“I’m here to talk about…how to be awesome without their permission,” Ohanian said. “I think there’s so much more to come from the people who are designing the things that let us share the great ideas we want.”
Ohanian also highlighted the importance of the current generation in moving Internet entrepreneurship and activism forward.
“The people in power, by and large, don’t understand the Internet the way we do,” he said. “We are all creating the Internet every day, and [in particular], those of us who can write code are literally building the frontier under our feet.”
The importance of perseverance in entrepreneurship also figured prominently in Ohanian’s presentation.
“Life has no grades,” he said. “You can experiment…. You’re allowed to suck. Sucking at something is the first step in being really good at something. And it’s not just business. It’s everything.”
The second part of the talk took the form of a conversation between Ohanian and Frank, who discussed their respective experiences with start-ups. Frank echoed Ohanian’s sentiments on entrepreneurship strategy and perseverance.
“The biggest thing…is just start doing something,” Frank said. “It doesn’t matter how small or how janky it is…. You’ll be in a better position than the people who only dreamed of doing something.”
Ohanian concurred with Frank and encouraged students to strive for their goals.
“We’re always hacking,” he said. “We’re always in situations where we don’t know what we’re doing…. Don’t let ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ stop you.”
However, Ohanian cautioned the audience in his concluding remarks, expressing the sentiment that the road will not always be easy.
“None of this wide-eyed future is guaranteed,” he said. “The Internet is still not accessible to everyone. This technology is world-changing, but it’s only going to change the lives of those who are able to take advantage of it. I will say this: it’s probably mostly on you guys. But I really do hope that this will lead to better things—better businesses, better nonprofits, even better politics.”
Ohanian’s presentation elicited a lukewarm reaction from the audience. The event was promoted as a lecture and book signing; however, not every student who attended received a book, which upset some attendees.
“It was about as Internet-y as I thought it would be,” said Samira Siddique ’15. “[As expected] he talked a lot about startups and entrepreneurship…. I didn’t get a book, though, which is kind of fucked up.”
Gabe Rosenberg ’16 found the talk somewhat lacking and was particularly concerned by some of the topics that Ohanian omitted.
“[There are] a lot of general Internet- [and] citizen journalism-related issues that weren’t addressed,” he said.