Twenty-four-year old digital information activist and Reddit alumnus Aaron Swartz, in the news lately due to extreme charges of cyber crime, says on his website that he “co-founded the online news site Reddit.”
The problem? Reddit co-founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian don’t agree–and both sides cite the same Paul Graham quote as evidence.
Mr. Huffman, Mr. Ohanian and Mr. Swartz were members of the same Y Combinator class, where Mr. Huffman and Mr. Ohanian were working on Reddit and Mr. Swartz was working on a start-up called Infogami. According to Mr. Ohanian, Mr. Swartz joined the two founders six months into Reddit, and a new entity was formed called “Not A Bug,” the company that later sold to Conde Nast. Mr. Swartz is a co-founder of Not A Bug, says Mr. Ohanian, but it’s not accurate to call him a founder of Reddit.
“I know the founder term is tricky, but there just doesn’t seem to be any gray area from our POV,” Mr. Ohanian said in an email. “Steve and I do not consider him a co-founder and have simply avoided talking to him since we asked him to resign. In our eyes, there’s our mountain of facts that is somehow called into question because of one quote from PG that can be interpreted two ways and Aaron’s website.”
Mr. Ohanian has been correcting journalists and forum contributors and anyone who calls Mr. Swartz a co-founder, but “people keep running with it for the pageviews,” he told Betabeat via email. “Reddit Co-Founder Charged With Data Theft,” the original headline on a New York Times Bits post, is certainly more clickable than the revised “Internet Activist Charged in M.I.T. Data Theft” after Mr. Ohanian corrected reporter Nick Bilton. But news outlets including the Huffington Post, Time and Yahoo News continue to use the title in their headlines, not to mention the thousands of smaller outlets and forums.
It’s a battle Mr. Ohanian cannot win, but Betabeat set out to settle the question.
The ambiguous Paul Graham quote in dispute is from a four-year old Reddit thread in which Mr. Graham commented: “Aaron’s not wrong to call himself one of the founders. The company behind Reddit was a merger of two startups, one that made Reddit and one that made Infogami, and in that situation the founders of both startups are considered founders of the combined company.”
Mr. Ohanian says this means Mr. Swartz is a co-founder of Not A Bug, but not a founder of Reddit.
Mr. Swartz’s story is a little different. “I thought Paul G settled this years ago,” he told Betabeat via Twitter, linking to the above quote.
“Let me first say that I’m much more interested in doing new things rather than trying to take credit for old ones,” he said in an email. “But if you’re just trying to get the history right, I will make one observation … As you can see from the top of the page, Paul is responding to someone calling me ‘Reddit cofounder Aaron Swartz.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been referred to publicly as one of the founders of ‘Not A Bug’ because no one would know what that means, so it would be weird for Paul to be talking about that.”
In a 2007 interview, Mr. Swartz says he helped the other two entrepreneurs come up with the idea for Reddit in the months leading up to Y Combinator.
“No one disputes that Steve and I were the only two people involved in the company that created and launched Reddit,” Mr. Ohanian said.
“That’s 100 percent false. Neither Steve nor I even knew who Aaron was back then.”
He has not asked Mr. Swartz directly to stop using the term, preferring instead to contact those who use the term directly and publish his and Mr. Huffman’s version on Google+. “I’m not sure why he’s doing that. He’s never discussed it with me,” Mr. Swartz told Betabeat in a tweet. He’s said before that he would stop using the title if Mr. Huffman and Mr. Ohanian asked him to.
Who to believe? For the time being, Betabeat will refer to Mr. Swartz as an early Reddit employee (no. 4, to be precise), as Mr. Graham refers to a start-up “that made Reddit” before Mr. Swartz joined the team, and his statement also contradicts Mr. Swartz’s claim to working on the idea before the incubator’s Summer Founders session started; Mr. Swartz also revised that claim on his website, where he says he joined Reddit after he failed to raise funding for Infogami.
However it seems the only way to settle this for good would be to ask Daddy Graham himself, who more than understandably did not respond to Betabeat’s tweet (he was meeting with 29 start-ups in one day!) and is off traveling and away from email. We’ll try to catch him when he comes to town next month, but we have a feeling the affable investor would just give a diplomatic answer anyway.
UPDATE: In response to this post, Mr. Swartz sent this comment: “Interesting. It’s strange, because when we were working together, we always referred to each other as co-founders. See, for example, this press release (which, as I recall, Alexis wrote). I wonder what changed his mind.”