Planet Reddit

Loving the Alien: How Erik Martin, King Bee of Reddit’s Hive Mind, Harnessed the Buzz

Clocking 2.5 billion pageviews, the site has left the Condé mothership.
 Loving the Alien: How Erik Martin, King Bee of Reddit’s Hive Mind, Harnessed the Buzz

(Photo: Flickr.com/teuobk)

But in August 2010, an advertising controversy erupted between the stodgy parent company and its willful child. The activist group “Just Say Now” wanted to host self-serve ads on Reddit in support of the proposed California marijuana legalization law Prop 19, but Condé Nast refused. The Reddit team responded by agreeing to host Just Say Now’s ads on their site for free, a move that was still technically within the bounds of the parent company’s rules, but made a strong point.

Reddit’s traffic continued to explode, and in early 2011, the site was getting upward of two billion pageviews a month. Condé Nast wasn’t equipped to handle the technological and cultural challenges that came with that kind of traffic. And the tensions between the little-website-that-could and its old-school parent company were starting to take their toll. “In the spring of 2011, we had one programmer and two system administrators and me,” Mr. Martin explained. “It was kind of a rough time, and I was like, ‘If Reddit needs me to move out to San Francisco, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever Reddit needs. I can’t let this fail.’”

Mr. Martin agreed to move to San Francisco at the behest of Condé, and took on the general manager role. He began to grow the team, hiring a handful of programmers to administer the site. Finally, in September 2011, the company spun Reddit out of the Condé Nast family into its own standalone subsidiary, while still retaining ownership.

“We don’t want to get in users’ way,” Ms. Donlin explained. “We want to serve what the community is already doing. Condé Nast understood that, and it’s why we’re independent. They understood that we needed to be able to do that in order to grow. And they realized in the current structure of Condé Nast, it wasn’t as easy to [grow] because there wasn’t a precedent that was set. We’re more bottom up whereas Condé is more top down.”

Mr. Martin agreed. “The process didn’t allow for [what Reddit needed], that was the main tension. [Condé’s] process is set up for sales cycles that take longer and there’s more sort of time for that kind of vetting and decision-making. But most of the Condé brands have more people on the sales side than we have total employees.”

Reddit hired its first-ever CEO in March 2012, an ex-Pay Pal and Facebook engineer named Yishan Wong. Now, Reddit is a subsidiary of Advance, separate from Condé, and reports to a board populated with executives from both Condé and Advance, along with Mr. Ohanian. “We’ve been working with Advance Publications to complete [R]eddit’s spinoff,” Mr. Wong wrote in a triumphant blog post on Reddit, “[including] a revamped capital structure that will allow [R]eddit to manage its own finances and operations.”

“The way that the site works,” said Kevin Morris, a staff writer at the Daily Dot, in a recent PBS segment about Reddit, “[is that] it tends to attract people who want to know the truth.” In January 2012, the Reddit community’s large-scale vocalization of their opposition to SOPA and PIPA, coupled with support from equally passionate communities on Tumblr and Wikipedia, eventually persuaded lawmakers to table the legislation. Reddit, an online community that had only been around for six years, had successfully helped to defeat the American government.

IN APRIL 2012, MUCH to his surprise, Mr. Martin was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people. For the event, Mr. Martin donned a tuxedo for only the second time ever—the first being a friend’s wedding—and completed the outfit with a shiny pair of Reddit cuff links.

“It was very surreal,” he confided a few weeks after the event. “I’ve never been to something like that. I got to meet Ralph Nader, who is adorable. He asked about Reddit and I explained it to him, but I don’t know if I was successful.”

Mr. Martin is unfailingly humble about his contributions to Reddit. “Any credit I would get,” he said, “would be for not fucking it up.”

“At Reddit, he doesn’t say, ‘Hey, check me out,’” explained Nils Olsen, an old friend of Mr. Martin’s. “He says, ‘Hey, check you out.”

“He can be very humble,” agreed Ms. Donlin. “That humbleness has also been what’s made him so successful.”

Mr. Martin will be moving back to New York in July to focus on the business and media aspects of the site and to run the New York office.

As for that TIME 100 award, it doesn’t appear to have gone to his head.

“Ralph Nader went to give me his business card and he said, ‘Well, I kind of ran out of my current cards, but I grabbed this stack of cards from the 1970s.’ All it had was a P.O. box. It didn’t have a phone number, so he scribbled it on the back,” he said.

“I was like aaahhhh, I am framing this! It was amazing.”

That sounded like an upvote.

A version of this story appeared in the New York Observer the week of Wednesday, June 13th.