“The cats? What do you mean, ‘the cats?’ ”
Steve Huffman, the 33-year-old co-founder and CEO of Reddit, one of the most visited sites in the world, look puzzled for a brief moment before considering his answer. As the crowd in Alumni Hall tittered, he acknowledged that yes, Reddit, valued at about $600 million, owes some of its success to members of the feline persuasion, hinting at the plentiful threads of cat videos, cat pictures and cats slapping at various things contained on the online message board.
“They haven’t hurt,” he admitted, grinning and drawing another round of laughter.
But, he added, it’s more than that. So much more.
“People often ask how Reddit works and one of the ways I describe it is ‘Users come for the cats, and they stay for the empathy,’ ” he said. “So you come for this like goofy, mean, dirty behavior, and it’s fun. But the more you come for that, the more you start to stumble across the real human connection and empathy out of it.
“And that’s where I think our value is.”
On Friday, Huffman visited Penn State’s campus, entertaining the light and flippant, but also delving into deeper conversations: questions about the internet’s influence on human behavior, free speech and censorship, topics all found on the popular message board. His talk concluded Penn State Startup Week, a showcase of entrepreneurship and innovation that has expanded to the entire campus for the first time.
Huffman sold Reddit to Conde Nast Publications in 2006, a year after co-founding the company and graduating from the University of Virginia. After his contract expired in 2009, he left to co-found Hipmunk, a travel search site, and helped guide the venture to prominence.
But he returned to Reddit in 2015 as CEO, taking over at a time when the site’s massive online community was at odds with the company’s direction.
“I came back in 2015 when Reddit was in a very difficult time,” he said. “The users were in open revolt, the product hadn’t changed, the culture of the company was not great, morale was very low.”
With his return, Reddit announced a new content policy aimed at banning illegal activity, harassment and other behavior that could cause harm to others.
“Things had to change,” he said.
Like Facebook and other major social sites, today Reddit is caught in the whipsaw between privacy and transparency, decency and free speech. Huffman addressed several questions related to these debates, including one about curated content. In a world guided increasingly by “likes” and algorithms, users of social platforms can create their own echo chamber, Huffman said, amplifying a singular narrative.
It’s a problem, he said, he thinks about often.
“So when I say ‘come for the cats, stay for the empathy,’ part of that empathy is being exposed to viewpoints that are different from your own,” he said. “I think that’s one of the powerful things that Reddit does, is that it gives you a glimpse into other people’s perspectives.”
But whereas the internet is often associated with recidivism, Huffman views it as a place for redemption. A place for reinvention.
His relationship with Redditors, the name for the community he created, is proof. One of them in the crowd asked about how a controversy on the message board fit into the company’s vision of being “a force for good.”
Reddit, Huffman said earlier, is not just about cats, but about something more important: Being curious about the world around you.
“I think what’s really cool about Reddit,” he said, “in its purest form, is it is a reflection of humanity.”