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Why Is This Man Running For President Of The Internet?

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Alexis Ohanian started Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet.” Then he helped kill SOPA, the bill that threatened to destroy it. Now he's running for President. Of the whole thing.

Illustration by John Gara

It’s an unseasonably cold early October evening in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is giving his elevator pitch to a flustered but rapt woman behind the counter of a fast-food joint, Runza, where he’s picking up 45 servings of the eponymous Nebraskan meat and bread dish to bring back to a party at a local sports startup. “Have you heard of Hudl?” he asks, explaining in unbroken paragraphs how the power of the internet is changing high school and college sports. The woman laughs, an is this guy for real? kind of nervous giggle. But he’s dead serious.

It’s the off-the-cuff version of a stump speech I’d seen him give a few hours earlier, to a crowd of about a hundred at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. ("We need to be good stewards of technology.") I’d watched him tell the crowd about Geek Day, a digital march on Washington that he had set into motion the day before, and tout his site's success in fighting the anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA — including the $94 million in lobbying, largely from the entertainment industry, that had pushed them to the brink of passing. He also tells a story about a trucker he met in Colorado who didn’t even know he was an “Internet Freedom” supporter until Alexis explained what that meant, and then — from the stage — he calls Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican who supported SOPA, to ask him why (he gets voicemail). He refers to the President of the United States, without hesitation, as POTUS.

Ohanian speaking at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The whole time, though, he’s subtly code-switching to speak to one of the invisible constituencies he knows is present: Redditors. These, after all, are his people, his true believers. So he references bacon. He uses the word “epic.” He acknowledges memes, like Advice Animals.

When he leaves the stage, he shakes hands and poses for pictures; had a baby been there, he might’ve kissed it. Then he’s off to the next stop, a high school football game, in a tour bus that had at one time been leased by the McCain campaign and converted into the “Straight Talk Express.” Now, it’s been painted over — half red, half blue — and along with Ohanian and a few other Reddit staffers, is also carrying a small press corps (BuzzFeed included), a documentary crew, representatives from farming startup AgLocal, and a staffer at the newly formed Internet Association lobbying group. It is trailed, loudly, by an impressive car-buggy designed by open source automotive startup Local Motors.

If you didn’t know any better, you might think that Alexis Ohanian — the insistently goofy, imposingly tall, never-off 29-year-old cofounder of what is arguably the largest cohesive community on the internet — is running for office. And in fact, he kind of is — but for a position that doesn’t yet exist.

Alexis Ohanian wants to be the President of the Internet. And he’s pretty sure he knows what he needs to do to get there.


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