Reddit co-founder and chief executive Steve Huffman, now six months into the job, posted on the site Thursday that Reddit is beta-launching an Android app, assembling a "transparency report," and working on A/B testing in order to make "Reddit better." That likely entails making tweaks to the look and feel of the homepage -- something Reddit has been resistant to in the past.
What he didn't say immediately, and which no news outlet seemed to notice, might be the biggest news yet: The company's first hire a decade ago, the very close friend of both Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, the man who held Reddit together and acted as its CEO after its sale to Condé Nast -- long after both Huffman and Ohanian had left the company -- is returning.
His name is Chris Slowe. If you haven't heard of him before, it's because he's a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, humble and calm and deeply intelligent. (Or, perhaps, because he's better known on the Internet as KeyserSosa, a slight misspelling of the name of the antagonist in The Usual Suspects.) He's been a frequent Redditor, even in his years away from the company -- in which he's been building the travel website Hipmunk with Huffman -- and has even amassed over the years more Reddit link karma than Huffman.
The role he's taking now at Reddit is a new one -- that of "founding engineer." Let's assume it's likely he created that title himself. Huffman says the return of his close friend and longtime colleague to Reddit wasn't something they'd been scheming behind the scenes. Rather, it was so natural that he knew it was going to happen eventually.
"I didn't ask him, really. It was more that he informed me when he was returning," Huffman said in an email. "We've worked together our entire careers, so practically it wasn't going to go any other way."
Turns out, Slowe's been advising the company in a casual way since summer, and returned full-time January 4. He tells Inc. he'll be working on a lot of unfinished projects -- some he swears have been around since he left Reddit in 2010, when it had only six employees total (now it has roughly 90). One of those big projects is tweaking the homepage -- including the "hot" algorithm, which is both crucial and so sensitive that it could be considered Reddit's spinal cord.
Along with Slowe, another Reddit old-schooler is returning to pick up neglected tickets: software engineer David King.
Slowe met Ohanian and Huffman back in 2005 in Y Combinator -- his desktop-search company, Memamps, was in the same inaugural YC class, though it folded because Google and Apple were also working on the same (desktop search) problem. Slowe joined Reddit around the same time as Aaron Swartz, though Swartz's equity (and eventual payout from the meager Condé Nast acquisition of the following year) dwarfed Slowe's: Slowe was working part-time on Reddit in the evenings while finishing up his PhD in physics at Harvard during the days. (Swartz left Reddit shortly after the acquisition; this month marks the three-year anniversary of his death.)
A founder returning in glory -- as did Huffman and Ohanian -- usually some years after first departing, is nothing unusual. There was Larry Page at Google. Howard Schultz at Starbucks. Michaels Bloomberg and Dell at, well, Bloomberg and Dell. But it's rare -- and perhaps there's no precedent at all -- to see an entire founding team riding back in.
Oddly, the news wasn't really announced in any official way by Reddit -- as if it, like Huffman, simply assumed the return of Slowe was a done deal from his own return as chief executive of the company in mid-July.
But when a Redditor named "kerovon" asked Huffman in the thread whether he had any plans to try to address the fact "the Reddit community has become more bitter and divided, with some groups actively protesting against moderators and large communities," Huffman (who on Reddit goes as spez) wrote:
I believe that's a side effect of our community broadening. As I mentioned elsewhere, improving the front page algorithm and addressing the default situation will go a long way. We're seeing the effects of a bunch of people who have wildly differing viewpoints crammed into a small room.
My dear friend, first Reddit employee, and smartest guy on the planet, u/KeyserSosa, is hard at work on the problem.
(Sorry for calling you out, Chris)
In Thursday's post on Reddit, Huffman also announced Reddit's new iOS app is in the works, and should be out soon.
He seems to be taking the reins aggressively and confidently. He answered users' questions on the site Thursday afternoon, and didn't avoid the tough stuff, i.e. server overloads, shadow-banning users, and a particularly spectacular response to a question about monetizing user-submitted content.
It's too good to not include here, in fact. After a redditor who goes by "mo-reeseCEO1" asked whether there would be "a policy addressing the kind of content that reddit might seek to publish and generate future revenue? or is it anything is up for grabs?" Huffman wrote:
Are you referring to the AMA book? That was a project started quite a while ago with the r/IAMA mods with the aim of making something physical and beautiful to show off in the real world. Proceeds from the book are going to charity, but we're still working with the charity on terms (yes, that's a thing we have to do).
But if you think our best revenue idea is making a book, I'm a little insulted. I mean, I know we have a lot to improve on, but we'd at least sell your personal data to advertisers before getting into publishing for profit.
Ah yes. At least sarcasm is alive and well.
Previously, Huffman has said his concern for the moment isn't revenue. It's getting a fantastic team in place -- Reddit remains chronically understaffed -- followed by rebuilding the company's relationship with moderators and the broader community. "And then," he said in a previous interview, "we can start worrying about monetization."