Reddit’s CEO on why it’s partnering with OpenAI and Google
Jun 10, 2024

Reddit’s CEO on why it’s partnering with OpenAI and Google

Following Reddit’s successful stock offering, Steve Huffman explains how the company plans to do business with Big Tech and contribute to AI development while preserving the site's community focus and defending users' privacy.

The network of online communities known as Reddit has millions of weekly active users. They post on “subreddit” forums like r/WhatShouldICook — a place where people just talk about their dinner plans — and r/ShowerThoughts, where participants share what they’re thinking during routine tasks.

The co-founder and CEO of Reddit, Steve Huffman, is a fan of r/Daddit, being a father himself. Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Huffman at Reddit headquarters in San Francisco, where they talked about the company selling stock and its recent licensing agreements with the likes of Google and Open AI, which use Reddit content to train their large language models.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Steve Huffman: Things are good right now, and I don’t take that for granted, right? There’s always something going on in the world or something going on on Reddit. The [initial public stock offering] was a long time coming. We were very excited to do that, most excited for our users, who have a deep sense of ownership over Reddit, to actually have an opportunity to be actual owners. And so I’m really glad we got there. And honestly, I’m just glad to be back to work, to be honest with you.

Lily Jamali: There were some folks in your communities, some Redditors out there, who were, you know, a little bit negative about the prospect of an IPO. The thinking was, if you try to monetize these communities, is that going to adversely affect the experience of users? Do you feel like those concerns have been put to rest now?

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and Marketplace's Lily Jamali sit at a table and look at a laptop.
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and Marketplace’s Lily Jamali browse through some of Huffman’s favorite subreddits. (Daisy Palacios/Marketplace)

Huffman: I think, first, any concern from a user, literally almost anything, is a result of them really caring about Reddit. I think Reddit is unique in that everything interesting about Reddit is created by our users — all of the communities, all the rules, the culture, the vibe, the content. And so anything that might risk that they will be concerned about. And so an IPO is a big change. But what I tell our employees is the same thing I tell investors, is now what I tell our user-investors, is that the reason we’re here today at all, right? We’ve been doing this 19 years. It’s because we do things the Reddit way, which is community first, mission first. It’s at the heart of everything we do. And so we’ve even made decisions over the years that would probably compromise growth because we think it’s the right thing to do for Reddit.

Jamali: Can you give me an example?

Huffman: Sure. I think if you look at social media broadly, it’s powered by kind of creating the social graph: Friends and family and followers and famous people, I call it the F’s, leads to actual exponential growth. Reddit, it’s never grown exponentially. There’s lots of products or features we could have built to maybe do that. But I think it would have probably undermined the way Reddit works, which is organizing around communities. Communities have been a slower grower, but very, very resilient. But if you’re on Reddit, it’s a very different experience to what you would have on social media where it’s really community first, content first and identity last.

Jamali: So it’s sort of a fundamentally human place.

Huffman: It is the most human place on the internet, yes.

Jamali: You know, there’s the ad revenue that’s coming in, that’s been a big driver of revenue for you. But then you’ve also entered into these big licensing deals, probably most notably with Google and OpenAI recently. Talk about the mission behind those deals. Why did you enter into those agreements?

Huffman: Sure. So when we look at the landscape and where it’s going, it kind of left us with a couple of options, only one of which we like. And so the first option was stay basically wide open and permissive, which is where we’ve been for most of our history.

Jamali: So basically allow people to come in and take what they want?

Huffman: That’s right. And you know, that worked, honestly, for a while because the main two consumers of that were Google, who sends us lots of users, helps users discover Reddit and find their communities on Reddit, so great. 

Jamali: So there’s some symbiosis there, at least.

Huffman: For sure. And researchers, people who are kind of learning things about people, about the internet, about Reddit, and publishing them. So that’s also very valuable. But we’ve seen the internet evolve over the last couple of years where people are scraping us and crawling us and using our data for who knows what? Now, that puts us in a position of “All right, do we close it off?” But we believe in the open internet, and we think our users have benefited as the company has benefited also from our content being out there in the right areas. And so we’ve taken kind of a middle approach. Our data can be used, but under our terms, making sure that we know where it’s going, what it’s used for, that we’re respectful of user privacy — these things are really important. And so we want to hold on to the best, most important parts of the open internet without causing problems for our users or the company.

Jamali: And to that end, you all recently announced, it was in May, this public content policy, which has been described as something of a balancing act. So you just talked about this a second ago, that there’s this desire to keep protecting user privacy on the one hand. On the other hand, you’re licensing content out to these Big Tech companies. How does that work? I mean, how do you accomplish both of those things together? What do you say to people who think you can’t do those things at the same time?

Huffman: So our public content policy is kind of a new concept on the internet, right? Every company including Reddit has a privacy policy, which basically dictates and documents what you do with private information.

Jamali: And you already have one of those.

Huffman: We have one of those, and it’s fairly restrictive. So things like what we call private behavior on Reddit, like what you’re doing, what you’re into, what you’re browsing, that’s all private. And that’s staying private. But Reddit is a public platform. And so the content that you put on Reddit is there for everybody to see. And so we want to make it clear to users that, hey, it’s all out there, like, you should know what you’re getting into when you’re on Reddit. You’re putting things on the public internet, which is why, for example, we don’t require users to put their real-world identity on Reddit as well. But in our public content policy, we also made it clear that there are terms for anybody who wants access to that content. And so if you’re a user browsing Reddit, you just read it and enjoy it. But if you’re a commercial or noncommercial entity who’s looking at that content or using that content, it comes with constraints. And so we basically said it might be, I mean, it’s definitely on the internet, we might do agreements, but these agreements come with these constraints. And these constraints are really important. And it’s not just wide open.

Jamali: OpenAI specifically had faced, and still does, criticism for alleged privacy violations and unauthorized data scraping. So with that in mind, why partner with them in particular?

Huffman: So any partnership we do comes with constraints. I think, broadly, it’s important that Reddit be in search [engines]. I think it’s good for the internet, it’s good for consumers. I think Reddit being a part of large language models is really important as well, right? Reddit is the largest corpus of human conversation that’s accessible on the internet. And that advances these technologies, and I think these technologies can be very important. But again, for Reddit to be a part of it, it has to be done on our terms. And so that’s what we’re looking for in these arrangements.

Jamali: So in other words, if OpenAI or Google or whoever else is going to use this massive trove of all these messages and posts and conversations that people are having from Reddit to train their large language models, you get to call the shots, at least to some extent, by entering into these partnerships.

Huffman: That’s right. I think the intentionality of this is really, really important because we have people today, companies that we haven’t mentioned yet, that are taking our data and abusing it.

Jamali: Do you want to mention some of those entities?

Huffman: No. But we are working to stop the abuse. And I think that’s really, really important.

Jamali: And really quickly, how does Reddit ensure that a partner, like an OpenAI or a Google, is abiding by the privacy policies that you want them to follow? Which is part of something you laid out in the statement when this policy was released.

Huffman: I mean, we wouldn’t do any agreement here or in any other part of our business with partners that we can’t work with, right? So that for any relationship, there has to be a foundation of trust. And so yes, there will be companies we simply won’t work with because I don’t think we will be able to come to an agreement, let alone enforce it.

Jamali: All right. Well, you said that it’s been, I thought it was 18. But it’s actually 19 years that Reddit has been around?

Huffman: It’ll be 19 years in [about] two weeks.

Jamali: In two weeks, OK. So we’ll call it 19. What will the next 19 years look like at this company?

Huffman: You know, it’s funny, like, 19 is a long time, not just on the internet and certainly in my years. It’s been a lot of my life [spent] on this. But it also feels like it’s just the beginning. I think that’s one of the fun things I think about working on this, is it still, today, feels really new. And it’s such a privilege to work on Reddit because we get to work on this really fun product that I think we’ve only kind of scratched the potential. And then we also get to, I think, be a part of the evolution of the internet and some of these big policy conversations that we’ve been chatting about.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer