Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian on how artists can capitalize on the internet

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian on how artists can capitalize on the internet
Photo by Mark Vancleave

Alexis Ohanian, who co-founded Reddit when he was just out of college, is stopping by the Walker Art Center this Thursday to talk about new opportunities for artists in the internet age. Conde Nast Publications acquired Reddit in 2006, and the site currently is independently run. Ohanian, who has been a vocal defender of net neutrality, published a book last fall, Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made Not Managed, exploring his own story and stressing the importance of keeping the internet free.

Before his visit, we chatted with Ohanian on how artists can get paid through the new technologies that the internet offers.

When did you first start writing Without Their Permission

Alexis Ohanian: You know, I started writing it during the SOPA/PIPA fight. The book drop was October first, so it was probably over the last year. 

Do you feel the issues that came out during SOPA/PIPA are still as urgent now as when you first began writing?  

Well, here's the mind job: A lot of the stuff that I was talking about as being this hypothetical dystopian future was apparently happening the whole time with the NSA. So as the NSA revelations started happening, I revisited that chapter and was like, 'Holy shit! This is an important endeavor, and oddly prescient.' I think one of the reasons the book has been as successful as it has been is because of that timing.

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian on how artists can capitalize on the internet
Without Their Permission: How the 21st Century Will Be Made Not Managed

Why do you think it's important for artists to have a mindset of being able to startup their own company or business? 

Because the last five years have really been an amazing time for artists in terms of technologies that have emerged online that allow artists to not only grow their base but also make a living from it. Some of the most interesting stories in my book are artists who are able to reach that maximum potential for awesome thanks to the internet by using technology that literally didn't exist 10 years ago. I think that's why it's such an exciting time, and why it's important to be not only active, but also plugged into the resources that are on the way and are still in their earliest stages. 

I think every artist has been told at least once by a family member, 'Hey you should do a Kickstarter.' The best part is that it has delivered more money to great projects in the last year than the entire National Endowment for the Arts. It's been an amazing boon for tons of artists who are now getting to do their great projects and otherwise wouldn't have. But this is still in its infancy. The site didn't exist five years ago, and there's so much more innovation to come. So it's not like, 'Hey, we're done. You know, everything's solved.' It's more like, 'Holy shit! Look how far we've come in just five years. There's more money now coming in through this one platform than the entire NEA did in the last year -- but it's just the beginning.'

And I want better art in the world. I want more artists to be able to make a living creating their work, and I think platforms online are helping do that right now. 

What about the concern of maintaining one's copyright as an artist? How can artists protect their best interest while at the same time not be dinosaurs? 
Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian on how artists can capitalize on the internet
Image by Tanya Kechichian
One of the best industries to look at for this would be web comics. Historically, the only way you would have been able to build an audience would have been if you were lucky enough to be in the Sunday comic section in the newspaper. You had to have some gatekeeper signing off on you and everything you did. Today, Cyanide and Happiness, XKCD, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, The Oatmeal are web comics that, by no permission of some editor, now have tens of millions of fans all over the world. Everyday they essentially get their content repurposed and remixed and shared all over the internet. They've been able to rise up as artists in concert with how this technology works.

What they've realized is, as their images get shared and spread, they're building a reputation and a brand that they can capitalize on in a different way. They have built their entire careers knowing that. They are giving away content for free that they want to be shared as art, because the way they are going to get money is that they're going to say, 'Hey, thank you for supporting me. Here are a bunch of ways to do that.' Whether it's through merchandising, which is nothing new, or whether its something radically different, like a site called Patreon.

You know how patrons of the arts used to be millionaires or rich people in a church? Michelangelo couldn't paint the Sistine Chapel without a patron. The internet lets us distribute that, so people can become patrons for a dollar a month or five dollars a month. And by pledging that money, they're now guaranteed a stable, steady source of income. So someone like Zach Weiner of SMBC now has 2,500 patrons of his site and he is making over $7,000 per month just in regular cash flow. If the arts are going to succeed, they are also going to concede that in many cases, piracy is one of the greatest ways to build an audience.


"Creative Entrepreneurship: Making the World Suck Less"
7 p.m. Thursday, January 9
Walker Art Center

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Walker Art Center

1750 Hennepin Ave.
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