Review by Tess Tabak
In this thick tome, Christine Lagorio-Chafkin faithfully traces Reddit’s history from its 2005 inception to the present day. We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory reads like a real-life version of HBO’s Silicon Valley. Caveat: real life is a bit less interesting than TV, so this book may only appeal to those with an interest in business or diehard Reddit fans.
This book is part biography of Reddit, and part a story of the company’s path from conception to corporatization, and its rocky journey towards becoming self-sustaining (turning a profit). Chafkin touches upon the problematic aspects of Reddit: users who choose to share revenge porn, child porn, as well as the harassment and doxing of women, and so on. However, while she frowns on these, she doesn’t dive deeply into the ethics of the site. For the most part, this is a faithful biography of Reddit’s founders and of the company itself. It’s organized event by event, going through every significant event in Reddit’s history. Some of these are intriguing – I didn’t know that Reddit played a part in organizing the Daily Show’s Rally to Restore Sanity, for example.
However, Chafkin goes into what was (for me) a boring amount of detail about the personal lives of the founders. Unless you already care about Alexis Ohanian, Steve Huffman, and Aaron Swartz, this book goes into way too much detail – like, we get updates on the health of a woman Alexis Ohanian once dated briefly in 2004. They had a rocky relationship! I’m going to file that under ‘things I didn’t know I didn’t want to know, but now I do, oh well’.
My brother, who works in tech, seemed horrified that I wasn’t more interested in Aaron Swartz, a sort of programming folk hero. However, from an outsider’s perspective I don’t see anything particularly unique about the Reddit guys, nor have they overcome much adversity. Huffman and Ohanian get literally handed the idea and funding for Reddit by a man who takes an interest in them. Then Aaron Swartz, who just happens to be around, makes a million dollars from the idea as well. And we’re supposed (I think) to feel sorry for them because the company didn’t sell for as many million dollars as its competitor, the now-defunct Digg.
At the end of the day, I’m just not in the mood to read about a bunch of mostly white, mostly male, programmers. Lagorio-Chafkin tries – hard – to paint founders Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman as scrappy underdogs. While that might be slightly true of Ohanian, who grew up sort of lower middle class, and Swartz, who struggled with mental illness, Huffman lived a cushy life with supportive parents who gave him a computer to practice on from an early age and nurtured his programming interests. While it’s fine to be nurtured and it’s nice to have money, it’s disingenuous to call them underdogs.
The tone is another issue. Lagorio-Chafkin chose to write about Reddit from an outsider’s perspective. For example, she includes pronunciation notes on usernames that may seem obvious to Redditors, such as “Violentacrez (pronounced ‘Violent Acres’).” Also, something about the way she’s laid everything out in meme-y, hyper-exciting language has a … flattening effect. In a chapter titled “Unbelievable Because It’s So Weird,” the reveal inevitably felt like a letdown. Reddit CEO quit via email, which is strange, but I found myself thinking, “That’s… not so weird. I can believe that.” However, Chafkin does an excellent job of laying out the groundwork explaining what happened: the CEO in question had been having a mini-breakdown for the previous few chapters, so it’s very clear why he quit the way he did.
There’s an interesting book under the surface here, but you may have to slog through a lot to get there. I think this book may have benefited from a gear change somewhere along the way. I think she could have written a much more interesting book if she’d refocused on the politics of website itself, and included the founders’ personal lives tangentially. Something in the last chapter of the book makes me question the choices Lagorio-Chafkin made in what to include, and what to leave out. Ohanian, who married Serena Williams, has a baby with her. The author wrote that, “Ohanian and Williams drove to the local hospital … [They] emerged six days later with a healthy baby.” However, in between those two sentences, Serena Williams almost died.
The birth was included in the wrap-up mode/epilogue portion, so I can see why the author didn’t go into the ordeal, but it does make me wonder what else was left on the table that could have been more interesting than what was in the book. Or rather, maybe I wish she had condensed other sections a little more? As a journalism major I understand how hard it is to throw out hard-earned pieces of information from a story, but sometimes you just have to ditch and simplify to make a more compelling narrative. Instead, we get almost everything here, for better or worse.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.