Pali Bhat joined Reddit from Google about a year ago — he’s actually Reddit’s first-ever chief product officer, which is pretty surprising considering that Reddit is a series of product experiences: the reading experience, the writing experience, and importantly, the moderation experience. One thing we always say on Decoder is that the real product of any social network is content moderation, and Reddit is maybe the best example of that: every subreddit is shaped by volunteer moderators who use the tools Reddit builds for them. So Pali has a big job bringing all these products together and making them better, all while trying to grow Reddit as a platform.
Pali wanted to come on Decoder to talk about his new focus on making Reddit simpler: simpler for new users to join and find interesting conversations; simpler to participate in those threads; and simpler to moderate. We talked a lot about the tension between what new users need when they’re learning to use Reddit and what Reddit power users want — if the goal is to grow the site, you run the risk of irritating your oldest users with change.
We also talked about video. Reddit is rolling out a dedicated video feed, which sounds a lot like an attempt to compete with TikTok, which every social network is trying to do — and we talked quite a bit about Google and search. Lots of people use Google to find things on Reddit, which is often used as a criticism of Google’s search quality. I wanted to know if Pali thinks Google is vulnerable in search, if Reddit can become a primary search engine for people, and most importantly, what he took from Google’s culture and what he left behind in organizing Reddit’s product team.
This was a really deep conversation, and it touched on a lot of big Decoder themes. I think you’re going to like it. Okay, Pali Bhat, the chief product officer of Reddit. Here we go.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Pali Bhat, you are the chief product officer at Reddit. Welcome to Decoder.
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
We have some news to start the podcast. You’re announcing your plans for Reddit as a product this year. Your theme is simplicity. You’re splitting some of the interface apart to make it more simple and to focus on text and video. How did you arrive at these changes?
The biggest insight we had was that there are tons of people, about 500 million or so folks, who visit us monthly. But honestly, our product is something that should actually be for everyone. We found Reddit to be kind of like this “in” thing, where if you actually got the joke and you’re on the inside, then you really understand Reddit, you love it and see the value of it. You might even start putting “Reddit” in all of your Google search queries so you get Reddit results, because you know that’s the place you trust for authentic information.
If you don’t know about Reddit and you don’t understand it, it’s a bit inscrutable, it’s a bit chaotic, and it’s hard to get. We really wanted to make Reddit for everyone, to keep it great for all the folks that are already there but then keep it welcoming for everyone else. A big push of that is making the product more simple. And simple in every way — simple in how you discover communities, simple in how you join communities, and simple in how you participate. If we can make all those pieces simple, then you can have the conversations you want to have online with anyone in the world.
There’s a piece here that’s really interesting in terms of what Reddit is as a consumer product and what we think of it as, which is a social network. And then what you’re describing is a very classic problem in workplace software. Microsoft Word has power users who want all the buttons, and the new user to Word has no idea how to use the product. Any change you make to help the new user irritates all of your power users. That’s not how we think about social networking products, but that is exactly what you have just described. Is that the tension that you see?
Yeah. Look, it’s about helping the new users not trip over all the power user features, and making it something that they can get from the very beginning. I will say, one of the great things that social networks have done is they’ve made it easy for anyone to come use the product and get it from the get-go. On Reddit, one of the cool things we’ve done is focus on having very high-quality conversations. In fact, I would put forth that Reddit is the best place to have conversations online.
Now, for a new user coming into that mix, you do want to make sure that it’s easy for them to get all of the basics before they graduate into using more of the power features. I think that’s the real nut that we want to crack this year — making everything really, really simple.
We are doing this in a few different ways. First, some folks want to consume text content and some folks want to consume video content. We want to make the whole experience more intentional. You pick the kind of feed you want, and we’ll give it to you. Because we have great content across formats and across modalities, and it’s really about giving users that flexibility and tailoring the whole experience based on the intent of the user.
The second bit is that we want to declutter Reddit. It is chaotic and a little bit too complex for new users. We want to redesign and reorganize that experience so they can navigate Reddit and not have to worry about all of the power user features on day one. They will get to it, because we know there’s value in them, they just don’t have to get to it on day one. Today, we put all of it in front of you.
Are these changes designed to increase user growth? Is it designed to convert people into Reddit signups? It feels like Reddit’s already pretty big. Are you saying you can get even bigger by making it simpler for people to discover the content?
Yes. Reddit’s huge, but the potential is really everyone in the world. Every single person can benefit because we give you an intentional experience. It’s not based on increasing the number of minutes you spend on the app doomscrolling; it’s about engaging in a deep way, where you get value from what you’re doing on Reddit. That’s why you see these trends that you don’t see everywhere else.
For instance, a community like r/WorldNews was one of our top three communities last year. The reason was not because you get all of the breaking news on Reddit, but because the moment there is news, you get to see all of the different perspectives from all around the world right away. The best conversations about that news are happening on Reddit.
Similarly, if you look at something like an r/MadeMeSmile — which is one of our top 50 communities — it’s just one of those positive communities that lifts you up. You hear about brave cancer survivors or you hear about sleepy baby otters. It could be anything, right? It doesn’t only have to be serious. I think the cool thing about Reddit is the community coming together, and it’s very intentional by the very nature of how it’s organized into specific communities.
We have over 100,000 active communities growing every day, and you go engage with them in an intentional way. I think that’s the beauty of Reddit, and we want to bring that intentional experience to everyone. So, yes, we have 500 million folks monthly, but that should actually be billions of users.
The way we get there is by making sure we create a simpler experience that’s tailored for everyone and based on their intent. If you’re a power user, great. You’ll still have all of the amazing things that you love on Reddit. If you’re a new user, we will help you discover Reddit one step at a time.
There are two more sides of the Reddit product here that I think are very interesting. We’ve talked a lot about the consuming side of Reddit, but we should get to the creating side. One underappreciated aspect of Reddit as a software product is that there’s a moderation function. Reddit employs some moderators, but the vast majority of the moderation is done by volunteers in the subreddits themselves. Is that a piece of the software puzzle that you spend a lot of time thinking about? Is it one that just happens?
I’ve participated in forums myself and I moderate our own comments on our site. This is actually a piece of software that a lot of people use, but we never cover it as people who cover consumer internet tools. And yet on Reddit, it’s a core piece of the puzzle.
Absolutely. I think something we got right from day one is getting the community to establish the norms and values that they want for their specific community. Think of Reddit as a community of communities. Each community establishes its own norms and values, and they then go in and ensure that the conversations are staying up to the mark in adherence to those norms and values, which is really awesome.
Of course we have site policies across the board that are enforced by Reddit, but each community then has its own norms and values. The cool thing about this decentralized model, as we’ve seen, is that it’s safer, it scales better, and it keeps the quality of the conversations and content more authentic and at a really high level. When we look at what we do for moderators, we spend a lot of time thinking about the tools we are building to make moderator lives easier.
In fact, one of the things that we introduced last year was this internal thing called MEOWs, which stands for moderator experience-oriented wins. We had a whole team that was created around just getting more MEOWs out there, and it’s really laser-focused on moderator experience and making that so much better. We’ve just released a series of tools to help moderators do better crowd control, manage an influx of new users, and ensure that moderator and user experiences are kept safe.
“We had a whole team that was created around just getting more MEOWs out there.“
We really take a lot of pride in the platform we’ve established. We have a lot more work to do, but we’re excited to continue to build on that. We think the decentralized structure of Reddit — where we have volunteer moderators, who oftentimes are experts in that area, coming together to help keep the communities safe, thriving, and growing — is exactly what we want to continue to enable. That’s a key part of the Reddit experience.
You also talked about another piece, which is everyone who is contributing. We have tens of billions of user votes that are on Reddit every year: upvotes, downvotes, and things like that. In a core way, that really determines what content actually rises up to the top and what actually falls. That’s actually another key piece of it as well.
In many ways, Reddit is the platform that democratizes creation. We usually think of creation as, “Oh, I made a video,” or, “I took a selfie.” But in a very core way, users determining what aspects of conversations, posts, or comments will rise to the top, is one of the acts of democratizing creation that I think Reddit has done really well.
One of the themes on Decoder is that the true product of any social network is actually content moderation. The things that define the end user experience are the content moderation and tools that are delivered to enable content moderation. That’s what drives people to make whatever it is they make on the platform. Reddit is unique. It has volunteer moderators and you build a set of tools for them to express their values on all the subreddits. Do you agree with the thesis that the heart of the product is moderation?
It’s certainly a foundational pillar of why Reddit has scaled to the level it has, but has still managed to create that authentic experience. I’ll give you the classic example. We launched this little thing on April 1st of last year, called r/Place, where any user could go in and simply place a tile. They were building this canvas, if you will. You can only place one tile, so the only way you create something meaningful is by working together with your community.
Any other place on the internet, that would’ve been spammed, and you would have had something that wasn’t really worth looking at. On Reddit, with r/Place, it was actually this incredible creation. You had the Ukrainian flag, flags of different countries, art, et cetera. It was magic that was created by the communities working together. A big part of why that’s enabled is because of the content moderation that you’re talking about. With Reddit, it’s scaled, it’s decentralized, and it’s done by the community. I think that’s the truly differentiated part of Reddit that people don’t often understand, but you got to the heart of it.
The last part of Reddit as a product is creation. I think most people would think of Reddit as a text platform, but there’s a sort of collapse here. “Okay, I showed up on this platform and I read all the content. I’ve internalized what is good and what is bad in the communities. I can see what’s getting voted up and down, and I can see what the moderators want.” The moderators themselves on subreddits are participating in exactly the same form. They’re making and communicating in text. When I go to create, making text is very easy. I’m a professional writer, so I think it is very hard, but in terms of how much work it is, you just type and create something in the form. You can just copy things that have worked very easily before.
One of the pieces of news here is that you’re splitting Reddit into text and video feeds. Every platform is inevitably pulled towards a more video-focused experience, because the advertising dollars are there for pre-roll — that’s just how it works. It’s very hard to say, “Okay, I’m watching a bunch of videos, but I can’t see what the moderators are doing, since they’re not communicating their moderation decisions in video.” Then the cost of making video is very high, and by high, I mean complex. You have to show your face and do all this other stuff with video, compared to typing. All of that seems like a very different feedback loop, incentive loop, cycle, and user journey. Is that why you’re splitting them apart, or is it, “some people just want to spend all day watching video and we’re going to make that easier for them”?
“There is a ton of video that is created on Reddit.”
No, it’s actually just preference. There is a ton of video that is created on Reddit. There’s a set of users — including me — who sometimes want to just lean back and experience watching videos, and at other times they will engage deeply in text. What we are doing is keeping all of the flows the exact same. Moderators can still moderate and give you decisions with text. It’s not that communities are split into video-only versus text-only. It’s really just content.
So within a given community, like in r/AskReddit, you might see videos and you might see text. In a community that I’m part of, r/Tennis, you see a bunch of tennis videos, but you also see text conversations. What we are doing is making it really seamless to flow between them. You could watch a video and then participate in a conversation that’s entirely in text about that video.
But there’s a difference in form there, right?
Oh yeah, absolutely.
Comments on a video are not perceptually the same as the video. They’re not as important as the videos themselves, whereas comments on a great Reddit thread contain all the same weight as the original post (OP). There’s something there that is very important in text that is necessarily different in video.
You’re spot-on. What we are doing has multiple different aspects to it. How can we let you watch some of the conversations that are happening in text, but with a more lean-back experience? Think of it as a videofication of Reddit, if you will. But we are also looking at how you actually have video reactions, and how you actually then blend the text conversations and bring them more to the front when you’re watching a video. So we are looking at picture-in-picture experiences. There are a bunch of things we are going to experiment with this year, and the key is really to just make sure that users can experience Reddit in the way that they’re most comfortable with.
I’ll give you an example. In a place like India, people just love consuming video, and we want to allow that to happen without saying, “Hey, the only way to engage with Reddit is via text.” You’ll see us experimenting a lot more with blending together video and text, and letting users seamlessly transition between them as they choose.
By the way, there’s another piece of Reddit you didn’t talk about, which is images. Reddit has the best memes on the internet. There are a bunch of folks who just want to look at memes, and that’s okay too. We see all of that activity growing. We see GIFs in comments increasing, as an example. We’re trying to make sure you can consume Reddit in the way you want and then engage and contribute back to Reddit again in any of these formats.
This is something that I expect we’ll continue to tweak and iterate on over the course of the year, but the initial step is just letting you consume in the way you choose to. That’s what you’re going to see very soon. After that, we’ll actually start experimenting on things like video reactions, et cetera, so you can do that easily as well and have a full conversation with the same weight as the OP, just like you talked about.
When you look at things like text creation tools, Reddit presents itself to the user as a very full-featured, powerful text editor. It is Google Docs, but it just happens to be pointed at Reddit. When you talk about video reactions and creating video inside the platform, you quickly get to TikTok, which is a shockingly powerful video editor. It is so powerful that they actually split it out into its own standalone video editor, CapCut. Are you going to have to build Adobe Premiere into Reddit to make all this work?
That’s a great question. We come with a unique perspective at Reddit, which is that it’s about democratized conversation. By that, what I mean is that it could be you, arguably one of the most well-known content creators online, who posts.
I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s MrBeast up here and I’m way down here.
Just look at the difference. It could also be somebody like me, someone unknown, who is just one of those people creating on Reddit. Each piece of content that we create operates from the same rules. It starts with one output, our own, and then the community decides how it rises or falls. I think that’s incredibly different than every other platform.
It actually creates a platform for high-quality conversation talkers. If you think about some of the other platforms, whether they’re focused on photos or videos, ultimately what they’re doing is putting the original piece of content at the center, and then making it all about that piece of content. The conversation isn’t really the important part. We’ve inverted that and said, “Look, the conversation is actually the content.” That’s the fundamental difference in how we approach it.
When you think about what we are focused on, it’s all about optimizing for the conversation, which is why sometimes you’ll see full-featured text editing on Reddit. We do want to make contributing, whether it’s in text or video, much simpler. But you’ll see us keep the focus on the conversation and not on the OG piece of content, if that makes sense.
That plays out in every single aspect. It’s not about trying to get people to break news on Reddit. It’s about getting people to have conversations on Reddit, going back to the earlier example I gave you about World News. That’s a thread we have throughout the platform, which I think is extraordinarily powerful. This goes into every aspect of how we even present content to you. It’s based on essentially a people-powered algorithm. People talk about machine learning and the algorithm, et cetera, but in our case, it’s all powered by the people — by the Redditors and what they determine is great content for their particular community. That’s what we show you.
“If we made Reddit simple, I’m confident that more people would engage on it every single day than right now — even though the number right now is already very large.“
The pull to video is one of those things that we’ve watched platforms have to reckon with. It sounds like you have a very clear idea of what video is, how you want to engage with video, and how you want your community to engage with video. But it’s there. Every platform CEO or chief product person that I’ve talked to in the past year and a half has been talking about TikTok, whether or not they want to admit that they’re talking about TikTok.
Inside of Reddit, you have all these conversations. We’ve talked about video quite a bit, and it has become a primary method of communicating for a lot of people on the internet all the time. Is that a pull that you have to resist? Is it a pull from the user side, or a pull because, “Hey, we’re losing minutes in the data because of TikTok”? Is this where the advertising dollars are? Where is that pressure really coming from?
I think we actually have a product that’s incredibly resilient because it has this unique place online focused around conversations. No other platform is really laser-focused on conversations like we are. Because of that, our platform has been very resilient in markets where it’s already popular, like the United States.
To give you a sense, Reddit is still very much a nascent platform in places like India, the Philippines, or Brazil. Those are places where Reddit communities are just coming into being, and based on what they’ve been consuming, there’s already a preference towards video in many of those places. There’s no TikTok in India, as you know, but YouTube is a very popular platform there. Lots of consumers are younger consumers and are used to video in those places. It’s totally fine for us to embrace that format and give it to them, but give them our unique Reddit take on it.
How we internally spend our time thinking about things is still about communities and conversations. The number one thing that I spend my time thinking about is how we keep subreddits the platform for communities and conversations globally. That’s the focus I come in from. The way for us to do that is simplicity. If we made Reddit simple, I’m confident that more people would engage on it every single day than right now — even though the number right now is already very large.
Well, you said the number was 500 million monthly. Most of the other platforms report dailies. What is the daily active user?
The last number we’ve shared is a little north of 50 million dailies, and that’s very intentional. We don’t want this to be an addictive platform. We want this to be a platform that’s additive to you, where you come in and your experiences are intentional. We are not trying to get you to spend the eighth hour of your day doomscrolling on Reddit. We want you to actually have a happy and welcoming experience on Reddit.
So we don’t tend to measure ourselves in the metrics that you see a lot of other platforms do. I think that’s for a good reason. The experience we want to create is not about getting people to monotonously go through video after video. We want you to engage and contribute as well. That’s why you see contribution and community being such powerful aspects of it.
A key part of our focus is really about making subreddits that platform for communities globally, for conversations within those communities, and empowering the users and the moderators. We talked about those two categories of users. And people often forget about the new users coming in as well. That is really the crux of it. The other piece that is very interesting is search, because I do think that we have an opportunity to make search on Reddit better than it is today.
You’re an ex-Googler, so I am 100 percent going to ask you about search, but I want to try asking the video monetization question one more time in a different way. Then I’ll ask the Decoder questions and we’ll talk about Google — we’re actually going to talk about Google quite a bit. So you said you’re the only platform that’s laser-focused on community. I feel like whoever the CEO of vBulletin is right now is freaking out. There is another platform that makes forum software, it’s just way more decentralized. What I would point to from my own experience is that all the car forums I’m in run on vBulletin. R/Cars is great on Reddit, but if you are a fan of a particular model or a particular brand, you’re almost certainly off on some person’s forum on vBulletin.
The other platform that I would say is a much more community-organized platform is Tumblr. We had Matt Mullenweg on just a few weeks ago, and he was like, “I bought this thing for nothing from Verizon. Now we’re figuring out how to make money,” and they have a whole plan to do it. Tumblr is that thing; it’s a community built on reactions. The thing that none of those other platforms have is any kind of scaled monetization. With Tumblr, it’s literally so little that he bought it for no dollars. People use vBulletin across a million sites that have no unified scaled monetization.
Reddit has that thing. If you want to move the needle on monetization, especially in an app for an advertising-based product like Reddit, the dollars are in video. Is that part of this? Like, “We have to go capture those dollars”?
Look, there are certainly dollars in video. We all know that. There’s certainly lots of dollars in video as YouTube or TikTok show every single day. But there’s also a huge demand for getting access to a very intentional audience. Reddit is one of the most intentional audiences out there because you’ve chosen what community to be part of and you’ve chosen the kinds of topics to engage in. Oftentimes, if you want an authentic product review and you want to know what people actually think about a product, you go to Reddit.
You know I’m a product reviewer. That cuts like a knife, man.
That’s extraordinarily powerful. And yes, people monetize video. But if you look at what’s monetized online, it still happens to be text ads and Google search. We are very comfortable with what we’re doing, because we do it in a way that’s actually additive to the experience and helps our users and advertisers. We’re comfortable with the way that we are approaching it.
I got so into it so quickly with you that I forgot to ask you the Decoder questions. You were the first chief product officer in Reddit history, which is honestly quite shocking given that Reddit is a product with all these different surfaces. What does that title mean for you at a company like Reddit?
At the end of the day, I think of my job as being the voice of all our users. That includes Redditors who are not just consuming, but also contributing every single day. It includes our moderators, who are really creating the foundation for Reddit, and it includes all of those new users who haven’t yet seen the magic of Reddit. It’s shocking that they haven’t, because this is one of the most valuable assets you can get online and it is freely accessible for everybody. It’s making Reddit much more focused on serving the needs of all of these user segments that we just referenced. If we do that and we continue to remain laser-focused on communities and conversation, I think we’ll do just great.
Then it’s about making sure that we continue to support and enable the team of folks on the inside at Reddit who are building all of these great products. I will say that a big part of what I do is not necessarily about coming up with the best idea, it’s about bringing together the team so we work on the highest priority things. That means I have multiple conversations daily with our CEO and co-founder, Steve Huffman, who is also the person who envisioned a lot of Reddit’s product as it stands today.
Yeah, I mean he was the chief product officer for a long time. Alexis Ohanian, one of the other cofounders, friend of The Verge, was also effectively a chief product officer for Reddit.
When you look at the team, we have a great group of folks across not just PM, UX, data science, or community, but we also have a great group of engineers and sales folks. We have ideas coming in from everywhere in marketing. So we really have a team of folks who contribute to how we develop product. But one of the most important audiences we have for directing our product is our users. They tell you when something is broken and they’re the most vocal set of users you can get, which is really a gift in my mind, because they give us feedback all the time.
I’ll give you an example. One of the first things I did was post the set of things we wanted to do and opened it up to the community for feedback. This was early last year, shortly after I joined, and the community just said, “Look, your video player is broken. It sucks.” Guess what we did? We started a new subreddit called r/fixthevideoplayer, and we reported progress, received bug reports from our community, and made the video player experience a whole lot better. We can still make it better. That’s how we are actually developing; we’re developing with the communities, and that’s a really powerful thing. So my focus, I’m just a user.
Two-part question here. How is Reddit structured, how do you fit into the larger structure of Reddit? And how have you structured your product team?
Reddit has a product area, and then there’s all of our business areas. We have consumer business, which includes all the things that you can imagine around sales and our ads platform, and it of course includes our finance teams, marketing, et cetera. Then on the consumer side, we have our community team, engineering team, PM team, user experience team, data science team, and IT teams. We bring those things together on the consumer side of the house, which I lead, and I then report to Steve.
In terms of how the team is organized, it’s really around the key themes that we think about. We have a team focused on the core experience and a team focused on the infrastructure, because keeping Reddit running, stable, and performant is an ongoing journey. We want to focus on making sure that even if you’re on a really bad connection, Reddit should work great. We are really investing in making sure all of those pieces come together, all laddering up to this goal of making subreddits the platform for communities and conversations online.
This is the classic Decoder question. You spent 10 years at Google working at enterprise software, and now you’re the head of consumer software at the most consumer platform there is. How do you make decisions?
That’s a great question. I think the number one thing is that I start with the step before the decision. I’m focusing on product positions, which is asking, “Why are we even working on something?” It has to ladder up to making life better for at least a segment of our users. You start there, and then once you’ve figured out the “why,” you have to figure out what the priority is for a given area of investment.
“Once you’ve figured out the ‘why,’ you have to figure out what the priority is for a given area of investment.”
Then you have to decide, “Okay, how much are we actually willing to invest in it?” A big part of what I do is making sure that we have clarity on the “why” and what we actually want to work on. Then I make a call on, “Does it make sense for us to do that or not?”
Most of the time, if I’ve done my job right by setting up the right priorities and product principles by which we operate, everyone on our team will tell you, “Hey, we’re focused on making subreddits the platform.” You’ll see me say that often. They’ll all know that the priority for the first half of the year and the remainder of this year is simplicity, and they’ll all know that there is an opportunity for us in making search better on Reddit. That, and they will know that we have to keep our platform stable.
Given that, this is a very simple set of product principles, so that our teams can make decisions themselves. Ideally, I want to make decisions at the place where we have the most information, which is with our teams. Only occasionally do really critical decisions bubble up. Once they do, it’s really about the “why” and how we’re helping our users. If we can get happy users, everything else solves itself.
You’re an ex-Googler, and you just got this job as head of product to set up this team. You are the perfect person to ask this question that I have been basically dying to ask for a long time. I feel like Google set up a model for how a product team should run. It created the modern conception of a product manager who’s really empowered as the CEO of a product, and now there’s all these clichés about what a product team should do. Everyone else just sort of inherited it. There’s not actually a lot of introspection about whether that shit worked.
If you look at Google today, the answer is, “Maybe it didn’t.” There’s a reason they have 19 messaging products and none of them are a success. There’s a reason that Android is constantly fractally expansive, but also seemingly reactive to Apple at every turn. It’s the culture of product inside of Google. You’ve stepped outside of that. You’ve described something that is not quite that thing, especially this focus on, “Why are we even doing this?” I think that’s a question that Google should ask itself more often. Is there an opportunity to rethink that core product team idea or that core product structure? Is that happening enough?
Google isn’t a monolith like people imagine it from the outside.
No, that’s actually its problem.
Yeah, it’s north of 150,000 people, I don’t know what the latest number is, but it’s a large number of people working on an almost bewilderingly large array of products at any given point. You really have these different teams that focus on different things in Google.
One of the things that I spent a lot of time telling PMs is that Google is actually the inverse. You are not the CEO of the product, you are the enabler. You help every single person in whatever way you can to make sure that the user is still at the center of what the team is focused on. Yes, there are other conceptions of this, but I think it largely comes down to each individual group in Google and how they operate — at least the way we operate is much more similar to this. Google has certainly had its fair share of successes and things that haven’t gone so well. You referenced messaging. I think that’s a pain point that everyone in Google is deeply aware of.
You now effectively run a more successful messaging product than anyone. That’s crazy given that they make the phone software. I guess what I’m getting at, in a more succinct way, is what did you take with you from the Google product culture and what did you leave behind intentionally?
The two things that I’ve taken are a laser-focus on users and ensuring that we are dreaming big enough. Not enough people actually think at the scale that Google often thinks at.
I’ll give you an example. When Street View originally came out, there were a lot of reports of, “Oh, this is going to be some toy thing that only is done for Mountain View streets.” Well, it turns out there’s Street View on really tiny streets around the world. That scale is something that I’ve always appreciated about Google, and that scale thinking is something I’ve taken with me.
You could argue that Google has lost some of the focus on the user, but I was there long enough that I always focused on and kept that. Those are two things I’ve taken. What I intentionally didn’t take was some of the struggles that Google had working across teams. You spoke about the different messaging products — I don’t even know what the number is.
Somewhere between six and 6,000. It’s in there somewhere.
I think that’s a function of multiple teams trying to go after the same problem instead of saying, “Hey, we’re going to have one team that comes together and does this.” That has boiled down to teams not being able to work well with each other because it was so large. The good news in Reddit is that we’re not as large. We are a tiny startup in comparison, but we still have to make sure that we always have that singular focus on the user and on one mission.
I think that is a challenge not just for Google, but for any large company — because even though they might have one mission statement, you tend to have fractured missions once you get to the team level. At Reddit, we are all focused on bringing community and belonging to everyone in the world. It’s that simple. Because of that, we have unified. That’s a piece that I’ve consciously said, “Look, we should never fall into that trap.”
You mentioned search several times and that you see it as an opportunity. A couple weeks ago I was in Redmond to look at the new version of Bing. I talked to Satya Nadella there, and he sees search as an opportunity. The idea that any set of companies, big or small, is looking at Google and saying, “Search is the opportunity,” is frankly shocking. They’ve fallen down on the job in some way that people perceive as an opportunity.
When I ask others, “What’s the evidence that Google is getting worse at search?” The thing they universally say is, “I now type the word ‘Reddit’ into my searches so I can get to where the real answers are instead of getting the SEO spam.” I have to imagine that this has come up for you — that people are using Google to search Reddit, and you’re now saying, “This has to be an opportunity.” What does that opportunity actually look like for you? Is it to capture more Google audience, or is it to become a primary search destination in Reddit’s own right?
It’s a great question. I’ll start off by saying that when the average person wants to search for something today, they still go to Google. I love that we are seeing so much interest in the search space, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that any statements about the imminent death of Google’s search are maybe a tad premature.
“When the average person wants to search for something today, they still go to Google.“
Nadella is like, “I want them to dance.” He is fully into it.
I love the amount of innovation that’s happening, even from some of the larger companies like Microsoft, but we come at this from the Reddit perspective of having really great, authentic conversations within a community context.
Right. I’ll just ask you very directly. Is the number of people coming to Reddit from Google search, because they’re appending “Reddit” to the end of the query, going up or is it going down?
Look, honestly, we can’t quite tell if that’s happening, because we don’t get keywords from Google.
But you see your Google traffic.
Oh yeah, we see Google traffic, for sure. A lot of people use Google to come back to Reddit, and that’s the opportunity.
Right, but specifically, is the opportunity here, “Okay, we’ve acquired one Google search customer, so now we need them to log in and start being a Reddit user,” or is it, “We need to train this person to come search Reddit on the first instance next time”? Because those are different paths.
It is different paths, but it’s actually something that’s one step before that. We first need search on Reddit to be great.
The reason that people are going to Google and typing in “Reddit” at the end of their keywords is because search on Reddit needs to get better. Now, if search got better, at least for the set of queries that users already know Reddit is good for, then they would just go to Reddit and search for that content. That would actually make sense, because a lot of those users are already on Reddit. That’s how they know Reddit is great for whatever they’re searching for. They’re already spending time on Reddit, but they’re having to break out of Reddit and go to Google in order to do the search.
So at the most core level, we’re simply trying to make that experience better for users who are already on Reddit, by letting them search on Reddit. If they do that, it suddenly opens up a whole set of opportunities for us. You talked about getting Google users who search “Reddit” to engage, but it’s actually the reverse. These are users already on Reddit going to engage with Google. Does that make sense?
Those are the users we are really looking to serve. Bing’s going to be around, Google’s going to be around. People are going to search where they have the best search experience. We just want to make sure that the Reddit search experience is great.
Reddit does some AI work. You recently bought an AI company called Oterlu, and there’s a machine learning company called Spell. You have your own capabilities, and there are reasons that you would have them, with moderation top of the list. If you look at where the hype is in AI right now, it’s all in generative models and generative AI. OpenAI just goes out and scrapes the internet. Other companies go out and scrape the internet, including Reddit, to build their models. Is there a thought that you should build your own model of Reddit and people should just be able to chat with a subreddit? I’m not sure that anybody should chat with our politics, but that’s what your competitors are doing. That’s where Bing’s opportunity comes from; it’s a training data set that is, in part, the content on Reddit.
First of all, we’re not scraping the rest of the internet. We have to start with just looking at our own data. We have so much data. In fact, we arguably are one of the sources of content that people want to use for training models. So the first thing we do is look at our own data, because we have a lot of data to look at.
In terms of how we think about it though, it’s twofold. First, the real value proposition of Reddit is that it’s the human face of the internet. If you want authentic human conversation and genuine interactions, you go to Reddit. It’s high quality and you know what you’re going to get. We believe that’s something there is always going to be a need for.
Will there be fun experiences where you can create a chatbot within a subreddit to shoot the shit with? Yeah, we could see things like that being part of the experience, but our focus really is making sure that our authentic experiences are always available for users.
Are you worried about Reddit being overrun by generative AI? We’ve seen a lot of other platforms have to ban ChatGPT-generated content. We’ve seen sci-fi writing competitions have to shut down entries because it was getting out of hand and they couldn’t moderate it. Has it started to happen to you?
We haven’t see that flood yet, but it’s certainly something that we are keeping our eye on. We want to make sure that we are keeping Reddit as Reddit.
Does that mean that you wouldn’t offer some of those tools to people?
No. We are open to all kinds of tools, because we think it could be additive to the experience. But it has to be additive, not just spammy, because the core of Reddit’s value proposition is that you get high-quality content. Spam just doesn’t have a place in that scheme of things.
Is there a thought that you should block the OpenAIs and Stability AIs of the world from scraping Reddit, and you should keep that data for yourself to build products like this?
Not everyone scrapes Reddit today. This isn’t about blocking everyone, because not everyone is even using it today. What we are doing is thinking through what the policies should be around the use of Reddit data. The key here is we want to make sure that our communities and our users are protected, because Reddit as a platform has always been privacy first. For all the platforms out there, we have focused on that from the get-go. We are going to continue to safeguard that.
What strikes me about this is that you’re being more cautious with AI than I think you were with NFTs. There was the NFT cycle, you showed up as the new guy. You said, “Now we have an NFT marketplace,” and it’s just burning along in the background. I’m told that it’s bigger than OpenSea on some days. You just went out and did it. When I ask, “What are you going to do about AI?”, you’re being very thoughtful and measured. Why the difference there?
Just a quick thing on the NFT side. Yes, that was really a Reddit take on collectible avatars. You’ll notice that we didn’t focus on the tech aspect of it at all. Yes, it scaled. I think at the last count we had more than 8 million wallets created by Redditors. We just did a Super Bowl avatar release and it was one of the fastest-selling. It’s done well because we focused on what’s useful for our users, not the overall market.
We are going to take the same approach with AI as well. Even with our collectible avatar product, we weren’t the first to market. In fact, you would argue that we launched after the market had already crashed. So speak of great timing, right? Well, as it turns out, if you focus on users, do something that’s useful for them, and build a great product, the timing actually doesn’t matter as much. So, in the same way on AI, we are going to do things that make Reddit better. It’s not about simply running after the latest hot trend and sticking a chatbot into Reddit. It’s about really making sure that we use it in a thoughtful way that makes the Reddit experience better for our users.
Well, that is an amazing place to end. It was so great to talk to you. I feel like I could talk to you for another hour, so we’ll have to have you back soon when you launch your AI product and take on Google. That’s the next step. Pali, thank you so much.
It was great talking to you, Nilay.
Decoder with Nilay Patel /
A podcast from The Verge about big ideas and other problems.