Interview with Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian: Is the Midwest The Next Silicon Valley?

January 16, 2013

5:07 pm

When I say, “The Midwest” what comes to mind? Maybe some form of fatty food, SNL’s infamous Ditka skits, corn fields, some form of fatty food… How about vibrant startup community?  It’s true.  After all, Tech Cocktail originated as a byproduct of the startup energy emanating from the Chicago-land area (like the big bang, but boozier).

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, feels this energy too- as is the subject of his recently launched documentary Silicon Prairie.  Ohanian and his crew hop in an oversized tour bus, aptly named Internet 2012, and travel about the heartland, showcasing prominent startups who call The Midwest their home.

In addition to highlighting the Midwest startup scene, Silicon Prairie educates on the importance of an open and unregulated Internet, touching upon last year’s attempted SOPA implementation and the resulting protests.

Tech Cocktail caught up with Ohanian to learn more of his take on the Midwest startup scene, how the web will continue to foster offline communities, and what actions we can take to prevent against Internet regulation moving forward.  Also, check out the trailer for Silicon Prairie at the end of the post.

Tech Cocktail:  Can the Midwest become the next Silicon Valley?Ohanian

Alexis Ohanian:  The goal shouldn’t be to be the next Silicon Valley (there’ll always only be one of those) — it’s to be your own startup community. I tell NYers this all the time when I cringe at “Silicon Alley.” I realize the doc is titled Silicon Prairie, but the startup awesomeness emerging in the Midwest is going to have a flavor all its own — maybe tasty like corn?

Tech Cocktail:  What differentiates the Midwest from other startup communities around the country and world?

Ohanian:  There’s a special kind of practical, dogged work-ethic there. These tend to be companies trying to solve real problems and build real businesses — not chase the latest trend.

Tech Cocktail:  What role does the Internet play in creating offline communities? How do you foresee this changing in the next 5 years?

Ohanian:  It’s only going to grow as more and more people worldwide get the access they deserve, which will connect them to communities they never knew existed either in their hometown or across the globe. More people coming online and more new platforms to connect them, as long as we preserve internet freedom and defeat those who’d curtail it.

Tech Cocktail:  What do you say to those who feel that the Internet has had an overall negative impact on the quality of face-to-face interaction and offline community building?

Ohanian:  Malarkey. It’s a tool for people to communicate across boundaries and build relationships that can be just as real as those offline. That said, there’s no replacement for meeting and building community in meatspace. It’s not suffering, it’s being enabled at a greater scale than ever before. One of my favorite examples is the remarkably successful ROFLCON, which may seem silly, but simply couldn’t have existed to bring people together from all over the world pre-internet.

Tech Cocktail:  What hurdles do you anticipate in the foreseeable future regarding an open and unregulated Internet? What can the average person do to prevent such regulation?

Ohanian:  Stay connected to organizations like EFF and Fight for the Future. Have the Contact Congress on your iPhone or have your Senators and Rep on speed-dial and never forget they work for you, so check up on your employees and let them know when they need praise or correction. Like I said at PDF, we need to think about being batmen and batwoman for our “Gothams” online — the communities that matter to us — the hero the internet needs is you whether you have 10 twitter followers or 10 million (that # of followers metric also happens to be a terrible one, fwiw).

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.

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