Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Aftermath

On Halloween, everything seems a little weird. You see a spider web and it’s not clear whether it’s real or a prop. You see a nun on the train and think it might just be a costume. You see girls loitering on the street only to find they’re just waiting for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. So perhaps that’s why, when I logged into my bank account this morning and saw more digits in my balance than I’ve ever seen before, I didn’t feel anything in particular.

“Yeah, it’s there,” I said, to no one in particular. We called everyone to make sure everything went through okay. Did I get it? Did you get it? Did we get that? Everything checked out. “Looks like we’re all done here,” went the email from the lawyers. After months of negotiations for this day, it had finally come. I almost felt sad seeing the lawyers say goodbye. Almost.

I sat reloading TechCrunch, then wrote a script to do it for me. Finally the notice appeared, elaborating as time went on. Then I posted it to my blog and others to theirs. It started seeming real. Finally, I dashed downstairs to an ATM machine and asked it to print a slip with my balance. “Would you like anything else?” it asked. “No,” I said, and grabbed the slip. The numbers were big; the money was there. I started grinning and dashed back to the apartment.

But that excitement soon faded. Post after post, congratulation after congratulation, insult after insult. Friends emailed and called to share goodwishes. Reporters called to talk to Alexis and Steve. (“No, that’s A-L-E-X-I-S. Yes. Yes. Well, uh, it’s a news site.”) Users emailed to send congratulations. “How do you feel?” everyone asked. I didn’t know. How was I supposed to feel?

TechCrunch called to do a podcast, asked us to tell the listeners the story of how we got to this day. And it wasn’t that anything said was particularly wrong, strictly speaking, but I walked away thinking we’d given the wrong impression. Companies getting bought makes you think of lawyers in suits at conference tables signing papers. And while there were lawyers and suits and conference tables and papers to sign (oh, plenty of papers to sign), it wasn’t really like that. It was more just a couple guys in a apartment typing on computers and talking on the phone.

I remember how when reddit started, the whole thing seemed so childish. The cartoony alien, the barebones design, the fresh-faced programmers, the rented house. And none of that has really changed. It’s just that with success behind it, it’s harder to dismiss. A scribbled drawing a kid hands to you is “cute”, the same thing on the wall of a museum is “art”. You assume there must be something there, even if you can’t see it.

It’s hard to notice this when you’re in the middle of it. During the days, I mostly saw my co-workers, who lived and breathed the site. At night, I hung out with my friends, who all knew what I did. On weekends, we’d go to parties for local startups, who all wanted to emulate reddit’s success. Everyone we talked to treated us like it was serious.

But whenever I stepped outside the bubble, things were very different. At non-tech parties, I’d have trouble explaining what it was I did. (“So you, uh, have a web site?”) Once I went far outside the city to have lunch with an author I respected. He asked about what I did, wanted me to explain it in great detail. He asked how many visitors we had. I told him and he sputtered. “I’ve spent fifteen years building an audience, and you’re telling me in a year you have a million visitors?” I assented.

Puzzled, he insisted I show him the site on his own computer, but he found it was just a simple as I described. (Simpler, even.) “So it’s just a list of links?” he said. “And you don’t even write them yourselves?” I nodded. “But there’s nothing to it!” he insisted. “Why is it so popular?”

Inside the bubble, nobody asks this inconvenient question. We just mumble things like “democratic news” or “social bookmarking” and everybody just assumes it all makes sense. But looking at this guy, I realized I had no actual justification. It was just a list of links. And we didn’t even write them ourselves.

But that’s not something you can say on TechCrunch. You can say a site is cool, stupid, popular, a flop, innovative, or clichéd. But the one thing you can’t say, the one thing that everybody skips over, is that these sites aren’t anything serious. And so when Michael Arrington told us that these stories of acquisition were his favorite part of the “entrepreneurial spirit”, I couldn’t help but think that somebody was missing the point.

You should follow me on twitter here.

November 1, 2006


“But looking at this guy, I realized I had no actual justification.”

“… I logged into my bank account this morning and saw more digits in my balance than I’ve ever seen before …”

Res ipsa loquitur …

posted by Seth Finkelstein on November 1, 2006 #

Aaron, Is Reddit part of a bubble? Yes. I think so. But that doesn’t mean you should underestimate your accomplishment. People want to find others like them, and you built a community that let that happen. The value of trends may be temporary, but it is still value. Congrats on the sale, on keeping your perspective.

posted by Rob on November 1, 2006 #


Thanks to you and the other reddits for creating and growing the site with the community.

I’m looking forward to your future projects: literary, software, or otherwise.

posted by Matt on November 1, 2006 #

Well Mr. Swartz, let me be the 234,590th reader to congratulate you. I gather you feel a little bittersweet about this whole thing but c’est life. Maybe sites like reddit and digg will provide ideas for “more serious” sites to come. Maybe one day reddit will be a giant on whose shoulders someone will stand. One never knows. The thing is, why do you have to be “serious” to be able to make a living out of something? You guys are obviously talented and maybe your work is not space exploration or ending world hunger but you, entertain and educate to a certain extent through providing the means for people to interact and share ideas. Remember that the free-flowing of ideas is, or should be, one of the most basic tenants of modern life.

Maybe I am just talking out of my ass. Either way, a heartfelt congratulations from a reader in Panama.

posted by Antonio Touriño on November 1, 2006 #

Hi Aaron,

many congratulations, my guess is that you will look back and find the journey more fun that now you have made it ….but i guess we dont realize that much because of that uncertainity of the final outcome which we comprehend to be more important than the journey itself ….would love to know more how your life changes after this and things you think you should have done differently

posted by on November 1, 2006 #

Just sounds like you’ve got that day after the last night of the show thing (must be a name for it). Reddit is successful imo because it is a) useful and b) cleanly and tastefully implemented. Very little on the web is and I think there’s plenty of space to do more of the same.

posted by chu on November 1, 2006 #

I see reddit as an extremely important social development on the internet. Maybe you think this is silly, but sites like reddit will continue to dismantle the stranglehold the mainstream media has on content, and that makes us more free.

But I don’t think you intended it this way, though reddit was obviously a great idea. It has grown beyond you and beyond itself into an idea that will continue on other sites.

I was disappointed to hear that reddit had “gone corporate”. But I understand that you are just a guy who needs a job, and are probably getting tired of working your ass off in your apartment. In your shoes, many people would have done just the same.

And be assured that, despite selling reddit to a corporation, it’s idea will continue to flourish freely (as in freedom).

Ciao, enjoy California (isn’t that where Wired is?).


posted by Charles Jillian on November 1, 2006 #

Congrats Aaron! And thanks for the honest assessment of how it feels.

posted by Aaron Farr on November 1, 2006 #

“You” are not popular. Your site is. Your product, the labor of your work. Do not mix these things. There’s a reason why some extremely popular celebrities talk in third person. Some even refer to themselves using two different names, their “actual” and their “show business” names.

posted by Julio Nobrega on November 1, 2006 #

shrug Reddit serves a pretty serious role for me. I get about half my news from there.

posted by on November 1, 2006 #

But the one thing you can’t say, the one thing that everybody skips over, is that these sites aren’t anything serious

Think again about it - maybe there is more behind the idea of democratic news than just a repeated cliché. Or maybe not.

Either way, at least this lets people like yourself not worry about money (at least for a little while), and focus on more important things… talking of which, will there be another startup?

Oh, and congrats :)

  • Andrey

posted by Andrey Fedrov on November 1, 2006 #

I always wondered how the money changed hands in acquisitions. I kind of assumed it involved one of those novelty oversized checks. It’s disappointing to hear that it just shows up in your account.

Congratulations, Aaron!

posted by Altay on November 1, 2006 #

Let me help you explain to your writer friend why Reddit is a great and popular site: Because it’s a distillation of most of the news on the web down to a simple white page; Because it’s a piece of cheescloth that keeps the links and filters out all the other crap; Because it’s a beautiful weld without all the slag; In short, because it’s just a bunch of links not written by you.

BTW, I hope the new owners don’t immediately start poking holes in the cheescloth.

posted by Ty on November 1, 2006 #

aaron, you’re adorable. success has gone to the head of your less-humble brethren (facebook, college humor) - thank god not you! you’ll do fine. and enjoy that bank balance.

posted by julia allison on November 1, 2006 #

hey did the blue come out of your hair?


posted by bill on November 1, 2006 #

Hey Aaron,

Breaking to new levels does feel unreal, especially when you realize that there’s no magic, just focus and perseverance. In reality, business is largely fronting and strategy: igoring the fact that you’re not “big” yet and looking for resources that can make you big. Talent and great ideas are mainly tools to support that.

You seem like a smart guy with good values… now you’ve got the resources to do something really great, what will it be?

Mike Cantelon

posted by Mike on November 1, 2006 #

Come back to the Farm soon!

posted by Jason on November 1, 2006 #

congratulations aaron & company, you’re doing more with your uva degrees than i am :)


posted by alec on November 1, 2006 #

My heartiest congratulations.

I love that analogy between new startup and successful startup to kid’s art to art on the wall.

posted by Ethan on November 1, 2006 #

To the vast numbers of people I run into, the true potentials of the Web are completely lost on them. Still, we dream….

“Just a list of links”??? Yeah, and Google’s just a search box on an otherwise pretty empty page. A page I keep going to, over and over, throughout the day. Just like reddit…


posted by Reg Aubry on November 1, 2006 #

I find I have the same problem. When people outside of the scene ask me what I do for a living, it was hard to describe. It took me a while to figure out how to explain it.

Now, I tell them that I harvest souls.

I then go on to say, is that what I do, is try to get as many souls to register a piece of themselves with me. Once I accumulate enough of these souls, I can sell the whole lot of them to someone else.

Most people seem to understand this.

posted by Nikolai Gogol on November 1, 2006 #


Why did you turn down Google’s offer? and How did you get reddit to be so popular? I mean you see lots of good sites, and some became popular, but yours was one of the few that seem to get popular overnight.

Anyway enjoy it all, 2 girls at the same time ;)

posted by Carlos on November 1, 2006 #


you built something that people find useful, presented it gracefully, and implemented it competently. You underestimate all of the ways in which it is possible to screw up that “simple” equation.

If you never succeed at another venture in your life (unlikely, though possible), you will still have something to show for your time here, and that is more than many people can say after spending their entire working life at a soul-killing job, ignoring their wife and kids (if they have any), chasing after a pot of gold that will never materialize. Why should you feel the need to ‘justify’ your efforts? As another reader pointed out, the justification is now in your bank account.

“You can give the keys to the universe to a million men, and only one will unlock the door.” Most people don’t even try to build something, let alone succeed. That’s significant about your acquisition and the size of your audience. The worth of your creation can be judged by the number of people who find it useful enough to visit every day, and the money which Conde Nast was willing to fork over so that they could make reddit their own. An item is worth whatever someone else is willing to pay for it. Perhaps your writer friend simply does not connect with most readers.

Go do something that makes you happy. The point of having money is to obviate it as a motivating factor for your decisions. I would hope that you won’t dwell on justifying your existence for long; at the end of the road, the only person to whom you’ll need justify your choices is yourself.

posted by Tim on November 1, 2006 #

Congratulations, Aaron!

I’m a bit confused about why you find this hard to justify, though. There is a real engine behind Reddit, more than the bubble; it’s free content provided by users on the web.

Sites like Google and Reddit are about helping people to cooperate. Google does it very indirectly, through web crawling and link analysis, and Reddit does it more directly. Isn’t that a wonderful thing to be able to say you helped people cooperate to enlighten or entertain each other?

I read something interesting or entertaining on Reddit every day. Your author friend can’t say he’s done the same for me, or for a million other people.

posted by Neil K on November 1, 2006 #

Congratulations! you guys deserve it!


posted by Amr on November 1, 2006 #


Cheers, Aaron.

posted by naum on November 1, 2006 #

Congrats, Aaron.

Reddit has been my new daily new/link addiction for a while now.

posted by Shanti Braford on November 1, 2006 #

I heard something about blue hair. Pictures?

posted by David M. on November 1, 2006 #

Well, congratulations. My blog’s been appraised at over $100,000. Of course, it’s monopoly money. Still, it’s nice to fantasize about selling Pottersville…

posted by jurassicpork on November 2, 2006 #

Good show. You made a difference! And, all indications are that you’ll continue to do so. Onward, upward. :)

posted by Thanks on November 2, 2006 #

You guys definitely deserve it. It’s been about a year since Reddit has become one of my daily haunts. Nice work.

posted by ejwt on November 2, 2006 #

aren’t anything serious

You said you hate newspapers. But this blog also doesn’t have any book like persistence and consistency about why and what gets talked of or analyzed. It seems this is more of your newspaper than CWMill’s journal.

Ex: Instead of reddit, why you did not show this blog to the person you respect - in the first place?

Which is ‘you’? (of course you can have many ‘you’s) - Then there could have been real discussion about ‘building the audience’ - between you and that person, and why it’s important and so on.

You could have started talking with that person about things closer to yourself, as a writer, ‘Raw thought(Blog)’ and Infogami - and Wikipedia - and Reddit.

0: PC and internet came into the world which had context or problems,

1: and the era of Webapps and how ‘Silicon Valley ways’ use the hype phenomenon among youth/kids(look at recent WashingtonPost article about Myspace) ,

2: and when you came into the world, your upbringings and your psychological traits/inclinations, and what you really hope for.

Why you write? Why do you need to write?

And why Infogami had to be abandoned?

You should think about it and talk back to that author before leaving East Coast.

I kind of feel that author might needs or deserves explanation and perspective - about what’s really going on - by just looking at how reddit gets praised and how that author gets quoted in responses and comments here.

posted by a.kusaka on November 2, 2006 #

Julio: while Aaron is perhaps not as famous as reddit, he did manage to get some notoriety before joining them (and before joining college, even). This teenager writes a pretty ordinary blog, then he goes off to college, drops out, joins a startup and now he’s a genuine dot-com millionaire… wow. It’s been an interesting read so far.

Congratulations, Aaron. Hope you manage to keep your feet on the ground, but I think you will.

posted by Harald Korneliussen on November 2, 2006 #


As someone in the throws of pre-launch development, I just wantedf to congratulate you. Wired seems like a really cool place, and if Andersons blog and book are any indication youll be working with some seriously cool people.

Your first success is a bit duanting and somewhat unreal. Time will give you perspective, in the meantime use your talents, abilities and resources to make the world a better place, at the end of the day, our contribution is all we leave behind :)

good luck and good times!

PS: Ive always admired your sites implimentation, lean, clean, useable and portable. Thats why its awesome…

posted by Allen on November 2, 2006 #

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