hen Reddit emerged in the mid-2000s, it was a bare-bones startup with big dreams and an uphill battle. In 2008, Erik Martin joined the team as its first-ever community manager, eventually becoming general manager where he saw the site through some of its most crucial growing pains. As GM, Martin acted as a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, managing communities, operations, sales and even the famous AMAs with prominent people like Barack Obama. Although one of Reddit’s most well-liked staffers, he ultimately parted ways with the site in 2014 and moved on to continue his endeavors elsewhere. Now, Martin is chief community officer at a new startup called Teal where he helps job-seekers to develop their careers. We caught up with him to learn more about his time at Reddit, see what he makes of the recent debate surrounding free speech and share a few of his favorite memes and moments from over the years.
Q: Hey there, Erik. Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us. Can you kick things off here by introducing yourself a bit and telling us what you’ve been doing lately?
A: Excited to chat with y’all. I guess I’m most known for being an early employee at Reddit and being the General Manager there from 2011 to 2014. Since then, I’ve worked on community and marketing stuff at a few companies, including Depop, WeWork, Airtime, and most recently at Nike. I’m currently the Chief Community Officer at Teal, a relatively new startup that’s focused on helping guide people throughout their careers. I’ve been working hard on that since the fall. I’m also really into church cookbooks from 100-plus years ago, even though I’m not religious and I can’t really cook. Other noteworthy internet stuff would be that I started a project a while back called Assholes on Demand. It’s kinda dormant now, but when it was going, we helped people who weren’t “extremely online” deal with bad customer service issues at enormous banks, cable companies, etc. I was also a videographer and sometimes editor for Improv Everywhere, the hidden camera prank collective that had a lot of viral videos in the early to mid-2000s.
Reply & I’ll select a >100yr old quarantine friendly recipe for you from my collection of old church cookbooks. Lmk if you have any requests or specific ingredients #sundayvibes pic.twitter.com/2GFdSUWAYJ— erik martin (@hueypriest) April 19, 2020
Q: So you obviously have a pretty extensive history with the internet, particularly Reddit, but I’m curious to learn more about your background and some of your earliest experiences with the web. Could you recap how you got your start online and what places you used to frequent?
A: I think my internet background really starts sort of pre-internet with my mom’s old Mac SE. My mom was a graphic designer and had this glorious, ugly, 25-pound black-and-white Mac. Apple called it “portable” at the time because it came with a giant-ass carrying bag and had a handle on top of the display. My uncle was also a Machead and he would bring us stacks of 3.5-inch floppy discs with every kind of pirated video game and software. There were no labels on the discs, no instructions and no reviews or anything. You just put a disc in and tried out all the applications. Sometimes it was a fun game, sometimes it was a drawing tool, sometimes it was a boring business program I didn’t understand, and sometimes it crashed the machine. The really good ones I’d copy and share with friends. Eventually, that beige/grey computer got hooked up to an ancient modem and we got online, but to me, it feels like “the internet” started with those unlabeled disks. I think when I see something new online or I explore some rabbit hole, I’m trying to chase that feeling of being a curious child and loading a new disk of unknown content.
I graduated from college in 1999 and went to go work for a variety of long-defunct startups in North Carolina. It was an exciting time to be an inquisitive and green kid willing to work on anything. I did everything from helping a visual search engine QA [quality assurance] their taxonomy of rugs, to helping a browser companion company write reviews for websites. I had an amateur knowledge of videography and also starting shooting videos of NCAA Division III basketball games for this basketball lifestyle site called HoopsTV that was about 20 years ahead of its time. The dotcom crash happened and all those companies failed. Over time, I picked up more video work, learned to edit videos and worked on a variety of low-budget films. My internet addiction blossomed with things like IRC [Internet Relay Chat], IMDB, webrings, blogs and Fark.
(Erik Martin and his sister during their childhood.)
Q: In 2008, you then became Reddit’s first-ever Community Manager. How did this position come about, what did it entail, and what drew you to it?
A: I applied to the very first Y Combinator founders program as a documentary filmmaker. They rejected me, but after that, I was kinda hooked on seeing what happened, so I became a user and fan of Reddit soon after they launched out of that first YC class. At some point, I reached out to the site by sending a cold email to info@ or hello@. Alexis Ohanian responded and we exchanged emails. At the time, I was doing digital marketing for a film and music company. I think we discussed doing some sort of online Q&A on Reddit with one of the music video directors we were promoting, but I was basically a lurker, still am really. I got to know Alexis, and a few years later when Reddit needed someone to be their representative on the production of weekly current events that were, in theory, going to incorporate an online audience through a Reddit show pilot with a PBS affiliate, they asked if I was interested. The pilot ended, but I got to know the site and team more.
Later that year, Alexis asked me if I wanted to be a community manager. It was hourly and didn’t pay well, but I had enough other freelance gigs that I could make it work. Most of what I did early on was promoting new subreddits or other new Reddit projects and some very basic spam fighting. There was only a tiny team, but Alexis, Steve [Huffman] and all the engineers were all super-active users, so every employee was a community manager. During that time, I also started doing video Ask Me Anything [AMA] interviews. The Reddit community wanted some celebrities to do AMAs but getting someone not familiar with Reddit to devote time to navigating the threaded text comments was a tough sell. So, we got the top 10 questions from the community, recorded the person answering them on video, and posted the YouTube video on our blog. That way, we only needed to get them to commit to 30 minutes of their time. Eventually, Reddit and the AMA format grew to a point where celebrities would take part in the native text AMA with minimal hand-holding or convincing, but the video AMAs helped build that momentum.
Q: During those initial years, what were some of the biggest differences between Reddit then compared to now? Do you think it was easier or more difficult with a smaller userbase?
A: The biggest difference is just size. Reddit doubled in traffic every year until recently. So, each year there was just more and more activity and users and subreddits. Early on it was also mostly links and then self-text posts. It took a while before Imgur and other services made it easy to link pics. I think it was easier. Reddit was always understaffed and the engineers had to work magic to keep the site up, but one could at least be aware of most of the new subreddits, trends and fun organic moments. As time went on, that just became increasingly impossible for users and staff.
We were also this scrappy underdog. Even though Reddit had been around for a while, it was such a bare-bones operation compared to other competitors at the time that users, mods and people we worked with were forgiving. You can’t really be the underdog if you’ve been around for 15 years and you’re big enough to be seen from space.
(Erik Martin at Reddit HQ, circa 2013.)
Q: After a couple of years, you moved up to Reddit’s General Manager and you were often one of the most public faces of the company during that time. Can you briefly describe that role and some of your biggest moments from those years?
A: When I became General Manager it was a weird time, Reddit was still part of Conde Nast, but it was starting a process where it eventually spun out and recapitalized as an independent entity. The role was a catch-all, and I ended up doing whatever Reddit needed. Sometimes it was operations, sometimes community and sometimes sales stuff. Growth in terms of traffic wasn’t ever a problem, but we wanted to keep the site growing in terms of the subreddits and discussions and even formats on Reddit. I focused on promoting subreddits like /r/IAMA, all the unique “Ask” subreddits like “AskScience” or “AskHistorians,” the sports subreddits, the various fandom subreddits, college subreddits and non-U.S.-centric subreddits.
The biggest moments for me were helping get the local subreddits active. We held a Global Meetup Day, and each year, more and more cities around the world took part. I’ve been to meetups all over the world. Even now, anytime I travel somewhere for the first time, I spend time on the local subreddit and try to learn as much as I can.
A big awareness moment during that was when we were part of the SOPA/PIPA blackout and helped defeat a bill that had enormous support in D.C. It seems quaint from today’s perspective, but it was an important issue, or at least felt like it. We always felt that the press should mention Reddit in the same breath as Twitter, Facebook and other gigantic internet places. That SOPA protest movement felt like the first time when the mainstream media did that. Also in 2012, when Obama was running for reelection, he stopped by Reddit for an AMA. We’d been working up to a POTUS AMA for years, and it was incredible to see that happen. The thought terrified me that news would leak and people would have time to figure out ways to cause mischief, or worse, but it worked out and the small team of engineers did amazing work to keep the site from completely buckling under the onslaught of traffic and attention.
Some of the biggest challenges were growth-related. As Reddit grew, the work the mods had to do got more and more overwhelming. By 2012, you had moderators who were doing their best to moderate subreddits that were bigger than all of Reddit was just two years ago. They were creative, resourceful and came up with ways to use CSS and automod tools, but it was a hard and thankless job even in smaller, relatively tranquil subreddits. We had a lean team, to put it mildly. When I left, we had around 70 employees, which seemed like a lot to me, but in hindsight, it was nothing compared to other, similar companies. We were all spread thin and juggling a lot. Who knows, I’m sure the alternative universe where we had more staff and resources would have come with its own additional problems, but when I think back about that time, it’s all a bit of a sleep-deprived blur.
(Erik Martin and the cast of "The Hobbit" at Reddit HQ.)
Q: During your time as GM, you were sometimes asked about the site’s position on free speech. In 2011 during an AMA, a Redditor asked about your stance on certain controversial subreddits and you said, “We're a free speech site with very few exceptions and having to stomach occasional troll reddit like picsofdeadkids or morally questionable reddits like jailbait are part of the price of free speech on a site like this.” Can you elaborate on your answer more and speak to that time period of the site?
A: I wish I could unsay that. Even back then, saying “Free speech” was a lazy and bad answer. I was trying to describe a generally hands-off approach but didn’t even do that well. It’s a metaphor or bumper-sticker phrase that isn’t useful. If we were making blithe comparisons to the Bill of Rights, then Freedom of Assembly might have been a better framework than always talking about speech and content. Still, it’s wrong. I think what I and many people at Reddit believed was that as much control and decision-making should be in the hands of the subreddit mods and individual users. Not all control, but as much as possible. I don’t think we felt absolutist about it, but I think, at the time, we felt inertia, and we feared to make decisions -- we didn’t prioritize making them, or at least I felt that way. The whole point of Reddit was that the users would decide what was “on the front page,” not the editors or people working at the company. That worked! But then as the site and other infrastructure grew, the infrastructure around who gets to create a subreddit, for what purpose and how to grow the global rules thoughtfully didn’t keep up.
Q: Since that topic is something so commonly debated when discussing Reddit, what are your personal opinions on online freedom of speech? Have those opinions changed over time since then?
A: I still believe that as much control and decision-making as possible should be in the hands of the subreddit mods and individual users, and I think that’s why Reddit is still relevant and growing 15 years after Alexis and Steve started it. That doesn’t mean there has to be some hideous “price” or that there shouldn’t be thoughtful and dynamic rules. The organization and humans running Reddit can still be accountable without needing complete control. Again, I think content and speech is not a relevant framework anymore. I think behavior, impact, scale and speed are all more useful ways to discuss the topic than talking about speech.
Q: Was that something the founders or admins also pushed while you worked at Reddit, or was it an issue that you personally clashed with others at the company over?
A: People disagreed, but I don’t remember philosophical clashes. It was more pragmatic. People disagreed about the degrees, priorities and the best way to approach updating rules and moderation. There was always a tension between things like the role of improving tools and more improving human moderation, but it wasn’t ideological that I remember.
(Erik Martin and Adam Savage.)
Q: What's the weirdest or most interesting thing you dealt with during your time at Reddit? Got any good stories from over the years?
A: So many wonderful stories. I really was fortunate to experience so many unreal stories, big and small. The first one that comes to mind is when Obama’s post got banned from /r/politics. So, everyone knows that Obama did an AMA, but most people didn’t know or forgot that he also posted a message on election day. He posted a brief message to the politics subreddit encouraging people to get out and vote “no matter your political persuasion,” and it had a link to look up your polling place. When the AMA happened, we had advance notice and all that, but we didn’t know about the election day message until I got a phone call from one of the campaign people asking, “Do you know why POTUS got banned?” “Uhhh, let me look into that.” Apparently, one or more of the mods felt that the nature of the post broke one of the subreddit rules, so they banned it. I sent a message to the mods politely asking if they could reconsider or even make a sitting head of state exception for some minor rules infraction. They discussed it and eventually unbanned the post. Simpler times. You can complain about Reddit mods all you want, but you can’t say they’re afraid to ban a sitting president’s posts.
Another thing that comes to mind is a minor snafu that happened when I went to record a video AMA with Noam Chomsky. I videotaped Chomsky answering the top questions from Reddit in his office. I thought it would look good to have Reddit open on a monitor in the shot, so I set up my laptop in the background behind him. I forgot that I had whatever “word of the day” screensaver came installed on the laptop turned on. So about 10 minutes into the interview, my screensaver comes on and I realize, in horror, that people watching the video will think the laptop is Chomsky’s and that the founder of cognitive science uses some super basic, vocabulary-builder screensaver. He was on a roll, so I didn’t have the heart to stop the interview or apologize afterward. Fortunately, the words were like “conformity” and “impoverished” and so simple that when we published the video, people realized it must be a joke or some default factory setting.
Q: So then in late 2014 you stepped down as GM without a huge plan as to what you wanted to do next with your career. Could you tell us more about what led you to walk away from Reddit after you’d been so heavily involved since it started?
A: In hindsight, I was burned out. I hadn’t been taking care of myself and felt ragged. It also felt like a good time to move on. Reddit had just raised a fresh round of funding. Also, I got married earlier in the year, so it just felt like the right time professionally and personally to do something new. I felt like if I didn’t leave when there was a moment, then Reddit would define me. Like if I stayed much longer, I wouldn’t be able to function anywhere else. I recently moved from NYC after living there for the last 12 years or so. It was a similar feeling. I love NYC and I love Reddit, but there was this underlying feeling of “if I don’t leave now, I never will.”
I didn’t know what the next thing was, but I knew I wanted to work with a different community and company. I ended up helping Depop launch in the U.S. I was excited about the experience of working for a non-U.S. company and marketplace, both unfamiliar things for me. Where Reddit’s userbase skewed male, Depop’s userbase skewed female. I believed that the basics of running and growing a community-based company and brand were still the same, no matter what the community was, and I wanted to explore that.
Q: What are your thoughts on some of the controversial decisions in recent years regarding Reddit’s policy changes, ban waves and other moves that many argued went against the free speech roots of the site? Do you think some of that fallout is justified, or are these individuals missing something?
A: I haven’t followed everything closely, but I’m all for the changes. They should have happened sooner, but it’s easier to say that on the outside as a normal citizen. I’m sure there was some backlash but also seemed like a lot of users and mods supported the decisions.
Q: So taking all of this history into consideration alongside your own experience working with Reddit, how do you think these changes will impact the site’s future? Where do you see it in the next five or 10 years?
A: I think the change is good. I don’t have many predictions or insights … I mean, Reddit is too big to look at the entire picture, at least for me. I try to focus on the long-standing and brand new subreddits. The Formula1 subreddit recently posted about reaching 1 million subscribers and how they grew the subreddit over the past 12 years. As long as existing communities on Reddit can keep thriving while new subreddits can emerge and grow, like /r/LiminalSpace, then Reddit will keep trucking, keep mutating and be healthy.
Q: Aside from Reddit, lots of other social media platforms have also been seeing some major shifts in terms of policy changes, censorship and things of that nature in recent months. Can you speak to social media as a whole and what you think the future holds for the industry?
A: I think there’s been a failure of imagination and experimentation. In the grand scheme of things, we’re still in the early days of social media platforms. There needs to be more experimentation and less calcification. Dealing with the unique scale and speed of large platforms is hard, but there are solutions and frameworks with more creativity that can help, and the users of these platforms want to help contribute. For example, back in 2010 or so, Reddit tried a feature to combat spam called Jury Duty. A small group of users would be randomly selected to review a specific potential spam post, and they would vote if it was spam or not. The system didn’t solve the spam issue for a few reasons, but the basic premise worked. Users, and not just the ones who are normally the most vocal or extreme, were willing to do some “work” to improve their community if it was easy to take part. Users have already come up with shared solutions like that organically across all the platforms, but the platforms need to prioritize those types of experiments and systems more.
(Erik Martin and Scumbag Steve at ROFLCon 2012.)
Q: Are you particularly active on any of those platforms? Where do you spend most of your free time online these days, and what do you enjoy doing there?
A: I’m on Twitter all the time, but I mostly retweet. I’m also on like 20 different Slack communities, so between that and work Slack, I spend a lot of time in the Slack. I love the creativity and storytelling on TikTok and Byte, but I still miss Vine.
Q: Alright, so we hear that you’re also a big fan of memes and sometimes frequent KYM. What are a few of your recent favorites, and where do you get your memes from?
A: Recently, I was on a Zoom call hanging out with friends and I don’t remember how or why, but we started talking about Pregnant Luigi, which never fails to perplex and delight. My recent favorite is Moth Lamp, and all time, it’s got to be 10 Guy. I still believe that the 1-10 highness scale is an underrated breakthrough in terms of human communication. Imagine if we used the highness format but for tiredness or emotions. It’s a world-changing idea that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. I am also a huge fan of randomness and love any site with a random button, like KYM, Wikipedia random and, of course, random Reddit. I usually find new stuff via random chance.
Q: Before we wrap things up here, would you mind sharing a bit of your current work or any projects you’ve got going on? What are you up to these days career-wise?
A: I’m working hard at Teal these days. It’s still super new, as we just started late last year. We’re taking a community-based approach to help people get jobs they love and manage their long-term career growth. Companies have laid off so many super talented people because of the pandemic, and job searching is hard and lonely even during good times. We have a growing community of people who help each other navigate finding work and setting up for long-term success.
Q: Alright. Final question. So given the “interesting times” we’re all currently living in, could you give us the one meme format that you think best captures the overall mood of the world right now?
A: It’s hard to look at anything other than Surreal Memes these days. Escaping into a glitchy unreality seems sound. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot:
Q: Thank you so much for joining us, Erik. Any final word or additional info you want to add?
A: You can find me on Twitter. If you’re looking for a new job or need help, check out what we’re building at Teal, and I mod the ACL subreddit, so if you or anyone you know had or needs ACL knee surgery, it’s an incredible community and resource.