After the sale, Condé worked feverishly to fold Reddit into its stable of well-established print brands, like Vogue and Wired. “We thought of Reddit, [technology blog] Ars Technica and Wired as what Condé Nast deemed the ‘innovation group,’’’ said Jena Donlin, who runs business operations for Reddit and still works out of the Condé Nast office in Times Square.
Martin, who had majored in American Studies at Tulane and worked in the documentary film industry, served as the site’s community manager at the time, a role that he said entailed “answering user questions, dealing with spam and finding cool things in the community to promote.”
By all accounts, Martin also played a significant role in ushering in a successful transition from an independently run website to a division of a major publishing conglomerate. What made the job even harder was that Reddit’s approach to publishing exemplified the democratizing influence of the web, which at that very moment was violently destabilizing the whole we-speak-you-listen model that Condé Nast, with its pantheon of all-powerful editors, had long since mastered.
As Reddit’s user base continued to grow following the acquisition, the tension between the democratized user-generated site and its ancient publishing parent became more pronounced. Reddit does not offer traditional advertising, so its primary stream of revenue came in the form of Reddit Gold, a paid premium membership subscription, as well as what Martin called “self-serve ads for mom-and-pop shops” and carefully selected marketing partnerships.
The site, which boasts a barebones user interface that harkens back to the halcyon days of ’90s Usenet groups, has always shunned traditional advertising, a stance that even a cash-starved, ad-hungry Condé Nast couldn’t change. Monetizing Reddit is something Condé Nast “has still not been able to figure out,” Ohanian said in a 2010 episode of Big Think (bigthink.com), adding, “Reddit has a fantastic audience ... How do we advertise to them in a way that isn’t screwing them as a user and at the same time providing enough value to an advertiser to want to do it?’
But in August 2010, an advertising controversy erupted between the stodgy parent company and its willful child. The activist group Just Say Now wanted to host self-serve ads on Reddit in support of the proposed California marijuana legalization law Prop 19, but Condé Nast refused. The Reddit team responded by agreeing to host Just Say Now’s ads on their site for free, a move that was still technically within the bounds of the parent company’s rules, but made a strong point.
Reddit’s traffic continued to explode, and in early 2011, the site was getting upward of two billion pageviews a month. Condé Nast wasn’t equipped to handle the technological and cultural challenges that came with that kind of traffic. And the tensions between the little-website-that-could and its old-school parent company were starting to take their toll. “In the spring of 2011, we had one programmer and two system administrators and me,” Martin explained. “It was kind of a rough time, and I was like, ‘If Reddit needs me to move out to San Francisco, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever Reddit needs. I can’t let this fail.’’’
Martin agreed to move to San Francisco at the behest of Condé, and took on the general manager role. He began to grow the team, hiring a handful of programmers to administer the site. Finally, in September 2011, the company spun Reddit out of the Condé Nast family into its own standalone subsidiary, while still retaining ownership.
“We don’t want to get in users’ way,” Donlin explained. “We want to serve what the community is already doing. Condé Nast understood that, and it’s why we’re independent. They understood that we needed to be able to do that in order to grow. And they realized in the current structure of Condé Nast, it wasn’t as easy to [grow] because there wasn’t a precedent that was set. We’re more bottom up whereas Condé is more top down.”