Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future [4]

The gamer community inspired Alexis Ohanian to co-found Reddit. The future of our virtual lives, he says, will rise from the bottom up too.

This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. To follow along, please subscribe to Disruptor and spread the word. Thanks!

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Alexis Ohanian is one of the internet’s most famous and influential innovators. The 38-year-old co-founded the news aggregator Reddit, which was recently valued at over $6 billion. He has since become one of the tech industry’s leading early-stage investos, and recently walked the Met Gala red carpet with a Cryptopunk NFT of his wife, tennis star Serena Williams, pinned to his tux. 

And yet there was a day, back when he was just a wee nine-year-old gamer, that his parents wouldn’t let him buy Doom. Mowing down bloody demons and imps was just too violent for his mom and dad. “My parents were like, ‘no chance!’” he tells me with a chuckle during a recent Zoom interview. 

He soon talked them into letting him get Hexen: Beyond Heretic, the sword and sorcery shooter built on the Doom engine by Raven Software and published by id Software in 1995. “My argument was that it was wizards,” he says, “and they were like, ‘all right, that’s better than guns.”

Hexen and the other games released by id Software changed the course of Ohanian’s life - and, he says, led directly to the creation of Reddit. Because the game required a better video card and more RAM on his PC, it inspired him to get under the hood of his computer and learn how to tweak it himself. “All the money I made doing jobs, mowing lawns, delivering pizzas, was to upgrade my computer,” he says. 

Even better, id Software had released the source code to their games, giving him even more power to create something on his own. Downloading and playing with the underlying code taught “my brain to think differently about not just being a consumer of culture, but also a creator,” he says. 

After reading my book about id Software, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, while at the University of Virginia, he got so inspired by id’s hacker ethic that he decided to launch a company of his own. As I’ll write about in a later post, the breakthroughs and innovations of that early gamer culture and industry - from online community to esports - provided a road map for his own ambitions. 

“When I read the book that you wrote about a bunch of dudes hanging out in a house, just eating pizza and drinking soda all day long and making a world changing company out of it, I was like, that seems like a good goal,” he says, “That's a thing I can do. I like pizza. I like building things on my computer. I convinced my roommate to start a startup, and that ended up being Reddit, so thanks for that.” 

In future posts of Masters of Disruption, we’ll explore Ohanian’s journey from gamer to Reddit co-founder and blockchain gaming futurist. But first, he and I picked up on the conversations I recently had with Doom and Quake co-creators John Romero and John Carmack about one of gaming and tech’s most hyped memes of late: the metaverse. 

Like Carmack, Ohanian is skeptical about Facebook being able to deliver on becoming, as Zuckerberg put it in June, “a metaverse company.” And he isn’t just down on their approach to VR—he thinks the tech behemoth is too unwieldy to create anything so revolutionary.


“The metaverse will come from the bottom up. There's a lot of people who are very motivated, myself included, to see that happen.”

“I have not seen Facebook build and launch a successful product since the newsfeed,” Ohanian says, “They just can't. Large companies aren't capable. Google is the same. Zero chance.” 

His take on the metaverse is the same as Carmack’s and Romero’s in at least one crucial respect: he believes that it will rise from the same force that powered Reddit: the underground. Doom and Quake were made by a small team of renegade geeks working independently outside of the mainstream industry.

They bucked convention, cultivating a like-minded subculture of hackers and gamers to foster their own cultures and communities. Reddit, ultimately, did the same for social news: empowering passionate individuals to converse, create, and share. He expects that the metaverse will be the same sort of collective creativity that made Minecraft and Fornite global phenomena. 

“The metaverse will come from the bottom up,” Ohanian says, “And there's a lot of people who I think are very motivated to see that happen—myself included.” This echoes Carmack’s concerns about what he called the “architecture astronauts” who are overly focused on the scaffolding of the metaverse rather what than the people inside actually want to do. 

“The creativity of hundreds of millions of people who are decentralized but aligned will always outperform the creativity of centralized people trying to solve the same problem,” he says, “And that's why Reddit is ‘the front page of the internet’ and not a traditional news organization. It's also the same reason why the metaverse will come from the bottom up and not from a centralized organization like Facebook.”


This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. To follow along, please subscribe to Disruptor and spread the word. Thanks!

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