Rumors & Acquisitions: Did Reddit Have a Third Co-Founder?

Mr. Swartz. (Wikipedia)

. . . And was Reddit his birthday present?

FROM THE DEPT. OF KARMA. “Reddit Co-Founder Charged With Data Theft,” Timesman Nick Bilton blogged Tuesday at Bits, and hearts stopped across the web: Redditors feared for the fate of Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, the people they knew as Reddit’s founders through the forums.

But the Times’s headline was actually referring to Aaron Swartz, the 24-year old who was just arrested and federally indicted on charges of computer hacking for downloading millions of articles from MIT and could face up to $1 million in fines and 35 years in jail. The headline was changed after protests from commenters and Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian, to “Internet Activist Charged in M.I.T. Data Theft” but the URL is still the same.

Once upon a time, Mr. Swartz was a contemporary of Reddit’s Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman at Y Combinator, working on a start-up called Infogami, a wiki/blog platform. Reddit and Infogami “merged,” a new company was formed and the trio made some agreement to call themselves “co-founders.” Mr. Swartz refers to himself as a founder here and here, although he said he’d be “happy to stop if Steve and Alexis wanted.” Paul Graham himself weighed in when the issue came up four years ago. “Aaron’s not wrong to call himself one of the founders,” he wrote on Reddit. “The company behind Reddit was a merger of two startups, one that made Reddit and one that made Infogami, and in that situation the founders of both startups are considered founders of the combined company.”

But Mr. Ohanian and Mr. Huffman–undisputed Reddit founders–don’t agree.

“Co-founding Reddit means so much more to me than just the work Steve and I put into creating and growing it. We went through some serious shit together and became closer because of it. Aaron had nothing to do with any of this,” Mr. Ohanian said in a post on Google+ after scrambling to get the Bits headline changed.

This is Mr. Huffman’s account of Mr. Swartz’s role, via Reddit:

I really don’t want to get involved in Aaron drama, so I won’t be responding much on this thread, but raldi [a Reddit user] asked us to clarify. So, here are some facts:

Aaron isn’t a founder of reddit.
Aaron was the founder of infogami.
Aaron joined us about six months in when reddit and infogami merged.
Things went well for a few months.
Things went not-so-well for a few months.
We got bought by CN, he didn’t really show up, and was fired.
Everyone who worked with him is still pretty bitter and doesn’t like to talk about him or that situation.

And here’s Mr. Ohanian’s more detailed version:

Six months after launch, we acquired Aaron Swartz’s company infogami to form a new entity, which made all three of us directors — we were all equal equity holders in this new company (without vesting, a huge mistake, take note, founders).

I was in fact once quoted saying: “Paul wanted to give Aaron Swartz, another YC founder, a birthday gift in November. More than anything else, Aaron wanted co-founder so Paul suggested the “merger.” Merger is probably a bit hyperbolic for what actually happened, Aaron basically moved in with us and we made him a co-founder.”

I was referring to making him an equal equity holder in the new company (Not a Bug, Inc.) which made him a co-owner of the new company, but still doesn’t justify calling him a “Reddit co-founder.”

Steve and I have tried to stay out of this and assumed (incorrectly) that the truth would prevail. We simply haven’t wanted to engage or even really discuss it. Yet here we are thanks to a linkbait-y headline that spreads around the Internet and makes the majority of its readers assume Steve or I (but really, Steve, because I’m not smart enough to pull something like this off) is being charged with data theft.

Betabeat has seen numerous accounts of the origins of Reddit, including that the idea came from Mr. Graham, the karma system came from Mr. Swartz, that Mr. Swartz “got some cash somewhere along the line, which would explain his cavalier attitude… (since often if you quit you lose rights like options, bonus etc, but you keep them if fired).”

But ultimately, it’s all semantics–titles are flexible, ownership stakes aren’t. In other news, people use Google+ to write blog posts now, which is also interesting!

Rumors & Acquisitions: Did Reddit Have a Third Co-Founder?