Internet can become an instrument for Diaspora to get to know Armenia

Alexis Ohanian:

Internet can become an instrument for Diaspora to get to know Armenia

PanARMENIAN.Net - American Alexis Ohanian is first of all known as the cofounder of reddit.com, a popular social news website where visitors can share, vote and discover interesting links from all over the Internet. However, Armenia learnt of him only after his presentation at TED, which the conference made available online. In 2007, not long after selling reddit to Condé Nast, Alexis founded Breadpig, a social enterprise based on selling geeky things and donating the profits. Their most recent success was the book, xkcd: volume 0, the publisher profits of which built a school in Laos with more schools on the way. Alexis is visiting Armenia for the first time as a volunteer of Kiva, a non-profit online microcredit platform. He is already planning his next visit to his historical homeland.
Alexis, you have met with representatives of Armenian NGOs lately. Do you think Internet activity is developed in Armenia sufficiently to make it possible to solve social problems through Internet instruments?
Granted, Internet activity and computers are not sufficiently spread yet, but it’s clearly a focus for many of the NGO leaders I’ve met with. At this point, mobile phones have the best penetration and would be the best instruments for solving social problems. Something like Ushahidi.org makes it possible to report, say, voting irregularities and fraud during an election by letting people just SMS with their mobile phones.

For the Diaspora on the other hand, where Internet penetration is much higher, the web can be a good instrument for educating them about Armenia. Local NGOs can help Armenians abroad understand not just the best ways to help, but also show them how their donations are being used. The trend in philanthropy is moving in such a way that donors will demand more and more transparency from the organizations they fund. It’s not going to be enough to just collect money for an orphanage. Donors will need to see the orphans’ photos, read their stories, and see the evidence that their contribution – no matter the size – had a real impact. There’s a lot of potential here, because nearly every Armenian wants to help Armenia but it’s about doing it as effectively as possible.

You are known as the coauthor of the Reddit project. Is the rating system of Reddit unbiased ?
We tried hard to defend against manipulation on Reddit. Reddit is always going to be a reflection of the opinions of its users, since they determine how everything ranks on our website. However, the site’s popularity means that there’s always someone new trying to get their content on the front page (so they can get all the traffic). One could certainly ask all his friends to vote for his submission, but even if they get some early votes, it won’t stay long at the top because if it’s bad content, there are plenty of other users to vote it down. The website is successful entirely because of the community, so we’re especially interested in preserving the integrity of the site for our community.

Why did you decide to take up social entrepreneurship?
It’s selfish, really, because I get a lot of utility from Breadpig. Selling a company (reddit) at 23 years old meant that I’ve got a great opportunity to work on things for my own pleasure. And I’m not the only person interested in using the efficiency of business to do a bit of good in the world – social entrepreneurship is a significant trend. There are plenty of founders who think that their company’s profit should be used for the good of society, others build entire companies around the social good they can provide (we just sell geeky things and give the profits away to nonprofits that actually do the good work). I’ve probably got my parents to thank for this perspective, because I can’t remember longing for expensive cars or other forms of conspicuous consumption. There’s no shortage of psychological studies showing the happiness gained from altruistic acts – I’m just a joy-junkie, I suppose.

A TEDx conference is expected to be held in September in Armenia, and you also actively contribute to it. In what stage is the preparation for the conference?

Yes, September 25. We just completed the voting for TEDx Talk topics peoples wanted to see. Now we’re going through the list of speaker suggestions, trying to find the best speakers for the most desired topics. I’ve just finished the new TEDxYerevan website, which should be online at TEDxYerevan.com in the coming weeks.

Have you already voted for those topics?
Yes. I’ve been voting on the new topics as they come in. Mostly voting up the ones I like, but I’ve definitely voted a few down, too.

Much is spoken about what TED conference gives to listeners, I wonder what it gives to those making a presentation?
I was thrilled to learn that many Armenians got to know me through my TED Talk. After it was published, I started receiving emails and Facebook messages from Armenians all over the globe. That was exciting. Individuals have made their careers by giving a great TED Talk. Having a captive audience of well-connected, powerful people means you can tell your story, talk about a project you’re working on, and get checks handed to you by the end of the conference – if everything goes perfectly. The environment it creates is a breeding ground for ideas and collaboration. As for speakers at TEDxYerevan, the best presentations will be uploaded to the TED website and will be saved for the world to see. TED’s popularity has been rapidly growing and many of the world’s decision makers are paying attention to these talks.

Can TEDx become an annual event in Armenia?
That would be wonderful and would make it possible to unite the potential of all Armenians innovating in technology, entertainment, and design.

What are you doing now?
I am working at a project for my university, which may also be useful for NGOs. I’d also like to help create spots of free wireless Internet in Yerevan especially for students. Free Internet in a café is not affordable when you’ve got to pay for coffee, too. These ought to be public free WiFi hotspots, where people can come with their own notebooks. I would not have my current achievements unless I had easy access to the Internet. I’m talking to some people working on a similar project in Cambodia. And if it was possible in Phnom Penh, surely it can be also done in Yerevan.

I’m also working on something to connect the worldwide Armenian network in a useful way.

How many hours do you spend online?
At least 8 hours a day, sometimes 12 hours.

I know that your another hobby is rock music. Who are the listeners of Bread Pig?
A wide range of people, I suppose, but they’ve all got a good sense of humor (he laughed). I should clarify that we “play” toy plastic musical instruments in the street just for fun. I am not a musician, though I respect them, my friends and I just like making fools of ourselves in public.

It is your first visit to Armenia. Did you see what you had imagined, or is your experience the same what your father told you ?
My dad was born in San Francisco in 1955. His father, John Ohanian was born in Binghampton, N Y in 1922. His parents Mr. & Mrs. Avedis Ohanian came to United States around 1915 after fleeing from Armenia. They both grew up in the town of Harput in Armenia. They arrived in this country without any other family members, as most had been killed by the Turks. His mother, Elizabeth Der Krikorian was born in Marseille, France in 1924. Her parents, Mr. & Mrs. Gazar Der Krikorian, arrived in France around 1922. They too had fled Armenia, having lived in the city of Bitlis near Lake Van.

My father has never visited Armenia, that’s why I had no expectations, except for Armenian cuisine. Many of my Armenian friends who visited Armenia, came back and said that the trip changed their lives. When I first saw Ararat, I had my photo taken in front of it and immediately sent it to my father. He was quite pleased. I know this image has become a cliché, and yet, it is really inspiring.

Gayane Mirzoyan / PanARMENIAN News
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