Raikes School executive director David Keck (left) greets reddit general manager Erik Martin after the Internet 2012 Bus Tour’s arrival in Lincoln on Friday.
Heads turned and necks craned Friday afternoon as the blue and red bus and souped-up hot rod rumbled through the streets of Lincoln and onto the campus of the University of Nebraska. In a purely superficial sense, the Internet 2012 Bus Tour had achieved one of its primary objectives — getting people to take notice — merely by rolling into town.
Of course, the Tour seeks to bring attention to more than just its convoy of unusual automobiles. With a campaign-style road trip through the heart of the country, reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and general manager Erik Martin are out to raise awareness about the importance of the Open Internet.
In 2008, the bus was The Straight Talk Express that ferried passengers John McCain and Sarah Palin along the campaign trail. This year, it’s providing transport for Ohanian, Martin and a small group of tech and startup aficionados and embedded journalists.
As soon as the bus stopped at UNL, its passengers set straight to talking with students and faculty at the Jeffrey S. Raikes School about the intersection of software, the Open Internet and higher education.
Ohanian and Martin sat down with Dr. David Keck, the school’s executive director, and a small group of students for a conversation about the Raikes School’s cross-disciplinary curriculum (left).
Student Caitlin Bales said working on one of the school’s Design Studio projects has helped teach her the skills needed to launch a business while also providing something of a safety net. “If we fail, we learn from our mistakes and we’re still students,” she said.
Ohanian encouraged the students to remain unabashed about building businesses after they graduate. “Don’t ever become timid about that,” he said, “because that’s part of what makes our industry so awesome.”
Not just Silicon Valley
Ohanian and company dreamed up the tour in response to the fallout from SOPA and PIPA, the bills that sparked considerable controversy early this year with provisions that would have restricted internet freedom. Much coverage of the battle over the bills painted it as a tug-of-war between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. “Malarkey,” Ohanian said.
Thus, the nine-day trek that started last week in Denver, the site of the first presidential debate, and ends Thursday in Danville, Ky., the site of the vice presidential debate. The Tour, which will make four stops throughout the Silicon Prairie (we’ll have coverage of the others stops soon), is designed to show SOPA and PIPA would’ve affected everyone by shedding light on people far from Silicon Valley harnessing the power of the Open Internet. It’s designed to prove, as Ohanian put it, that “you can have a few people and Ramen … and literally a few years later have a billion-dollar business.”
“That’s the power of software,” he added. “You can do it right here in Nebraska.”
During their Raikes School visit, Ohanian, Martin and representatives from startups AgLocal and Local Motors talked to a crowd of about 100 students, faculty and guests. Ohanian told the story of his college startup. Of spending hours in the University of Virginia library debating whether to spell the name of his nascent social news site with two “Ts” or two “Ds”. Of launching the site with a design that, as he puts it now, “was pretty damn janky.”
Seven years later, that site last month welcomed 42 million visitors. And, from the same library where Ohanian once pondered the merits of a site called “reditt,” President Barack Obama participated in a reddit AMA (ask me anything).
Alexis Ohanian (center) visits with students Friday after his talk at the Raikes School.
‘It matters to everyone’
Brian Kaiser studied at UNL at the same time Ohanian attended UVA, and Kaiser co-founded Hudl in 2006. Kaiser was on hand for the Raikes School event and explained why Hudl volunteered to host the Bus Tour travelers for a high school football game — there, the visitors got a glimpse of Hudl in action — followed by dinner and a night on the town Friday.
“We’re big reddit fans,” Kaiser said. “We’ve got a lot of readers in the office.”
More than that, Kaiser said, Hudl embraces the underlying mission of the Bus Tour.
“Companies like Hudl are drastically affected by (the Open Internet),” he said. “So I think even though we’re small and we’re a niche, we’ve still got to stand up for it and have to get behind that movement and show that it matters to everyone and every company.”
Martin also spoke of the wide-reaching impact of internet freedom. “All these industries … they’re all being disrupted, and there’s no clear best practices anymore,” he said.
“That can be a little bit scary,” he added, “but it can be good for people.”
At one point during the Raikes School stop, Ohanian called a congressman on speaker phone and left a message expressing concern about SOPA and PIPA. Later, he worked the room — discussing football and shaking hands here, talking reddit trivia and posing for photos there — in a manner reminiscent of the politicians whose attention the Bus Tour is meant to draw.
But, throughout, Ohanian emphasized that his two-toned bus and its tour of Middle America represent a cause with a hue that’s neither a red nor blue — it affects everyone.
“The internet is an incredible equalizer,” Ohanian said. “And one of the things we need to ensure is that we keep it that way.”
Credits: Photos by Michael Stacy.