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Final Exercises 2021: Ohanian Speech

Alexis Ohanian
Commencement Address, May 21-23, 2021
University of Virginia

UVA Graduating Class of 2021 - I’m happy to be here.  If I’m being honest, I barely got in here in the first place.  If it weren’t for early decision and a retake of my SAT, I might not be speaking to you today. If I hadn't walked out of an LSAT here on grounds in order to visit the Waffle House on 29. That place is great for waffles and epiphanies. And I decided I needed to start a startup instead. If it weren't for being hungry, I'd have never started Reddit and probably wouldn't be here.

Luckily, sixteen years ago I was right where you are- hungover and waiting for a graduation speaker to get their commencement speech over with. I knew I was going to start a company but even then I didn't know how it would work other than “front page of the Internet” -- and a mascot -- I created that while I was bored in a class at McIntire. Very little in your life will make sense as it's happening. You'll connect all those doors of meaning later when you look back on it.

So, Graduates - This day isn’t for you. It’s really for the people who helped get you here. I didn’t realize that until long after my mom had died, but what I have now are the photos of her that day and how ridiculously proud and happy she was. She'd given up a career to overstay her work visa here in America because of love - she ended up with a GED instead and a son whom she always told could do anything. She was so proud you'd have thought she were the one graduating. I never could've guessed she'd be diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just a few months into starting Reddit, but all the very best parts of me, and any of the good things I contributed to Reddit (or anything I do) are thanks to her.

Watching a loved one die, especially when you're feeling young and invulnerable, is an incredibly grounding experience. Because at 23, I learned exactly what people care about when they're dying. It's people and experiences. That's it - everything else is something someone invented for you to care about. Invest in people and experiences and you'll find a lifetime of great returns.
 
Now as a father, I can only hope for many moments like the one i cringed about at the time 16 years ago. Only now I'm the proud parent beaming about my own child’s triumphs. It was a really big deal around here the first time she wrote her own name.
 
No offense, Olympia, but YOU ALL graduated from the best public university in the United States Of America. Hell yeah.
 
I’m not going to speak to you as a CEO today, I’m going to speak to you as a history major. After all, I declared it here the first semester of my first (it’s the reason my new company is called 776 - the year of the first Ancient Olympic Games). If you want to know what will happen next, study the history. I’m not good at my job because I can predict the future, I’m good at my job because I learn quickly from the past and present in order to see where things are trending.

There have been two major cultural transformations in Western civilization, both followed global pandemics.
 
After the bubonic plague, came the Renaissance. Lots of great stuff -- maybe it’s appropriate I’m recording this in Italy -- basically the gateway from the Middle Ages to what we now consider modern civilization. Great thinkers, authors, statesmen, scientists, and artists in human history thrived during this era; global exploration, exploitation, and colonization led to tremendous wealth for European powers, at the expense of much of the rest of the world.
 
After the Spanish flu, came the Roaring 20s: radical cultural changes happened in America -- women got the right to vote, Black people created America's greatest cultural contribution to the world (Jazz), the KKK thrived; and mass communication was born with the first commercially-licensed radio station (and mass marketing). And then the party ended with the Great Depression, which helped Hitler convince Germans (and far too many Americans than we’d like to admit) that National Socialism was the solution. Remember: humans did that -- all the good and all the bad. Let’s learn from both so that we can do more good.
 
If there’s one thing I’d like to instill in all of you, it’s that no one is perfect. I’m not perfect, and sorry to say, neither are you. And we shouldn’t lionize individuals or man-made institutions because like the people that created them, they are all inherently flawed.

Rainbows? They’re perfect - especially double rainbows. We can continue to be in awe of those.
 
But everything else? A very imperfect human made that. And that’s OK!
 
Because that means another imperfect human (like you!) has the power to make it better. Or replace it entirely.
 
The sooner you start looking at the world this way, the sooner you’ll be in a position to radically change things.

Critically looking at things (and criticizing them) is part of the process, but don’t let that be where it ends. Start building better systems, and use those observations to inform how you do it..
 
And if you find yourself in a position like I did, where you can’t make the changes needed, it’s OK to walk away - sometimes that can have an even bigger impact.
 
After COVID, we will enter a third defining period of cultural transformation.- And community will be what defines this era.

Before social media and smartphones, civic engagement was plummeting, community was on the decline (if you haven’t, read Bowling Alone). But something changed, thanks to the democratization of the world wide web, people started communing again, even with people they had never met before offline, people they may only know through a username or an avatar, they started bonding, falling in love, finding community. It's happening online as much as it's happening offline and I'd argue it's even stronger online where you're able to be your truest self.
 
I encourage you all to serve as the architects of this next period in our collective history.  As someone who was at the forefront of building digital communities, I’m intimately aware of the improvements that need to be made, and feel a deep responsibility to your generation that we continue to pursue them.

It’s crucial we get this right, because when the crash comes (and it will), we need to have a strong enough community, a strong enough nation, to withstand it. Everything is trending toward a more fractured and tribal world. Your generation was the first to be truly digital native and grew up affected by all the things we got right and wrong with social media. It's complicated. But you all have the perspective I will never have and a full life ahead of you. Please don't squander it.

I'm going to do my damndest to make things a little bit better for my daughter and her generation and I hope you will, too.