At SXSW Interactive on Friday, Reddit co-founder and Internet activist Alexis Ohanian talked about the “Tales of US Entrepreneurship Beyond Silicon Valley.” In 2012, Ohanian crowd-funded a bus to go through the heart of the United States to see startups in action. What he found was plenty of folks who were starting companies and creating value. “The Internet helps level the playing field,” Ohanian said.
Alex spoke about numerous startups that were revitalizing downtowns and city centers across the Midwest – areas that had been vacated as people moved out to the suburbs. These startups, in turn, spurred the development of bars, restaurants and shops, revitalizing many of the downtowns.
Ohanian’s talk about how the open Internet spurred innovation across the heartland was quickly woven into a passion of his: ensuring that the Internet remains open. He talked about SOPA and PIPA and how the online community rallied across the country to help stop those laws from passing. Yet, even at the height of this awareness, the mainstream media reported on this issue only a handful of times, being eclipsed by stories on Kim Kardashian and Tim Tebow.
The serial entrepreneur warned that even though SOPA and PIPA had failed, there would be many more attempts to restrict the Internet, calling these a potential death by a thousand cuts. “It is much harder to rally around something that is not as glaringly obvious or stupid as SOPA or PIPA,” the entrepreneur said.
Ohanian believed that if we could know what our favorite celebrity is eating for breakfast, then we ought to know what our representative is doing in Congress. He believes that your representative has a “digital district” to consider as well as a physical one. To prove that point, Ohanian demoed an app called Contact Congress where he effortlessly dialed his representative with just a push of a button. He got a staffer on the phone and voiced his disproval of CISPA, the latest acronym to join the fray of restricting the Internet.
Ohanian added that open source is a leading indicator for what online collaboration can be. He said nearly every major website that we couldn’t live without is built on open technology. “That’s the power of the open Internet,” Ohanian said. “It used to be gatekeepers… and right now it is falling and we don’t know where it is going.”
Giving people more access, especially in rural areas, along with continuing to push STEM education and coding in schools will ultimately lead to power and a vibrant society. “The Internet can provide the place where good ideas can win,” Ohanian believes. That goes for the “Silicon Prairie” as much as Silicon Valley.