Senior Director of Policy at Reddit, Jessica Ashooh, joins Niki remotely to talk about her non-traditional path to Silicon Valley - from earning a Ph.D. in International relations, to working in Abu Dhabi and at think tanks. They take a quick dive into how Reddit works, why its community is so passionate about governance, and, of course, talk cat subreddit threads.
Niki: I’m Niki Christoff, and welcome to Tech’ed Up!
We’re almost two years into taping this show and are experimenting with some new ideas. So, over the next few months, we’ll occasionally take a break from our usual fare, including highlighting interesting people in tech.
Today’s guest is one of those people: Jessica Ashooh, Director of Policy at Reddit. Yep, Reddit is very much in the headlines right now and we take a high-level look at those issues. But this conversation focuses on Jessica’s non-traditional path from the Middle East to Silicon Valle, including some practical advice for those looking to make the leap from the public sector into tech.
Niki: Today's guest is Jessica Ashooh, who works on public policy at Reddit.
Jessica, thank you for joining us.
Jessica: Thanks for having me.
Niki: As background for our listeners, you have, you’re a graduate of Brown University. You have a doctorate from Oxford. You're a trapeze artist, a Marshall Scholar, you box. This is all just on the internet! You speak French and Arabic. This is all true. Yes?
Jessica: This is all true.
Niki: You were on Jeopardy.
Jessica: I was. Yeah.
Niki: Okay. So, you're here because I was like, “I want to be friends with Jessica.” So, we're going to start a series called “Fascinating People in Tech: People Niki Will Drag onto the Podcast to Become Friends With.”
So, thank you for taking the time.
Jessica: Anytime [chuckling].
Niki: So, I want to talk a little bit about, well, first of all, most people, people who use Reddit, really use Reddit is my impression. And then there are people who have a vague familiarity with it. And then, I think there are a lot of people, even people who work in and around tech, who have the gist of it, but they're not really users.
So, I thought we'd start with just a Reddit 101.
Jessica: Yeah, so we describe Reddit as a community of communities. It's very differently structured from what most people would think of as traditional social media, which is very influencer-oriented and centered around the individual. The basic unit of engagement on Reddit is the community, or the subreddit, as we call it.
You can think of subreddits like old-school internet message boards. They're topically based. They're created by the users. They can be about any topic under the sun. So, y’know, serious things like politics, addiction support; entertainment things like sports or television shows; and then ridiculous things like cat teeth, or paws, or the way that cats [Niki: laughs] whip their ears back when they hear something behind them. [Niki: Wha?] I'm serious. It's a real subreddit called “airplane ears.”
Niki: [still laughing] Okay! I think we should link to all of these. So, just so you know, this is, like, a very cat-forward group of people. Even our producer is, like, obsessed with his cat. I'm obsessed with my cat.
Multiple people in and around this podcast have cat tattoos. I'm not confessing to one - [as an aside] I do have one. But yes, we're interested in these cat subreddits and also, wait, quick backup: you have a three-legged cat yourself!
Jessica: I do! I have, the joke goes, I have a three-legged cat and a one-legged boyfriend. So, my youngest niece thinks that I chop off legs.
Niki: [laughs] We'll add this to our fascinating person list. But so, in addition to, like, what did you say? Cat's ears backwards?
Jessica: Yeah, it's called r slash airplane ears. It's when the cat, kind of, puts its ears flat down and back like airplane wings.
Niki: I love it! Okay. So, there's everything from the absurd to the serious.
Some people use it. I know it used to be called, like, the “front page of the internet.” And I think a lot of people use it literally as their portal, just like others might use Google or YouTube.
So people use it either to find a niche community or just broadly to access headlines and, and news of the day, and sports information.
Jessica: Yeah, that's right. And the other unique thing about Reddit is our governance structure. So, Reddit follows a community moderation approach where, as I said, every subreddit is created by the users.
But it's also moderated primarily by the users according to rules that they've written themselves. So, every community has a set of one or more volunteer moderators. These are not Reddit employees; they are just web citizens who are really passionate about the subject of their subreddit, and they want to curate a good space to have, um, civil conversation about whatever they're passionate about online.
Now, sitting on top of that is, of course, the Reddit site-wide content policy, which we set from the top, and you can kind of think of it as a constitution. If you're going to think of Reddit as a federal system, where maybe the subreddit rules are, like, state or municipal laws, and then we've got the Reddit content policy, which is a constitution.
So, you're not allowed to have subreddit rules that conflict with our site-wide rules. Those site-wide rules are high-level, principles-based, everything you would expect. So, don't encourage violence, don't threaten people, don't harass people, don't share non-consensual intimate imagery, all of those types of things.
And so, there's a sheer governance responsibility on Reddit that I think makes Redditors extra passionate because it's not a passive experience to be on Reddit.
You have to participate and it's the participation in the governance that makes Reddit what it is. And even if you're not a volunteer moderator if you're just a Reddit user, you have a role to play as well because content is primarily curated on Reddit by the votes of the users themselves rather than, kind of, tricky stuff that we're doing on the back end with algorithms or what have you.
It's the votes of the users that decide what rises and falls in the rankings of subreddits and you can vote content up, which is not necessarily unusual on the internet. We have a lot of things like likes, or hearts, or what have you, but the really important thing is that you can also vote content down on Reddit. And that's hugely important because communities need to be able to establish taboos and say what behavior is unacceptable and be able to enforce at scale against that unacceptable behavior.
And that's really powerful because you don't want all content to rise or go viral. You want to suppress some content that's low quality or, y’know, the community doesn't like. And so, we empower users to be able to do that without our intervention and that's it's really, like, the beauty of democracy on the internet.
I would say that Reddit is the democratic curation engine of the internet.
Niki: And it is sort of, it sounds like it's structured, y’know, you have very, very centralized social media platforms or content platform. Y’know, it's the community guidelines and then you take it down or leave it up based on. [interrupts self]
I mean, I've been in these rooms when I was at Google and we were talking about beheadings, right? Is this newsworthy? Or is this going to create more terrorists? Do we take it down? Do we leave it up? And it was it was very hard for the algorithms to do that. So, we would do it almost by hand because the community did not decide what stayed or what came down.
You now have even more hyper-centralized figures - and I'm not really asking you to weigh in on Elon Musk, but he seems to be making sort of, like, y’know, paternalistic, whatever, whatever his personal values are some stuff he's leaving up, some stuff he's taking down, and he's making, it's not totally clear that that's in line with written guidelines.
And then, you guys have essentially, like, almost like a Supreme Court sitting on top of communities that are self-policing.
Jessica: Yeah, that, that's right.
In a lot of cases, you really need to be, like, deep in the culture of the community to understand if something is threatening if something Is harassing. And that's certainly the case when we're talking about things on a global scale. Y’know, I'm “Jessica the American” sitting in San Francisco. I'm not necessarily going to have a really great nuanced take on what is hate speech in Indonesia, but an Indonesian moderator certainly will be attuned to the local language, the local nuances. And so, by empowering local people to be able to curate and guide their local communities, we really scale in a way that you can't with centralized moderation.
I don't care how big a resource your company is, and by the way, [chuckling] Reddit is not one of the bigger companies [Niki: Right] in this space. And so, by involving the community it really allows us to punch above our weight.
Niki: Okay. So, the great thing about this conversation is right before we started a recording, I was like, “Listen, Jessica, the one thing I don't want to talk about is content moderation.” I was like, “Everybody's talking about it,” but you almost can't talk about Reddit without talking about it.
But what I do want to talk about is something you're really passionate about that I'm not sure people are thinking about, and that is anonymous speech on the internet. You have some thoughts.
Jessica: Yeah, I don't think people realize how incredibly under threat your rights and your freedoms to speak anonymously on the internet is. Not only in this country but also abroad.
So anyone who's following this space might be aware that there are laws that are under consideration in Europe, in the UK, and elsewhere that would require various levels of identification checks from platforms.
Your listeners might be familiar with KOSA, Kids Online Safety Act, in the Senate. That one would probably have some age or identity checks inherent in it, and then there was an age-appropriate design code in California as well, which is, y’know, by the way, an idea that was imported directly from the UK.
And I, I think I have some feelings about, y’know, importing whole cloth, foreign countries’ laws that don't have the tradition of free speech and certainly anonymous free speech that we have in this country. And so, I don't think people are aware that kind of those days of being anonymous on the internet are really, really under threat.
And it's not just coming from new legislation. There are creative legal maneuvers that people are using to try and unmask people on the internet now, today, to be able to legally harass them for various reasons. And we fight these cases in, in court on behalf of our users because at Reddit, y’know, we're a pseudonymous platform. We feel really, really strongly about privacy.
We have a different business model when it comes to privacy. We are not a business that's predicated on harvesting all of your personal information. And, y’know, there are parts of Reddit where people are able to be anonymous and talk about really, really sensitive personal issues like addiction support or bonding with a new infant or issues with parents or any, any number of things like that.
Niki: There's domestic violence support, which I think would be an interesting area where you want a lot of privacy.
Jessica: Totally, totally! And so, we have things like that. We're really proud of being able to have communities like that. But the moment that you lose anonymity on the internet, those spaces get closed down because it's just not safe.
And so, we fight for these principles in court. And actually just a couple weeks ago, we won a case where a movie studio was seeking to force us to unmask users who were discussing streaming and torrenting on the internet. And so, we went to court. We fought that. We said that those users have a First Amendment right to anonymous speech. And we won.
Niki: Right. So, the idea is a private company is coming to you and saying, “We want to know who these pseudonymous or anonymous people are that are talking about an activity that violates copyright law,” and you were, like, “No, we're not giving you that data.”
Jessica: Well, it was more than an ask! I mean, they, they came with a subpoena through the DMCA, and we, y’know, went to court to quash it.
Niki: To your point. It’s a little bit easier if you don't collect that in the first place. I think the point you made, and I don't want to skip over it. I want to go back to it: is the idea that companies are under so much pressure, which I understand sitting, y’know, in Washington, D.C., under a ton of pressure to protect kids online. And kids are smart enough to know how to change their birth date so they're not 13, and then they end up seeing things they may not, maybe shouldn't see.
And so, there are these automated ways you're talking about face scanning for what your age is. I actually got flagged on Instagram for people thinking I was under 13, which is a real commentary on what I'm looking at on Instagram. I was like, “Oh, yikes. I got to really up my game [chuckles] to things where they realize I'm a middle-aged woman.” But it was actually alarming to me because I didn't know they were doing that. I don't know if they're beta-testing it, but I'd never experienced this in the wild before.
But you're right. Maybe people are building to avoid regulation. Maybe they just build it in from the back end so that they have better protections. And that's really going to erode our ability to be anonymous.
Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. The reason that they're doing it is that regulators around the world are really, really coming down heavy and forcing any type of age check that that one can think of. And so the, y’know, the inferred age check, which is what Instagram is doing that you're talking about, is viewed by some to be, y’know, less intrusive than asking you to produce a government ID.
And so, a lot of platforms are experimenting with those types of things. But as you demonstrated, this is not foolproof, and any type of these methods is going to have a certain amount of false positives and it's going to prevent adults who are perfectly entitled to do what they want on the internet from being able to access stuff.
Niki: So, you're working on public policy. This is obviously a big part of your role is looking at the global sort of regulatory environment, legal environment.
I'd like to back up just a little bit and talk about your professional background because you've had this really interesting career and many of our listeners work in the public sector like you have and may want to go into the private sector.
Certainly, next year, we're going to see a lot of turnover. And I was, first of all, just wanting you to outline kind of how you arrived where you've arrived. And then any thoughts you have on how people might make that transition or rewards that you've seen going into the private sector, just your personal thoughts on it.
Jessica: Yeah, I have a really weird nonlinear career, especially for tech, but I love it! And it's made me who I am, and it's really enriched every step of my career so far. So, I am all for people with non-traditional backgrounds entering tech. I like to hire people who don't have tech backgrounds. And so I, I really want people not to be intimidated because they don't have kind of the, the correct resume or something like that.
And yeah, so, y’know, growing up, my passion and interest was always in diplomacy and specifically in the Middle East. I like hard problems. My father's family also historically comes from Lebanon, so I always had an awareness of the Middle East as a region and its politics. That's what I studied and did for my whole academic career up to and including a PhD.
And, y’know, while I was a graduate student, I took some contracting jobs in northern Iraq and Kurdistan because I thought it was really, really important, particularly as an American of our generation, to be able to experience that conflict on the ground and to be able to understand what was happening.
And I also feel really, really strongly that people who put themselves forward as experts in a particular region of the world [sighs] really need to be on the ground, and live there, and speak the languages, and things like that, because nothing irks me more than some thinktank person in Washington and [chuckling] I apologize because I might be insulting some of your listeners. [Niki: It's okay!] Some think tank person in Washington-
Niki: [chuckling] Think tank people can take it!
Jessica: Yeah! Who, you know, calls themselves an expert on the Middle East or wherever. They don't speak the language, and they've never lived there, and so I, you know, wasn't gonna be one of those. And so, I was really looking after grad school, or kind of, in my final stages of my Ph.D., for opportunities that would take me to the region on a more permanent basis.
And then I got this very weird opportunity, but awesome opportunity [chuckles], to work in the Policy Planning Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates. I am not a UAE citizen. I have no previous connection to the UAE, but the UAE is an interesting country in that it has a very small population and they are really on a mission to modernize very quickly.
And so, to do that, they hire foreigners with particular expertise into a lot of public sector positions. Less now, they're undergoing a process of, y’know, internal capacity building. And, it just so happens that my first day of work was January 9th, 2011. And then, on January 25th, the Tunisian government fell over [Niki: Yep], and then the Egyptian government fell over, and then the Arab Spring, y’know, kicked off and we're off to the races. And because my academic background was in Lebanese and Syrian politics and a bit of Iraqi politics as well, when the Syrian crisis kicked off, I kind of got assigned to work with UAE's special envoy for the Syrian crisis, which was very, very fascinating.
And this was in the earlier days of that conflict. So, before ISIS was a thing, when it was really a true political uprising against the Assad government, and so, there was a lot of work with the countries that were supportive of the Syrian political opposition, y’know, including the United States, including UK, France, Italy, Germany, to try and, y’know, coalesce that political opposition into an organization that was, y’know prepared to enter into diplomatic talks.
You learn so much about the, the power and the role of the United States when you're watching it on the global stage from someone else's point of view. [Niki: I’ll bet!] So that was [Niki: Yeah] hugely, hugely instructive, you know, there are certain things in the world that just will not happen unless the United States Says it's going to happen.
And we saw that, you know with the, the Syrian war, y’know with the red line and everything which was really, really tragic for the people of Syria. I wrote a Washington Post OpEd about this, but, y’know, it was really hard to be in southern Turkey after the Lute gas attack and to have to watch the American Ambassador tell the Syrians that, like, “The President's not going to do it. There's no airstrikes coming.” That was hard but very instructive about kind of what, what happens when the United States steps back.
Niki: It's such a unique perspective to be an American, sort of embedded, in a foreign, allied but foreign country and then seeing our diplomats from the other side of the, I mean, that's so interesting.
Jessica: Yeah. Yeah. It was an amazing learning opportunity and I just, I'm really, really grateful for that experience.
And so, I was in Abu Dhabi in that role for four and a half years. And then, so this is taking us to kind of early 2015, and at that point, y’know, I felt that I had just learned everything I was going to learn from that role because, y’know, as a foreigner, you're gonna hit a ceiling. [Niki: right] It's not, like, [chuckling] I'm gonna make Ambassador as “Jessica the American”.
So, it was time to go back to the States and I got this really great opportunity with the Atlantic Council, which was the home to a Middle East strategy task force that was bipartisan and it was being co-chaired by Madeline Albright, for the Democrats, and Steve Hadley, for the Republicans. And I thought, “Oh, this is great! It's like, y’know, a year and a half before a presidential election. I can kind of, like, wash the stank of foreign government off of me. Work with two people that I really, really admire and, y’know, obviously, Jeb Bush is going to be the next President. And then obviously, uh, Steve Hadley is going to be Secretary of State.” [Niki: Oh, man!] “And then, I'll just work for the State Department. And, like, I'll be a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.”
Niki: [laughing ruefully] I know! These are the dreams. Now you're speaking to our, our core audience. [Jessica: I know! ] The people who are dying for [Jessica: All the crushed dreams!]
All the crushed dreams of the losing presidential campaigns [chuckling]. I was on Senator McCain's losing presidential campaign, which is how I ended up at Google. [Jessica: Got it!]
Yeah. I was jobless. Jobless, tin cupping around Silicon Valley.
Jessica: Totally, right? And so, when that happens, y’know, I had some choices to make. And I didn't really like living in Washington. It's not really my city. And so, I was fortunate in that I had a mentor who kind of straddled the three worlds that were interesting to me, which is kind of youth politics in the Middle East, what we used to call centrist, internationalist Republican politics in this country. [Niki: uhhhh]
Niki: R. I. P.
Jessica: I don't know if it exists anymore. [Niki: No, I know!] Yeah!
Jessica: And then Silicon Valley.
Niki: Yeah, it's a whole other podcast. [laughing] It's a whole other podcast.
Jessica: So, he was like, listen, and so, again, at this point, this is late 2016, early 2017. So, he's, like, “Listen, you should go to Silicon Valley. They don't know it, but they need people with your international experience, your perspective on things.”
And I was like, “Well, okay. California seems about as far away as Washington as you can get without, like, going abroad again. And so, let's just give this a try.” I just started applying for stuff. I didn't really have any connections, and I got a lot of doors slammed in my face because, as we talked about, I have a very non-traditional background for tech and, like, people didn't really know what to do with me.
I actually applied for my current job on Reddit cold off the LinkedIn job board. [Niki: Okay] And, bless them, they thought my resume was interesting. And so, I got an interview and that's that's how it all happened!
Now, at this point, this is early 2017, Reddit is not in a position in its history to be choosy, frankly. The company was probably less than 200 people when I joined and was often in the headlines for all of the wrong reasons because there was no policy department. I was the first policy hire at Reddit. And so, no one had ever really thought systematically about the rules and how do we enforce them and all of those things and so I said, “Let's do it!” And it's been so great.
Its just been such an enriching experience to be able to grow with the company, and learn with the company, and build the policy practice at Reddit from the ground up.
Niki: And it is, sort of, I think, you're right. It is rewarding for people to come in with an outside perspective and help inform the policies as they're built.
So, when I went to Google, I also had absolutely no tech background whatsoever. I'd been an attorney and then I worked as a public policy advisor and a pollster. But I ended up- this is advice for a lot of people right now between jobs and people who are leaving the government potentially. I just found the right person who saw my resume and thought it was interesting, and she called me. We hit it off like gangbusters. I was like, “I can learn to do this. And I have this set of skills that are still applicable in tech.”
And that was 17 years ago. So, [chuckling] I sort of just fell into it. But I think it's a good, it's a good reminder to people to just keep knocking on doors because you really just need one person who sees it and sees something in your resume that looks interesting.
And for you, it might not have been tech-related, but the entire Arab Spring which is related to your background, was highly correlated with YouTube, and platform politics, and platform decision-making. So, it makes a lot of sense now. I mean, it actually seems like a trajectory that makes a lot more sense now that we know what has happened during that period.
And then, obviously, you know, you're now on the absolute cutting edge of these decisions. Here you are.
Jessica: Yeah, and it's funny because, I mean, often people will think about the Arab Spring and think about all the content moderation decisions that arose from, y’know, ISIS and terrorist stuff.
And, like, yes, I have a background in that, and I can do that, and I can, like, watch an Arabic video and tell you if they're just, like, excited about a football match or if they're saying they're going to blow something up. But that, to me, wasn't the most applicable thing that I brought from experience in, in government in the Middle East.
Really, the more important thing was thinking about governance because Reddit is a project in governance, and the Arab Spring was a revolt about governance and people wanting to have agency. And, y’know, Reddit, it's not a country, but it's a governing system on the internet. And so, having experience in, y’know, dealing with people who are agitated and wanting to have more say.
And self-rule, like, that is all very, very applicable to Reddit, as is the perspective on content regulation, right? So, the Middle East is not an area of the world that is known for its values of free speech and it was really, really good to live in that context for a number of years because it helps you understand when you're making content rules or decisions, when you need to, like, roll it back and loosen up a bit.
Because I will tell you, there's no country in the world where they're restricting speech because they're like, “Ah, we want to be evil.” No, they all have, like, at least a kernel of a good intention there.
But we know from, you know, our founders in the Enlightenment and political history that things start to get really complicated when the government decides it's going to draw lines around speech. And, y’know, once you draw one line, it becomes a slippery slope.
Niki: Well, this actually brings us full circle because I was explaining how I found you, which is you are right now, literally, are exactly what you just talked about modeling dealing with the governance situation right now. It's hot. It's in the headlines and that's how I ended up thinking, “Oh, Reddit would be a cool episode,” and then I found you, and I was like, “She seems really cool! [chuckling] And we want to find out more about what she does for a living and who Jessica is?”
So, I know you're super busy. I know you're on the West Coast. I know you fled Washington. I was the opposite. The minute I could get out of the Bay Area. I was like, “I'm out of here. These are not my people. I got to go back to, I got to go back to DC.” Those are my folks, so we swapped coasts.
Jessica: Ugh! Girl, you're doing it wrong!
Niki: No! I'm telling you, it was like one too many silent Priuses almost ran me over, and I'm like, I gotta, I just gotta get out of here.
Jessica: Well, now they drive themselves, right? [Niki: Exactly!] I was out last week, and I took a self-driving car home, and it's a revelation.
I don't have to make small talk with anyone. It's awesome.
Niki: [laughing] I mean, I'm for it, but not in my day-to-day life. I'd rather be dodging rats in Dupont Circle, which is where the studio is. [chuckling] But any final words for our Washington audience?
It was really... wonderful getting to know you, learning more about Reddit. Again, I think the people who use it are really eyeball-deep in it. And then a lot of people just have a vague idea. So, this was enlightening to them.
Jessica: Yeah, great. No, it was a pleasure to talk to you. And, y’know, next time, I think we have to have a whole episode about lost Republicans and cat stories.
Niki: [chuckling] We should definitely do it!
Thanks so much for joining, Jessica.
Jessica: Thank you, Niki. Have a good one.
Niki: On our next episode, I’m joined by the new CEO of Project Liberty, Martina Larkin. We talk about the non-profit’s mission of making the internet a safer, healthier place. Specifically, how can DSNP help you wrangle control of your data back from the social media giants? Also, what the heck is DSNP? Tune in to find out.