Alexis Ohanian on CryptoPunks & Community: “You’ve Got to Do the Work”

BY Lorepunk

December 13, 2023

In the latest edition of “Punks As Told By CryptoPunks,” the wide-ranging docuseries presented by nft now and CryptoPunks, we catch up with Alexis Ohanian, world-renowned founder of Reddit, husband of tennis champion Serena Williams—and chef-artist of characterful pancakes every Sunday for their daughter, Olympia.

Ohanian first heard of CryptoPunks on Twitter. “I started seeing people changing their profile picture to these interesting low-resolution punks. Ages earlier, I had minted some CryptoKitties, and I was like, “Oh, this is an interesting tech. I don’t know what it’ll be used for,” he says.

After a while, Ohanian got a bit more curious. “And, then, it was really CryptoPunks that first stirred my cocoa again—to think, ‘Hey, actually, there’s something really interesting going on here.’ This technology provides some fascinating provenance—kind of storytelling around art that the art world has—but doesn’t have authoritatively. Usually, it’s just through whispers and like, ‘trust me,’” he recalls.

He was also drawn to the authenticity of Punks. “I think a pretty humble origin story [of the project]. Because, you have, certainly, a historical precedent that CryptoPunks set, but, like a lot of great things, it wasn’t done intentionally. It wasn’t like they were coming out here to say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna start this revolution. CryptoPunks are gonna be the way to do it.’ And it just made this perfect storm, and I just liked the art,” he tells us.

Alexis Ohanian wearing Serena Williams’ CryptoPunk at the 2021 Met Gala

Ohanian looked around for a CryptoPunk that looked exactly like him but came up blank for a while. Then, he started searching for a Punk for Williams, and found her iconic #2950—the Punk that looked just like the champion, fresh off a tennis court victory, complete with a headband. These, of course, are Ohanian’s favorite Punk traits: “Woman, dark skin, long hair, headbands—there you go, it’s the Serena Punk,” he says.

He took things up a notch when he accompanied Williams to the 2021 Met Gala; while she dazzled in a dramatic pink, white, and black feathered cape and a delicate lace bodysuit, he accented his white-tie look with a lapel pin of her Punk.

“There was a very, very last-minute decision to wear that pin for the Met Gala. I actually had my chief of staff at the time, Lizzie, somehow finagle that—I had texted her like 24 hours before, and she managed to get a really beautiful high-quality one put together and delivered to the hotel, and yeah, rocked it. Thankfully, the Internet was pleased,” says Ohanian.

According to Ohanian, sporting Williams’ Punk at the Gala, at the height of the NFT bull market, underscored the iconic effect of CryptoPunks—even for those new to the collection. “I got the compliment of my life—so, I was sitting near [fashion designer] Virgil [Abloh], and we were catching up, and he saw the pin, and he took a selfie and posted it as the most punk thing he’s ever seen at the Met Gala. And my life was made. It was awesome,” he says.

Mindful that Ohanian is the creator of Reddit—one of the deepest, most powerful communities in the history of the Internet—we’re curious to hear what wisdom he has to share about building communities and how his experience might apply to web3. He brings the conversation back to the lessons of communities in the real world.

“These non-fungible tokens are just an asset like any other,” he says, holding up a trading card. “The piece of paper that a golf club membership is printed on, it’s not worth that much, but it’s worth much, much more because of the communal value,” he says.

For Ohanian—a canny investor in web3 through his venture capital firm, Seven Seven Six—the projects that have survived the bear take community seriously.

“What’s been good in this [crypto] winter is it has really sifted a lot of the wheat from the chaff when it comes to these communities—there was a very much a sort of casino mentality around the whole damn space, and the vast majority of projects that didn’t actually make a good faith effort to build community or even build things of value are gone—rightly so,” he says.

Ohanian hopes community and user experience will determine success as the market heats up again.

“My hope is with this next cycle, there’ll be less of a focus on the more unpleasant casino-type stuff and more on the real value delivered to customers, to communities. User experience is going to be the dominant theme here. It’s gonna be about making these people genuinely love [the project], he says.

This, again, puts him in mind of Punks, whose success largely hinged on the fact that the 2017 tokens were never a cash grab but were offered for free, complete with a no-fee marketplace.

“It was just a different mindset and that culture—that original DNA—is something you can’t really fake. And, then, once it sets, it sets—and that’s part of why CryptoPunks has been and continues to be so successful,” says Ohanian.

“The reality is, no, you’ve got to do the work. That’s the not-glamorous part of community building that many people want, but very, very few want to do.”

Alexis Ohanian

His biggest lesson in community building? Just show up, because if you don’t, you won’t be credible to members of the community that have been putting in the work.

“For the first—I don’t know—four years of Reddit, I was the number one Redditor. I was the original Community Manager. And we’d spin up new subreddits—I’d be in there trying to help mod, help start conversations, help get people excited. It was so, so, so, so, so crucial that I was the number one user of the site, and that kn0thing, which is my username, was there in the comments,” he explains.

He brings things back to the physical world, drawing the analogy of a jogging club—if you put up the flyers but don’t show up every week to jog, you’re not very likely to have a club in six months’ time. To Ohanian, keeping these guidelines front and center in the digital world is important, too.

“Somehow, everyone forgets these fundamental principles of how humans work offline as soon as they go online. The founders of these projects cannot outsource community building. They can supplement it, for sure—but they gotta show up. And again, it’s not for the faint of heart. I think there’s a lot of people who just want to go to the end state of like, ‘no, no, I want the millions of dollars. I want the millions of fans. I want the millions of whatever.’ And the reality is, no, you’ve got to do the work. That’s the not-glamorous part of community building that many people want, but very, very few want to do,” he says.

To finish, we ask Ohanian to describe the story of CryptoPunks in a single sentence. Ohanian pauses, thinking deeply, then says: “Breaking new ground in a new digital medium that unlocked a renaissance—a rebirth of art. That’s big, but why not? Let’s do it,” he says, smiling.

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