Reid Hoffman: ‘You Can’t Just Sit on the Sidelines’

You grew up in Berkeley, Calif. Did any of the counterculture influence you?

I was running from tear gas even before I could walk, because I was on my dad’s shoulders as he was running from tear gas at a protest against the Vietnam War. A willingness to think for yourself was probably one of the things that growing up in Berkeley really helped with.

How did you get interested in technology?

At Stanford, my undergraduate major was called symbolic systems, which was artificial intelligence and cognitive science. The computer science majors would mockingly call it “C.S. light,” because you didn’t have to do the full C.S. major; you only had to do some of the introductory things. The pivot to working in tech was simply that the pay was better. I went, “O.K., if I go and do the tech internship, I’ll get paid more. I’ll go do that.” So I did a summer internship at Xerox Park, where my job was building a simulator for a multiagent learning system. Then I did a summer internship at IBM on expert systems.

Why did you then go on to get a master’s in philosophy?

I was intensely interested in the questions of who are we as individuals in society, and who should we be. How do we think? How do we reason? How do we communicate? Philosophy doesn’t have a better understanding than anyone else. It’s still all unknown. But the thing that I learned from philosophy was an ability to articulate theories crisply, which led to an ability to express crisp theories of human nature, which aligns with some of the most interesting things around, like consumer internet and entrepreneurship. Philosophy enabled all that in a much more robust way than an M.B.A.

You can learn the technical skills, what a coding mind-set is, what data structures look like. But understanding — here is the way the world could be, here is the theory of human nature that you’re playing into in order to create that world, and here is that kind of combination of psychology, sociology and economics together with what’s possible in technology — that combination was enabled much more by philosophical thinking.

When did you start thinking about there being a social layer to the internet?

A lot of founders have some North Stars about what is going to be super important to how products evolve, how society evolves, what people can do with technology. For me, that is the notion that software is the medium by which we connect with each other, communicate, coordinate, see each other, understand each other. That instinct and intuition goes all the way back to when I first started seeing online services like CompuServe and AOL. It was just a matter of what were the configurations and patterns for doing that.

Do you believe there’s an inherent social benefit to connecting people online?

Yes. Both to themselves and also a healthier group, healthier society.

Do you feel like we’re now starting to get a real body of evidence that there’s a counternarrative to that, between trolls and what happened in Myanmar, for example?

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