SAN FRANCISCO -- Daniel Ha has a fascination with Batman, so much so that a conference room at his company, Disqus, is decorated to honor the superhero character.
It's Batman's tireless pursuit of justice that enraptures Ha. Since he was old enough to type on a keyboard, the 28-year-old entrepreneur has been on a crusade to help build online communities where freedom of expression is primary and everyone is invited to chime in.
It's that mission that led Ha in 2007 to create Disqus, software that today allows more than 160 million people to comment on blogs, online forums and news websites.
Scroll to the bottom of many major media sites -- including the Bay Area News Group -- and the comment section found there is powered by Disqus.
Today, more than 3 million online communities -- everything from CNN to offbeat sites dedicated to obscure movies -- use Disqus, a free platform, to offer readers a place to converse.
Disqus has 75 employees and offices in San Francisco and New York. The private company has raised about $20 million from investors.
This newspaper sat down with Ha to talk about Disqus at the company's headquarters in the South of Market neighborhood. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q Have there been any websites that wanted to use Disqus but gave you some concern or apprehension because of some extreme ideology they promote or some violent messaging on the site?
A We were trying to figure out our point of view on this for a long time and we didn't know if we should have one. When we started Disqus we saw it as an enabler of online communities and we didn't want to insert ourselves into the messaging or to editorialize.
Where we've landed is, the ideology and the opinions of those communities, we don't want any sort of editorial control over that. We want to say that Disqus is a network of all the different voices and all the different communities that exist online, but we don't want to shape that in any way. But if it falls into camps that are illegal, that's where we'll suspend accounts.
Q Disqus exists to give people a way to express themselves. Many countries' political regimes would not support that. So in countries, for instance, that censor Facebook, do you see Disqus making inroads as a way to encourage free speech there?
A We haven't had a great international strategy from the get-go, but we have had a lot of natural, organic pickup from users and what that means is Disqus has been internationalized by the people who use the product and people who are advocating for it outside the U.S. And we're getting smarter by watching other companies like Twitter and Facebook, the large companies where this is at the forefront of their advocacy efforts.
Q What do you think of the microblogging site Reddit? Is there anything that you'd adopt from that platform or anything they do that you'd never do?
A I love Reddit. Disqus was heavily inspired by discussion forums and online communities, one of which was Reddit in the early days. And the early Disqus team, we were very heavy Reddit users. It's a product less driven by its features but was picked up by its users and shaped and built into what it is today.
The lesson we take from that is online communities are very, very driven by personalities and it's either the community leader -- so in the case of Disqus the publishers of the website -- or by the people, the audience. Disqus had introduced a new dynamic, a layer between the publishers setting the tone and the readers setting the tone. And for Disqus we want to make sure the comments are owned by the user. It gives them an investment in what they're saying, it gives them a reason to come back and say more things.
Q You have said before you don't need to trade in your identity for the ability to speak up. Why is it this anonymity so important to you?
A It goes back to the original days of online communities when people came together on the Internet to debate things, share ideas or form groups to start a project without knowing each other in real life. They didn't grow up together, they weren't classmates, they weren't co-workers. This alleviated a lot of the social pressures.
I know this because I started getting into online communities when I was 9 or 10 years old and that allowed me to connect in online forms with people in their 20s and 30s, and we could work on these technical product groups doing programming projects without them knowing I was 10 years old. And that was an important dynamic because you don't want to be discredited because of how old you are or whether you're male or female.
Q The lack of anonymity is so ubiquitous these days. Do you see online forums like Disqus as the last frontier of anonymity?
A It's really not anonymity that people want. It's really the ability to adopt pseudonyms and have handles online and expressing yourself as you'd like. It's not like putting a paper bag over your head or your Guy Fawkes mask on, it's being able to wear a different outfit in different situations. You might wear a suit to a meeting and jeans and a T-shirt to a hip hop concert. It's hard to express yourself when you're carrying around the baggage of everything your name represents, whether it's professionally or personally, with your family. It simply isn't a debate about hiding yourself but being able to freely express yourself.
Contact Heather Somerville at 510-208-6413. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.
Title: CEO, Disqus
City: San Francisco
Education: University of California at Davis. Studied computer science for two years before dropping out.
5 things about Daniel ha
1. Built a music streaming website before Spotify and Rdio were around.
2. His co-founder of Disqus, Jason Yan, has been one of his closest friends since the seventh grade.
3. He's a movie buff and his go-to source for movie reviews is slashfilm.com (which also uses Disqus).
4. The superhero he looks up to most is Batman, but if he could have any superpowers, he'd want Superman's.
5. Created the early version of Disqus from Cambridge, Mass., after the idea was accepted into a Boston-based startup incubator.