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Reddit is putting limits on subreddit customization, and users are worried

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Reddit is making some big changes to the way individual communities can customize their look, and it has some users worried that subreddits are going to get a lot less interesting.

The operators of subreddits have long been given access to their community’s CSS — web styling information that lets them heavily customize the look of a page. But in “the coming months,” Reddit is going to stop offering that.

Instead, Reddit plans to create specific customization tools that’ll let subreddit managers change the look of their pages. That’ll make it a lot easier for people to make changes, but it’ll likely be a lot more limiting.

Leaving the CSS open to subreddit managers has offered a ton of flexibility and means that basically every popular community you visit on the site will have its own look. Common changes include custom header images or photos, themed icons and backgrounds, and the addition of calendars, menus, and other tools.

But relying on custom CSS poses a number of problems, which Reddit CEO Steve Huffman pointed out while announcing the changes: for one, you have to know how to code CSS, which not everyone can do. And two, the customizations largely don’t display on mobile, which Huffman says accounts for more than half of all Reddit views.

There were also bigger problems for Reddit’s engineers. Huffman says they’ve had to be careful while making changes to the site because they could break subreddits’ looks. By limiting what subreddits can do, this new system will avoid that.

The customization tools will come as part of a “full redesign of the site.” There’s no estimate on when that’ll be ready, but Huffman talks about the associated design tools in terms of “months.”

Naturally, the limitations of the new site have some Reddit users concerned. “The lack of CSS styling gives me a uneasy fealing (sic) that our communities are turning away from something unique and special and just being another subreddit droid that all look basically the same,” writes D0cR3d, who moderates a number of gaming subreddits.

“Are the admins actually going to implement every use case we moderators use CSS for to accomplish functionality?” asks reseph, a moderator on the Sailor Moon subreddit. “I don't see that being feasible. If not, then this is simple a loss in functionality for many many subreddits.”

Reseph, who says he fears the changes will have the effect of “homogenizing Reddit,” also linked to a survey for Redditors to take. The survey has over 700 responses right now, with 84 percent of respondents saying the removal of CSS is “unacceptable.”

Subreddit moderators are worried that key customizations they’ve build out won’t be replaced. D0cR3d says gaming communities use countdown clocks to highlight events and announcements. And reseph mentions that CSS has been used for a wide variety of changes, from things as simple as adding extra buttons to more specific additions like the Minecraft subreddit adding info on whether servers are online.

Huffman says that Reddit’s plan is to build out a number of common customizations and widgets. That’ll presumably include the basics, like custom images and icons, but he also says it’ll include features like a native calendar widget.

“Giving users a blank canvas has led to many wonderful developments on Reddit,” Huffman writes. “This is not lost on us, and we'll work hard to continue to provide these surfaces for creativity.”

Reddit plans to work with moderators to determine what features it should add, but Huffman admits “the transition isn’t going to be easy for everyone.”

It’ll be a tough balance for Reddit to strike, and the site will almost certainly end up disappointing some communities when the changes finally come. But there’s an extent to which this seems like the right decision: Reddit’s traffic is moving to mobile — those visitors may not have been the majority for long, but they will be for the foreseeable future. So it makes sense for Reddit to build a better experience for them. Hopefully, the site can do that without hurting part of what let its communities stand out.