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Today, let’s talk about the Reddit protests that temporarily took down the site on Monday — and how, after years of working successfully to devolve power to its user base, the company wound up regretting it.
For most of its existence, Reddit has felt like an underachiever relative to its potential. A chaotic corporate history, long periods of inattention to harassment and hate speech, and slow growth compared to its peers have at times made it easy to dismiss. Sure, nerds all seem to love it, and for some searches it has been the only site that could make Google feel usable. But while Reddit remains beloved by millions of its users, the site has never truly lived up to its motto as “the front page of the internet.” (The real front page of the internet, at least for today, is TikTok.)
At the same time, Reddit’s core design has proven remarkably prescient — and durable. In an age of social networks using arcane recommendation algorithms and one-size-fits-all content moderation policies, Reddit bet on sharply defined niche communities and the principle of self-governance. Where TikTok and its clones offer a chaotic slurry of video tuned to your perceived interests, Reddit invites you to read and participate in contextual discussions moderated by volunteers, with each community organized by rules that they enforce themselves.
Reddit has become more relevant over time — and its users have become more possessive
As a result, Reddit is a rare social product that has seemed to become more relevant over time, as a growing user base comes to appreciate its distinctive, human-centered approach to digital conversations. Another result, though, is a user base that feels uncommonly possessive of the product.
That history begins to explain the meltdown that has taken place on Reddit over the past day, as thousands of communities go private — effectively taking themselves offline — to protest changes that will eliminate most third-party apps, and could threaten third-party moderation tools and research initiatives. So many forums went dark on Monday, in fact, that Reddit itself briefly crashed.
The protest today marked the culmination of weeks of controversy. It centers on changes to the Reddit API, which developers have always been able to use freely to build their own clients, bots, and other enhancements to the service. The API has been essential given how slowly the core Reddit product has evolved; the company didn’t even have a true native iOS app until 2014. (It offered a standalone app for its Ask Me Anything subreddit, but that was it.)
At first, Reddit didn’t even build a native app itself. Instead, the company bought Alien Blue, a third-party app built on top of the company’s free API. Since then, a small but committed group of developers have continued to use the API to improve on Reddit’s core offering. Apollo, the most popular Reddit client on iOS, has about 50,000 paying subscribers, according to developer Christian Selig. Sync and Reddit is Fun, more commonly known as RIF, have similarly enthusiastic communities for their Android apps.
Other apps served more niche use cases. PushShift, for example, scraped and stores Reddit posts for use by researchers and moderators. Some offer accessibility features for blind users and other people with disabilities.
The stated purpose of the changes was to fend off large language models
In April, Reddit — which is laying the groundwork for an initial public offering of its stock later this year — announced it would begin to charge for the API based on usage. The stated purpose of the changes was to fend off large language models like those from Google and OpenAI, which have been training their models on Reddit’s huge library of public posts. “The Reddit corpus of data is really valuable,” Steve Huffman, Reddit’s co-founder and CEO, told the New York Times’ Mike Isaac. “But we don’t need to give all of that value to some of the largest companies in the world for free.”
Initially, it wasn’t clear how these changes would affect apps like Apollo and RIF. By the end of May, though, Selig had calculated that at the new prices, running Apollo would cost him an unmanageable $20 million a year. Soon, Apollo and other third-party apps announced that they would be forced to shut down at the end of this month, when the new prices take effect.
And Redditors began planning their protest.
Reddit is not the first social app to grow on the back of a free API and then wind it down before an IPO. Twitter took a similar course, down to buying a third-party app instead of building its own. It also subsequently restricted developers who wished to use its API to build their own clients, although not by dramatically raising prices. Instead, it capped the number of users that an individual third-party client could have, which limited the prospects for any business built on third-party development to the point that most people just stopped trying.
Over the past few weeks, it has become clear that defending Reddit from being exploited by the developers of large language models only represents part of the story. As Ben Thompson lays out — and this was also true of alternate Twitter clients — third-party Reddit apps don’t carry the advertising that the native app does. That means that users of Apollo or RIF are making money for their developers, but not for Reddit itself. It’s easy to see how, in the run-up to an IPO, an increasingly finance-minded company would see that as a loose end that needed to be tied up.
“We’ll continue to be profit-driven until profits arrive.”
In a combative Ask Me Anything session on Friday, Huffman responded with a disarming frankness to a user who asked how he would “address the concerns of users who feel that Reddit has become increasingly profit-driven and less focused on community engagement”: “We’ll continue to be profit-driven until profits arrive,” Huffman wrote. “Unlike some of the (third-party) apps, we’re not profitable.” (In a separate comment, he wrote that supporting apps like Apollo costs Reddit “tens of millions of dollars” per year.)
A third, somewhat more opaque aspect of the API changes relates to the large amount of not-safe-for-work content available on Reddit. The company is limiting the availability of such posts in its API going forward, citing a “stricter” regulatory environment, TechCrunch reported. It’s unclear whether this refers to the rise of state-level restrictions on social apps focused on minors, pressure from Apple, or something else. The difficulty of preventing minors from accessing adult content via APIs seems likely to be of greater concern as apps like Bluesky and Mastodon push to make social networks more decentralized. In Reddit’s case, though, it seems like a more or less moot point — third-party apps will likely no longer be around to display any posts, NSFW ones included.
Of all the issues of concern to Reddit users and developers, the most pressing may be timing. The changes are all taking effect within 30 days of being announced, which presents a genuine hardship to apps like Apollo, which sell annual plans and owe their users up to a year of additional service. If there’s any room for compromise in this whole conflict, I think it’s to be found in extending the time that developers have to wind their projects down and (potentially) build products and businesses that are compliant with Reddit’s new terms.
Of the 7,000 subreddits that are now locked (including my personal favorite, the indispensable pro-wrestling resource R/SquaredCircle), most plan to make themselves available again within 48 hours. Others, though, plan to stay locked indefinitely, in hopes that Huffman will offer some sort of compromise that enables third-party apps to continue operating.
Reddit’s user base has real leverage over its product
There’s some room for hope there: Reddit has already said it would grant an exemption for apps that use the API to make Reddit posts available to blind users and others with accessibility needs. (The fact that Reddit had not considered this issue before announcing its changes makes you wonder how fully the company had considered the ramifications of the move.) And the sheer magnitude of today’s protest ought to make clear to company executives that its user base has real leverage over its product — possibly more even than Twitter’s user base ever did.
When I asked for comment, Reddit sent me this message to Redditors from Huffman: “We respect when you and your communities take action to highlight the things you need, including, at times, going private. We are all responsible for ensuring Reddit provides an open accessible place for people to find community and belonging.”
The company says it is not planning any additional changes to the API.
In the meantime, though, the Reddit protest has highlighted the danger of outsourcing content creation, moderation, and product development to the user base.
To be clear, the company has had good reason to do so. Allowing users to create forums about anything they can think of has led to some of the most wonderful niche communities on the internet. Allowing them to (mostly) self-govern has exempted Reddit from many of the impossible decisions faced by the social-media CEOs who took a more top-down approach to moderation. And while we may look back on it as a zero-interest rate phenomenon, Reddit’s free API accelerated the development of its app ecosystem, allowing users to create complementary tools and experiences that increased the service’s overall value.
It’s little wonder that, having long granted users so much power, Reddit now finds itself in crisis over a clumsy move to wrest it back. Let this be a lesson to anyone else who ever builds a social network: tell your users that the community belongs to them for long enough, and at some point they’ll start to believe you.
Reddit says moderation tools will not be subject to the new API limits
The move also suggests that framing the API change as a defense against encroaching AI was, in hindsight, a miscalculation. Whether or not ChatGPT or Bard get access to Reddit posts has little effect on the average Reddit user. But shutting down the company’s app ecosystem does. And I imagine this all feels particularly galling to users who already have deep misgivings about their work being used to train AI models over which they have no control and from which they themselves will see no financial benefit. It’s one thing to build an advertising business around your users’ posts — and quite another to package those posts up and sell them as a SaaS product.
Reddit has long depended heavily — arguably too heavily — on the unpaid labor of its users. That’s especially true for its moderators, many of whom have turned to third-party solutions to better do their (volunteer) jobs. Ensuring that this group, in particular, would not be affected negatively before announcing any API changes seems to me like the least that Reddit could have done. (While there has been much confusion on this point, Reddit told me today that moderation tools will not be subject to the new API limits.)
It seems also notable that Reddit is moving to centralize control of its ecosystem at the precise time that the rest of industry has begun to explore more federated models. When even Meta is preparing to launch a decentralized social network, it’s fair to ask whether Reddit has misread the moment.
It’s possible the current crisis will pass, the subreddits will go public again, and the network will pick up where it left off. But Reddit’s API changes have clearly struck a nerve, and it is in the nature of forum drama to resolve by members deciding to take their business elsewhere. Surely more than a few subreddits will soon notice that, in the quickly fragmenting landscape of social products in 2023, other options are available to them.