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Redditors are riding out to do battle against their own platform.
On Monday (June 12), the usual hum of Reddit activity—queries, debates, upvoting, downvoting, name calling, trolling—ground to a halt as thousands of subreddits went private, even triggering a brief site outage. The sticking point: Reddit is erecting paywalls on its API beginning July 1, charging prices that will force a host of its third-party apps, which currently rely on free access, to shut down.
The protest persisted through the week. Some communities, which had originally planned to shut shop for 48 hours, extended the protest indefinitely. As of writing, 5,236 pages out of 8,829 were down, according to Reddark, a site that developers whipped up to track the statuses of subreddits. The largest page that has shut down, r/funny, has over 40 million followers.
But the platform is brushing off the show of defiance. “Like all blowups on Reddit, this one will pass as well,” Steve Huffman, Reddit’s CEO, said in an internal memo, as published by The Verge. The company already has what it wants: reams of user-generated, information-rich, conversational content, ripe for harvesting—and selling. Huffman wants to cash in on this material, offering it to companies looking for such data sets to train their plethora of AI models. (OpenAI, after all, scraped the site free of charge when it was building ChatGPT.)
Reddit’s strategy is not extraordinary. It merely follows the path laid down by other social media platforms: reap what your users sow. That path, as seen in Musk’s many gimmicks to wring more money out of Twitter, risks alienating your user base altogether.
Who needs karma, though, when there’s money to be made, and an IPO on the horizon?
If Reddit is a host, third-party apps are its mutualistic partners. Together, they have made the platform what it is—a vast and valuable source of human-generated content.
Reddit moderators (“mods” for short) have spoken up about the danger of pricing out third-party apps in an open letter: “Let’s just rip the band-aid right off: in many cases these apps offer superior mod tools, customization, streamlined interfaces, and other quality of life improvements that the official app does not offer.”
Third-party apps not only make Reddit more usable but also more accessible. Disabled users, including the blind community, have warned that Reddit’s proposed changes may exclude them from the platform entirely.
Meanwhile, Reddit has made conciliatory noises about preserving third-party apps, but the numbers are moot. Christian Selig, the developer of Apollo, one of Reddit’s most popular third-party apps, estimated that the new API pricing would cost him a whopping $20 million a year—an impossible sum.
A slew of apps, including Apollo, Reddit is Fun, Reddplanet, and Sync plan to shut down on June 30 due to the new API pricing model. Other apps, like Narwhal and Bacon Reader, have yet to make formal announcements, but are likely to follow suit.
$15 billion: The reported valuation that Reddit is aiming for in its IPO, which could come as soon as the second half of 2023. Hitting this valuation will be a challenge. During its last round of funding, back in August 2021, the company was valued at $10 billion, but this past April, Fidelity, one of the big investors in Reddit, cut its valuation by more than 40%. One way to boost that valuation back up is to show that Reddit can make more money—which is what Huffman must believe he’s doing with his new API pricing. But in the process, he’s losing another, less quantifiable but more crucial part of the valuation: the devotion of Reddit’s users.
In an interview with The Verge, Reddit’s CEO signaled the end of what he thought to be a laissez-faire era. The Reddit API, Huffman said, “was never designed to support third-party apps.” But he “let it exist,” he added. “I should take the blame for that because I was the guy arguing for that for a long time.”
Why that’s changing now is partly a sign of Reddit’s pre-IPO priorities, but perhaps also a sign of how the internet’s shifting relationship with data. Our data, captured in our email keywords and Instagram photos and Google searches, used to be valuable only for the automated advertising strategies that could be culled from it. It was a diffused sort of monetization, built out of millions of ad campaigns that were lucrative only in their aggregate.
Now, though, our data has become valuable for training AIs. A large learning model might use Instagram photos to figure out what a cat looks like; a chatbot could learn the art of contextual conversation from Reddit threads. The eventual monetization of these AIs—licensing them for use in numerous environments—is a different revenue stream altogether for platforms loaded with our personal data. Given how ad income has been slumping for a while now, it will come as no surprise if our social media data is increasingly funneled into moneymaking ventures. The darkened form of Reddit is merely a straw showing us which way the wind is blowing.
Reddit’s users aren’t just generators of free content for the platform. They also moderate and innovate, creating new communities and curbing the excesses of existing ones. It is all unpaid labor. In 2022, moderators scrubbed nearly 57 million items from Reddit, according to the latest edition of the company’s own transparency report. Reddit’s own staff—slashed to around 2,000 full-timers after a round of layoffs this month—would have found it impossible to review and remove all this content on their own steam. In that sense, the darkness of subreddits and the anger of its moderators don’t just count as a boycott: they’re a labor strike as well.
Thanks for reading! And don’t hesitate to reach out with comments, questions, or topics you want to know more about.
Have a secure weekend,
—Julia Malleck, staff writer; Samanth Subramanian, global news editor