One of the reasons Silicon Valley technology company leaders sometimes display such indifference to the desires of their users is that they keep getting away with it. At Facebook, now Meta, after each new privacy invasion, the user base just kept getting bigger. At Twitter, despite much outrage at its new owner’s policies, although it feels definitely emptier the exodus toward other sites appears to have dropped off. At Reddit, where CEO Steve Huffman has used the term “landed gentry” to denigrate moderators leading protests against a new company policy…well, we’ll see.
In April, Reddit announced it would begin charging third parties for access to its API, the interface that gives computers outside its system access to the site’s data. Charges will apply to everyone except developers building apps and bots that help people use Reddit and academic/non-commercial researchers studying Reddit.
In May, the company announced pricing: $12,000 per 50 million requests. This compares to Twitter’s recently announced $42,000 per 50 million tweets and photo site Imgur‘s $166 per 50 million API calls. Apollo, maker of the popular iOS Reddit app, estimates that it would now cost $20 million a year to keep its app running.
The reasoning behind this could be summed up as, “They cost us real money; why should we help them?” Apollo’s app is popular, it appears, because it offers a cleaner interface. But it also eliminates Reddit’s ads, depriving the site of revenue. Reddit is preparing for an IPO later this year against stiff headwinds.
A key factor in this timing is the new gold rush around large language models, which are being built by scraping huge amounts of text anywhere they can find it. Taking “our content”, Huffman calls it, suggesting Reddit deserves to share in the profits while eliding the fact that said content is all user-created.
This week, thousands of moderators shuttered their forums (subreddits) in protest. At The Verge, Jay Peters reports that more than 8,000 (out of 138,000) subreddits went dark for 48 hours from Monday to Wednesday. Given Huffman’s the-blackout-will-pass refusal to budge, some popular forums have vowed to continue the protest indefinitely.
Some redditors have popped up on other social media to ask about viable alternatives (they’re also discussing this question on Reddit itself). But moving communities is hard, which is why these companies understand their users’ anger is rarely an existential threat.
The most likely outcome is that redditors are about to confront the fate that eventually befalls almost every online community: the people they *thought* cared about them are going to sell them to people who *don’t* care about them. Reddit as they knew it is entering a phase of precarity that history says will likely end with the system’s shutdown or abandonment. Shareholders’ and owners’ desire to cash out and indifference to Twitter’s actual users is how Elon Musk ended up in charge. It’s how NBC Universal shut down Television without Pity, how Yahoo killed GeoCities, and how AOL spitefully dismantled CompuServe.
The lesson from all of these is: shareholders and corporate owners don’t have to care about users.
The bigger issue, however, is that Reddit, like Twitter, is not currently a sustainable business. Founded in 2005, it was a year old when Conde Nast bought it, only to spin it out again into an independent subsidiary in 2011. Since then it has held repeated funding rounds, most recently in 2021, when it raised $700 million. Since its IPO filing in December 2021, its value has dropped by a third. It will not survive in any form without new sources of revenue; it’s also cutting costs with layoffs.
Every Internet service or site, from Flickr to bitcoin, begins with founders and users sharing the same goal: for the service to grow and prosper. Once the service has grown past a certain point, however, their interests diverge. Users generally seek community, entertainment, and information; investors only seek profits. The need to produce revenues led Google’s chiefs, who had previously held that ads would inevitably corrupt search results, hired Sheryl Sandberg to build the company’s ad business. Seven years later, facomg the same problem, Facebook did the same thing – and hired the same person to do it. Reddit has taken much longer than most Internet companies to reach this inevitable fork.
Yet the volunteer human moderators Huffman derided are the key to Reddit’s success; they set the tone in each subreddit community. Reddit’s topic-centered design means much more interaction with strangers than the person-centered design of blogs and 2010-era social media, but it also allows people with niche interests to find both experts and each other. That fact plus human curation means that lately many add “reddit” to search terms in order to get better results. Reddit users’ loss is therefore also our loss as we try to cope with t1he enshittification of the most monopolistic Internet services.
Its board still doesn’t have to care.
None of this is hopeful. Even if redditors win this round and find some compromise to save their favorite apps, once the IPO is past, any power they have will be gone.
“On the Internet your home will always leave you,” someone observed on Twitter a couple of years ago. I fear that moment is now coming for Reddit. Next time, build your community in a home you can own.
Illustration: Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman speaking at the Oxford Union in 2019.