It Sure Would Be Great If Our Social Media Companies Weren't All Run By Jerks
A few thoughts on the Reddit protest.
Today, thousands of subreddits are going dark to protest changes to Reddit’s API pricing, which have made it so popular third-party reading apps like Apollo are unable to function.
Let me rewind a bit.
If you’re not aware, Reddit is one of the biggest websites in the world, valued at around $10 billion. Estimates vary but it has something on the order of 50 million daily active users and 160 million monthly active users. According to Pew, Reddit is one of the top 10 most popular social media websites in the United States. It can single-handedly make a website, a video, or a meme go viral.
Something unique about Reddit is that it’s not one single community; it’s actually made up of a bunch of different smaller communities called subreddits. Each subreddit has its own cultures and norms, as well as moderators (mods for short) who are generally volunteers dedicated to preserving the functionality of the subreddit. There are subreddits dedicated to iPhones and cars and Game of Thrones and relationships. Pretty much anything you can think of.
In the early days, Reddit was built by a bunch of tinkerers. Like Twitter, their mobile experience was originally awful until users started making apps that made it easier to browse the site. Reddit even acquired one of them (AlienBlue) and made it into an official app. Third-party apps have always been a big part of the Reddit ecosystem. Until now.
The days of free access are over
Earlier this year, Twitter unceremoniously banned third-party apps from its platform. Users previously had the ability to access Twitter through apps like Tweetbot and Twitterific, which provided more functionality and a better overall user experience. But the rationale for the ban is obvious: Twitter wants you to experience Twitter through its own official website or app so it can capture 100% of the value that a user provides. Twitter also announced pricing changes to its API (Application Programming Interface). This meant that apps and organizations that used Twitter’s data needed to pony up a lot more money in order to continue doing so.
Perhaps not coincidentally, in April, Reddit announced that it too would soon start charging for its API. Initially, developers like Christian Selig, the developer of Apollo (a popular third-party Reddit reader app), were optimistic that they could meet the demands of the new pricing. But it soon became clear that the new pricing changes were simply a smoke screen for killing third-party apps entirely.
In a Reddit post by Selig (detailed here, as the post is unreadable as of this writing), Selig laid out how poorly his interactions with Reddit about the API pricing had gone. I read the entire post and it’s a damning portrait of current Reddit leadership. The new API pricing essentially make it nearly impossible for apps like Apollo to operate, but Reddit has been slow to respond to the developer community’s concerns and issued a punitive timeline (one month) for implementation, all while slandering Selig (accusing him of “threatening” Reddit) and crowing publicly about how much they still want to work with developers. In particular, Reddit’s CEO, Steve Huffman, comes off quite poorly. This is a trend that would continue in a disastrous Reddit AMA (Reddit’s version of a Q&A) that Huffman hosted last week (summarized here). Huffman ignored most of the reasonable questions that were asked about the API pricing situation and issued stock, boilerplate answers to the few that he responded to. For many Reddit mods, this AMA was the tipping point. An organized protest to make subreddits “go dark” gained even more momentum in the wake of it.
Which leads me back to the first sentence of this post: Today, thousands of subreddits are going dark to protest changes to Reddit’s API pricing, which have made it so popular third-party reading apps like Apollo are unable to function. You can see a running tally of the subreddits going dark at reddark.untone.uk. What this basically means is that vast portions of Reddit — subreddits that reach millions of people per day — have set themselves to “private.” Their content is inaccessible and won’t show up on the front page of Reddit. It’s kind of amazing to see and a stark reminder to Reddit leadership that the site and its content succeeds due to the hard work of millions of volunteers, and not the work going on at Reddit’s corporate offices.
The social media dilemma
I’ve been thinking a lot about Cory Doctorow’s essay about “enshittification.” Doctorow argues that on a long enough timeline, any modern day platform will become so “enshittified” as to basically be unusable. Companies that run platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Tiktok are first motivated to provide an excellent user experience, but once users find the platform indispensable, the platform responds to capitalistic incentives to make itself worse.
Surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they're locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they're locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit. From mobile app stores to Steam, from Facebook to Twitter, this is the enshittification lifecycle.
The same dynamic is playing out at Reddit (which btw was at one point planning to go public this year — it’s unclear if the current protest will change timeline). Reddit, having built itself into an essential app and website for millions of people, now needs to make as much money as humanly possible. This means charging punitive prices for its API, forcing everyone to its own (fairly terrible) app, where they can show you as many ads as possible and charge you for subscriptions.
But there’s one important addition to this equation: the obliviousness that CEOs like Huffman and Musk seem to have about what made their platforms popular in the first place. Twitter and Reddit were cool places to hang out because of the other users there, because of the vibrant communities they formed, and because their inventiveness helped to actually improve the user experience. These platforms need their users a lot more like than their users need them, and when I watch the actions and statements of Huffman, it seems like he has completely lost sight of this essential truth. At some point Huffman became convinced that he was the one in charge and everyone had better do what he says or else. There’s a callousness to the concerns of the community, a sense that Reddit and Twitter can force users to stick around and accept whatever conditions are on offer.
On Twitter, the results of this general approach don’t seem to be playing out too well. Hate speech is on the rise. Usage is down. Ad revenue is off an estimated 59%. I would be shocked if the site is solvent 18 months from now. Will Reddit meet a similar fate?
It’s impossible to know what the results of the Reddit protest will be. It’s very likely that Reddit will continue its unfortunate trajectory and announce some drastic change to its mod system (AI mods, anyone?) to prevent anything this embarrassing from ever happening again. But unless Reddit leadership changes course, I don’t foresee the antagonistic relationship between Reddit and its users going away anytime soon. And that stinks, because it really doesn’t have to be this way.
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