Reddit doubles down

Delaying its API changes would benefit everyone — but users have other options, too

Reddit doubles down

Programming note: Barring big news, Platformer will be off Thursday as I take a personal day. Hard Fork will publish Friday as usual. Monday is the Juneteenth holiday, so expect to see us back in your inbox on Tuesday.

When a platform’s user base is in revolt, it generally has two choices. The company can make concessions to users, walking back an unpopular change or offering some other consolation. Or it can keep calm and carry on, betting that the furor will subside after a few news cycles and allow the company to return to business as usual.

On Monday, I wrote about the revolt at Reddit, where plans to begin charging developers to use the company’s formerly free API is expected to crush the most popular third-party clients — and might also put moderation tools, accessibility-focused apps, and other enhancements to the network at risk. In response, moderators have made thousands of the site’s most popular forums private, essentially taking them offline. They have called on Reddit’s leaders to reverse the changes and ensure that third-party development of the network’s ecosystem can continue.

Today we got our most solid indication to date of how Reddit plans to handle this revolt — and CEO Steve Huffman is making it clear that the company does not intend to offer any concessions. He said as much in a memo to employees that leaked to Mia Sato and Jay Peters at The Verge.

Huffman told employees:

There’s a lot of noise with this one. Among the noisiest we’ve seen. Please know that our teams are on it, and like all blowups on Reddit, this one will pass as well. The most important things we can do right now are stay focused, adapt to challenges, and keep moving forward. We absolutely must ship what we said we would. The only long term solution is improving our product, and in the short term we have a few upcoming critical mod tool launches we need to nail.

Huffman is right that, in the end, the whole situation reflects a product problem: the native Reddit apps, both on desktop and on mobile, are ugly and difficult to use. (In particular, I find the nested comments under each post bizarrely difficult to expand or collapse; the tap targets for your fingers are microscopic.) Reddit didn’t really navigate the transition to mobile devices so much as it endured it; it’s little wonder that millions of the service’s power users have sought refuge in third-party apps with more modern designs.

On the whole, though, Huffman’s bet against the sustained energy of the Reddit community appears to have misfired.

Over the past day, the number of Reddits that have gone dark expanded from around 7,000 to more than 8,400. And in response to Huffman’s dismissive memo, moderators of hundreds of communities now say they will extend the blackout indefinitely beyond its planned two days.

Here’s Peters again at The Verge:

“Reddit has budged microscopically,” u/SpicyThunder335, a moderator for r/ModCoord, wrote in the post. They say that despite an announcement that access to a popular data-archiving tool for moderators would be restored, “our core concerns still aren’t satisfied, and these concessions came prior to the blackout start date; Reddit has been silent since it began.” SpicyThunder335 also bolded a line from a Monday memo from CEO Steve Huffman obtained by The Verge — “like all blowups on Reddit, this one will pass as well” — and said that “more is needed for Reddit to act.”

Ahead of the Tuesday post, more than 300 subreddits had committed to staying dark indefinitely, SpicyThunder335 said. The list included some hugely popular subreddits, like r/aww (more than 34 million subscribers), r/music (more than 32 million subscribers), and r/videos (more than 26 million subscribers). Even r/nba committed to an indefinite timeframe at arguably the most important time of the NBA season. But SpicyThunder335 invited moderators to share pledges to keep the protests going, and the commitments are rolling in.

Thousands of subreddits likely will come back online within the next day, if only out of a sense of obligation to their own communities. But the indefinite loss of forums with tens of millions of subscribers seems likely to sting. (Certainly it’s stinging the quality of Google search results.)

If Reddit hopes to de-escalate the situation, it seems to me that it has two clear options. One is that it could reduce the announced pricing for its API to ensure third-party developers can continue their work. But this seems unlikely: Reddit’s clear objective here is to wind down third-party app development and push users to its own native app, which it has promised to improve.

That leads to the second option, which is to simply slow down. One of the most upsetting things about the API changes, from developers’ perspective, is that many of their users bought annual subscriptions, and Reddit’s new pricing takes effect at the end of this month. That leaves them little time to make things right with their customers. 

One criticism I heard of my piece yesterday is that Reddit had given developers more than 30 days’ notice, contrary to what some developers have complained about. But when Reddit first announced that it would charge for API access, it did not specify prices or what kinds of apps would be affected. The communication failure led to widespread confusion about how tools related to content moderation, accessibility, and independent research would be affected, and Reddit has been trying to dig its way out of that hole ever since.

That leaves room for Reddit to grant developers another six months to a year before the API changes take effect. By delaying the move, developers would get the time they need to either figure out sustainable business models or shut down without stiffing their customers on months of expected service. Reddit, in turn, could use that same time to build the improvements to moderation tools and the core app that it insists are coming soon.

Assuming not even that happens, though, there are other options.

One possibility is that, in the grand tradition of forum drama throughout internet history, big subreddits will simply decamp for other hosting solutions. If that seems like a pipe dream — and I apologize for the unfortunate example — look at the story of TheDonald. The violent, racist subreddit was banned in 2020 for violating Reddit’s content policies. But its membership quickly rebuilt elsewhere, at a site I will not link to, using an interface quite similar to Reddit’s. 

Of course, it would have been better for the internet if TheDonald had simply disbanded. But the fact that it continued once being booted off Reddit illustrates how little Reddit itself brought to the community — and how easily other, more reputable subreddits might build new homes elsewhere, so long as their users have the will.

On Monday, I mentioned that my favorite subreddit had gone dark; a commenter let me know that some members had already set up shop on Kbin, a decentralized Reddit alternative that is interoperable with Mastodon and other services on the ActivityPub standard. While the interface is rough even by the standards of Reddit, it works just fine. And if the Fediverse continues to develop at its current pace, it might soon work much better than that.

Then again, of course, Huffman may be right. Statistically, the furor over Reddit’s API changes will pass, and power users will resign themselves to the imperfect convenience of having all their favorite niche communities in a single place. 

But for now, at least, anger seems to be building. And given the rapid fragmentation of online social networking, what happens next seems increasingly hard to predict. It’s true that most social media controversies eventually blow over. Other times, though, they blow up. 

On the podcast this week: Kevin and I debate Reddit’s next move. Plus, Max Read joins to discuss the confounding character that is MrBeast, and why platforms are giving up on 2020 election lies.

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