What we’re learning from the Reddit blackout

Five lessons, and one open question

What we’re learning from the Reddit blackout
(Jakub Porzycki / Getty Images)

After a bruising week of protests and locked-down forums, things started to get back to normal Tuesday on Reddit, as — oh wait, what’s this?

A handful of subreddits have classified themselves as not safe for work (NSFW) to protest Reddit’s recent treatment of the platform’s volunteer moderators, and as a result, some non-porn communities are starting to get a lot of porn.

Subreddits that have made the NSFW switch include r/interestingasfuck, r/TIHI (Thanks I Hate It), r/formula1, r/videos, r/HomeKit, and r/HomePod.

As Jay Peters writes in that piece, designating forums as NSFW annoys Reddit Inc. in a variety of ways: it prevents ads from running on them, for example, and restricts them from being viewed by logged-out users, effectively keeping them semi-private.

It’s the latest sign that protests over changes to the Reddit API, while clearly on the wane, have not yet fully abated. More than a third of all subreddits that committed to going dark remain private, according to the tracker Reddark, and some moderators say they intend to keep up the disruption until Reddit walks back its announced changes.

While the situation remains too fluid to undertake a full postmortem, today let’s talk about what we’ve learned from Reddit’s standoff with its user base so far. Reddit was early to the idea that successful social products work to transfer power to their users — but the site’s woes this month suggest that relying too much on the user base to maintain the service may make them question what they ever needed the platform for, anyway.

  1. Devolving power to users can come back to haunt a platform …

Of all the content moderation regimes set up by social platforms over the past two decades, Reddit’s might well have been the best. The site sets a “floor” of rules that every forum must meet — no terrorism, no child exploitation — but lets any individual subreddit raise the “ceiling” with rules of its own. If a religious forum wants to ban cursing, it’s welcome to. If an NSFW forum wants to ban images of people with their clothes on, that’s fair game, too. 

While Facebook and Twitter attempted to govern vast global audiences with a one-size-fits-all set of rules, Reddit’s approach brought context and community to its niche forums. Making it work, though, required an army of volunteer moderators to set up and enforce their subreddits’ particular rules. As we’ve seen over the past week, collectively those moderators wield real power: traffic dropped an estimated 6.6 percent last week as subreddits went dark, according to one estimate. And because they set the rules, it was up to the moderators whether or when the subreddits would ever come back online.

This power dynamic seemed to infuriate CEO Steve Huffman, who referred to moderators over the weekend as a “landed gentry” who lack accountability to their constituents. Huffman told NBC’s David Ingram that he is considering making changes to Reddit’s rules that would let users vote out moderators more easily over unpopular decisions — like taking a subreddit private, for example. 

“If you’re a politician or a business owner, you are accountable to your constituents. So a politician needs to be elected, and a business owner can be fired by its shareholders,” Huffman told Ingram.  “And I think, on Reddit, the analogy is closer to the landed gentry: The people who get there first get to stay there and pass it down to their descendants, and that is not democratic.” 

Reddit could have, but so far has not, simply overridden moderators’ decisions and turned all the dark subreddits public again. Instead, the company wrote to moderators suggesting that it would remove them if they did not make their forums public again.

On the whole, Reddit has benefited from a system that largely spares its leaders from having to make impossible decisions over what kinds of speech belong on the platform. But it also makes the company unusually vulnerable when, in an effort to wrest back some power from the user base, they revolt.

  1.  … But devolving power to the user base is still probably the future of social networks. 

Redditors are mad that, due to a huge spike in the price of Reddit’s API, the third-party clients they currently rely on for browsing, moderation, and accessibility may now disappear. They had come to expect that Reddit’s decentralized approach to governing the site would always extend to the way that it managed development of the site itself. (In fairness to them, Reddit executives certainly talk about it that way.)

Reddit’s rationale is straightforward: to cut costs and make its ad business profitable, it needs to push users toward its native app and website, where users can be monetized more easily. The decentralized ethos has begun to give way toward a more conventional walled-garden approach.

In doing so, though, Reddit may be swimming against the tide. Increasingly, next-generation social networks are starting from the idea that they ought to be governed from the bottom up. Led by Mastodon, and followed more recently by Bluesky and Meta’s forthcoming Threads, newer networks are moving way from the walled-garden model toward something looser and less formal. 

Of course, none of those apps are yet profitable. Nor have they even really hit a critical mass of users. But it’s clear that the era of free APIs has given way to the era of free development protocols. And to the extent that these services can enable vibrant, self-governed communities and development ecosystems of their own, they may make Reddit’s more halfhearted attempt at decentralization look outdated.  

  1. Mainly this whole Reddit thing has been a communications disaster.

How much would the new API cost? When would it take effect? Which kinds of apps using the API would be affected?

These are among the questions Reddit had no answers for when it announced its forthcoming changes in April. That led to weeks of confusion as everyone affected tried to figure out what all this meant for them. 

These days, platforms rarely make major changes without accompanying the announcement with answers to all the most obvious questions. Reddit didn’t, and paid the price. I’m not sure if the company thought that positioning its move as a defense against large language models would inoculate it from criticism, but if so it clearly thought wrong. 

Meanwhile, Huffman’s interviews over the weekend, while admirable for their candor, also heightened the perception that the company is at war with its own user base. 

Usually when platforms upset their users, good communications can only help at the margins. In this case, though, truly terrible communications took what could have been an orderly transition and turned it into a crisis.

  1. CEOs really are taking cues from Elon Musk

If you’re wondering how all this shakes out for Reddit as business, it’s worth noting that Huffman says he is impressed with Twitter 2.0

“As a company smaller than theirs, sub-$1 billion in revenue, I used to look at Twitter and say, ‘Well, why can’t they break even at 4 or 5 billion in revenue? What about their business do we not understand?’ Because I think we should be able to do that quite handsomely,” he said. 

“And then I think one of the nonobvious things that Elon showed is what I was hoping would be true, which is: You can run a company with that many users in the ads business and break even with a lot fewer people,” Huffman said. 

We wrote in November that lots of tech CEOs were impressed with Musk’s brutal cost-cutting, and now here’s one of them saying that on the record. (Mark Zuckerberg said something similar to Lex Fridman this month, though in fairness Fridman has asked him to say something nice about the Twitter CEO.)

Anyway, I mention all this because Twitter is absolutely not “breaking even.” As William Cohan wrote in Puck over the weekend, Musk has already vaporized tens of billions of dollars in value, and is likely cruising toward a takeover by his creditors. If your CEO observes this and holds it up as a model for your company, I’d worry.

  1. Redditors do have other options. 

In the past few days, decentralized alternatives to Reddit picked up around 70,000 users over more than 1,000 instances, according to this blog post on the subject. That’s quite small compared to Reddit, of course. But it does at least raise the question of what Reddit users actually need Reddit for. 

The value of the site lies almost entirely in the people posting there. This is not a company that makes fun creative tools, hypnotic ranking algorithms, or pixel-polished designs. Instead, it aggregates a lot of eyeballs and lets the owners of those eyeballs run their own forums.

This, then, becomes another way the company is beholden to its users. Because the company offers the average user little more than basic infrastructure, it creates an opportunity for users to seek alternative infrastructure elsewhere. Networks can and do move over time. (Which is the actual lesson Huffman should be taking from Musk’s Twitter.)

That leads me to the one question I have about all this. It’s clear that events of the past couple months have hurt Reddit’s trust with its user base. But how much will that matter in the end?

Huffman’s argument is that this whole protest is a tempest in a teapot — the actions of a few unruly moderators who do not represent the user base at large. If that’s the case, perhaps he can be confident that the whole thing will blow over soon. It does seem telling that, so far at least, Reddit employees seem to be taking Huffman’s side. (As Alex Heath reported on Friday.)

On the other hand — thousands of subreddits remain private! Alternative sites are now in active development. And the fracture that opened up in social networks when Musk bought Twitter is continuing to spread. Ever-shifting platform rules are leading more people to look for places they can govern themselves. 

And few people will be better at that than the ones who have spent the past 18 years moderating Reddit.

Correction, June 21: This post originally said that more than a third of subreddits remained dark. In fact, more than a third of subreddits that had committed to going private remain dark.

Lovett or Leave It

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As you may recall, I’m co-hosting the Code Conference this year with Nilay Patel and Julia Boorstin. Today we announced our first speaker: Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino, who will sit down with Julia for what promises to be a news-making conversation.

Yaccarino is the first of several big speakers we have planned. Join us for the event? I’d love to stock the room with Platformer readers. You can get tickets here.



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