Reddit is facing a major protest from its own moderators

Reddit, the “front page of the internet,” is making front-page news today, as many of the site’s moderators have made their communities private or restricted to protest recent changes to the platform.

Many of the platform’s largest forums or subreddits, including r/pics, r/gaming and r/music, are preventing users from viewing the site or posting on it in an effort to draw attention to changes that would charge third-party apps to access Reddit’s content — a move third-party developers say would put their applications out of business.

The changes, slated to begin on July 1, will charge external applications for accessing Reddit’s content — a service that’s been free until now. Several Canadian subreddits have also joined the protest, including r/Canada, r/OnGuardForThee and many province- and city-focused spaces.

A screenshot of the r/canada announcement on why they went private.  The text on the screen starts, "Good day, until midnight on June 13, 2023, r/canada will remain closed."
This screenshot taken Monday shows a message from the moderators of the r/canada subreddit, explaining why their community is temporarily not accessible. Many other communities participated in a site-wide blackout to protest the changes. (Aloysius Wong/CBC)

Users looking to access subreddits participating in the blackout may see a message like the one above if the community goes private, preventing the general public from viewing and commenting on their posts. Other subreddits are restricted, allowing users to still view content, but preventing them from posting while the blackout is active.

However, some communities remain active and open to users, including r/politics, r/news and r/worldnews.

The blackout was also the cause of a general Reddit outage this morning, during which all content on the site was inaccessible — a Reddit spokesperson confirmed to The Verge that “a significant number of subreddits shifting to private caused some expected stability issues.”

Changes would see developers charged to access API

Reddit has traditionally offered an Application Programming Interface (API) that developers can access, allowing them to create their own applications that can query the site for its information, such as a list of posts in a particular subreddit, or the content of the comments associated with a specific post.

But beginning July 1, Reddit will charge external applications for accessing the site’s content — a service that has been free until now.

Many moderation teams — unpaid volunteers that manage content in individual communities — and users with particular accessibility needs rely on third-party applications that present Reddit content in specific ways to help them moderate and navigate the site.

Those apps are at risk of discontinuing their services if Reddit’s changes go forward, as many of their developers say they cannot afford the sudden fees.

Apps are forced to shut down

Christian Selig, the Halifax-based developer behind the iOS app Apollo, which offers users an alternative viewing experience to the official Reddit app, announced in a tweet Thursday that his app would be forced to shut down at the end of this month because of the changes.

“There’s like large swaths of moderators who use Apollo as the primary way to moderate their community and make sure the content flow is consistent and safe,” Selig told CBC News. “It’s sad to lose this tool that they’ve come to really enjoy.”

Selig also stressed that there are many blind or low-vision users that use Apollo, as he’s made it a priority to annotate everything users see in the app.

“If you’re using a screen reader, you can swipe around and it’ll read to you what’s on the screen,” he said. “The [official] The Reddit app hasn’t necessarily prioritized that. So there’s a large number of users who use Apollo in that way who are losing that.”

Selig says the proposed API changes would cost him an average of $2.50 US a month per active user. He says the move would force him to drop the 750,000 people who use his app monthly for free. Even then, he says he’d still be losing money, as most of his 50 to 70,000 paying customers use his app for $1 US a month.

In an impassioned Reddit post, Selig outlines that his app made seven billion requests last month. With the upcoming API change set to cost him $12,000 US (almost $16,000 Cdn) for every 50 million requests, he would suddenly have to pay Reddit over $2 million US (almost $2.7 million Cdn) per month to keep his app active for all his users .

“It would have been around $25 million [Cdn] a year for something that the month earlier was free,” he said.

A man in a t-shirt looks at a cell phone.
Christian Selig, the developer behind the iOS application Apollo, says Reddit’s recent changes will force him to shut down his app, which he says many Reddit moderators and visually impaired users rely on. (Submitted by Christian Selig)

Selig was initially excited when Reddit first announced they would begin charging third-party applications. He says he and other developers initially thought they could offer Reddit some compensation for the volume of requests made by their apps. In return, he says they assumed they would get better access to certain parts of the site, creating a longer-term concrete relationship between the company and third-party developers.

But when Reddit released its pricing on May 31, it was far higher than Selig imagined and he says he has no choice but to shut down his app — despite his loyalty to the nearly one million people he says use it every day.

Selig noted that developers were only given a month’s notice about the changes, leaving them with too little time to optimize or monetize their apps to meet the sudden costs.

“I’ve kind of gone through all the stages of grief,” said Selig, who has developed Apollo over the past nine years. “When it’s something you worked on for so long, I thought suddenly parting ways with it — it’s a lot to manage.”

While Selig says it’s been “comforting” to see the community come together to protest Reddit’s treatment of developers, he’s not optimistic the company will listen.

“It would be a lot to get my hopes up and then have it all come crashing down.”

In an emailed statement, Reddit says it spends “multi-millions of dollars on hosting fees, and Reddit needs to be fairly paid to continue supporting high-usage third-party apps.” The statement noted that developers are responsible for the efficiency of their apps and claimed that Apollo was “notably less efficient than other third-party apps.”

The company also says it is not planning any changes to the API updates it previously announced.

‘A gambit to save Reddit’

Cory Doctorow, Canadian activist and author of Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Backtold CBC News that there are two ways to understand the Reddit blackout.

“The first is that it’s about the volunteers who keep [Reddit] running, depending on third-party tools to do their jobs, and the company decides that they want to squeeze those third-party tools for money and not caring if these volunteers who make the service possible get caught in the crossfire,” he said.

A black and white photo of a man.
Canadian writer and activist Cory Doctorow says the Reddit blackout is a ‘gambit’ to save the platform from a gradual decline. (JonathanWorth.com)

But Doctorow says it’s just the latest in a series of moves from large social media companies — including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Twitch — where management has decided that it needs to make more money, even if it results in a worse experience for everyday users.

He says there’s understandable frustration from moderation teams that rely on these third-party applications to manage their communities. Especially because in many cases Reddit has not made comparable tools to allow moderators to keep forums safe.

Doctorow says that while those protesting understand that Reddit would be a painful thing to lose, there’s ultimately a more existential matter at stake.

“The decision not to act, not to blackout now, is the decision to lose Reddit in slow stages,” he said. “Better to have it all go now in a gambit to save it, to discipline the firm and its shortsightedness than to sit there and watch while something that matters to you goes through a slow decline … in this very undignified way.”

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