After weeks of burning through users’ goodwill, Reddit is facing a moderator strike and an exodus of its most important users. It’s the latest example of a social media site making a critical mistake: users aren’t there for the services, they’re there for the community. Building barriers to access is a war of attrition.

Reddit has an admirable record when it comes to defending an open and free internet. While not always perfect, the success of the site is owed to its model of empowering moderators and users to engage with the site in a way that makes sense for them. This freedom for communities to experiment with and extend the platform let it continue to thrive while similar sites, like Fark and Digg, lost major chunks of their user base after making controversial and restrictive design choices to raise profitability.

Reddit maintained openness in two notable ways through its history. It supported community-led moderation from volunteer workers, and it embraced developers looking for automated access to the site, through open protocols (e.g. RSS) and a free API.

What Reddit got right

Content moderation doesn’t work at scale. Any scheme which attempts it is bound to fail. For sites which need continuous user growth, that is a problem. So what can they do?  Well, we know what doesn’t work: 

  • Simply having minimal or no moderation results in a trash fire of bigotry and illegal content, quickly hemorrhaging any potential revenue and potentially landing a platform in legal trouble. 
  • Automating moderation inevitably blocks legitimate content that wasn’t targeted, and is gamed by bad actors who get around it.

Every approach comes to the same conclusion—a platform needs workers: Lots of them, around the clock. Sites are then stuck trying to minimize this labor cost somehow. The worst version of this is a system of poorly paid workers, typically outsourced, merely reviewing user reports and automated moderation decisions. These mods invisibly compare out-of-context posts to a set of ever-changing and arbitrary rules. It’s grueling work, where one only views the worst the internet has to offer while remaining totally alienated from the community.

When a platform turns its back on the community, it doesn’t end well

A better model, which Reddit’s success is built on, is empowering moderators from within a community. Fortunately for platforms, users care so deeply for these digital commons that they will volunteer to do it– a convenient source of free labor.

It’s a pattern we see in the other component of Reddit’s success: empowering motivated users to build useful tools for your site for free. The whole open source ecosystem is built around this truth—that people’s passion for the communal good is enough incentive for them to create and innovate. 

Unfortunately the communal good doesn’t keep the lights on. Unlike moderators on Reddit, who have no established way to seek support from the platform or its users, developers can be compensated by a grateful community in a few ways. Publishing to app stores, offering freemium features, or simply requesting optional donations to support the project are all more accessible means to be compensated. While these schemes are often not enough to repay the hours spent on a project, it can make the work of maintaining and improving their project more sustainable.

This sustained commitment from external developers directly benefits a platform like Reddit in the long run. This ecosystem is why Reddit has a wide array of tools for moderation, accessibility, and content creation, without having to directly employ (and pay) these developers.  These tools range from simple bots to fully developed apps and services. Regardless of size, all of these contributions, in some way,  drove user engagement, since everyone could meet with their community and shape their experience on the platform.

Chasing profitability

Reddit is transparent about the fact that the company is not profitable. But heading into their IPO later this year, with a potential recession looming, they are desperate to show that the platform can make money. This appears to have kicked off the second stage of “enshittification”, in which users are squeezed to appeal to business customers.

The monetization creep has been evident for a while. Reddit has added a subscription ”Reddit premium”; offered “community rewards” as a paid super-vote ; embraced an NFT marketplacechanged the site’s design for one with more recommended content; and started nudging users toward the official mobile app. The site has also been adding more restrictions to uploading and viewing “not safe for work” (NSFW) content. All this, while community requests for improvements to moderation tools and accessibility features have gone unaddressed on mobile, driving many users to third-party applications.

Perhaps the worst development was announced on April 18th, when Reddit announced changes to its Data API would be starting on July 1st, including new “premium access” pricing for users of the API. While this wouldn’t affect projects on the free tier, such as moderator bots or tools used by researchers, the new pricing seems to be an existential threat to third-party applications for the site. It also bears a striking resemblance to a similar bad decision Twitter made this year under Elon Musk.

At the center of this controversy has been Apollo, an alternate Reddit client app on iOS with 1.5 million monthly users.  Facing potential API fees allegedly amounting to $20M per year, the app may be forced to shut down entirely. While several clients will shut down, others will need to adopt a monthly subscription model and suspend their free tier to stay viable. Non-commercial and accessibility-focused clients, such as the open source RedReader app, however, were recently offered an exemption for the time being.

Complicating the issue further is a new restriction on API access to NSFW content, putting any third-party app at a disadvantage against the official app or even the web version of the site. Even if a developer can afford API access, they may be left with inferior access to the site, and such restrictions create a disincentive for using the NSFW tag, undermining its utility.

The writing on the wall seems to be that Reddit’s actions would corral users to their official app by limiting third-party competition on mobile, alongside testing of new limitations on the mobile version of their site.

Moderators Strike

Outraged by these changes and the hostile treatment of third-party developers, thousands of moderators on the site have blacked out over 8,000 subreddits in solidarity with developers. (You may have noticed this if you tried to view almost anything on Reddit in the past 24 hours, and couldn’t.) Many have vowed to remain locked to new submissions until accessibility features for blind users are implemented and the API is revised to accommodate third-party apps. Some have even doubled down and set their communities to private, making all content inaccessible to non-members. Moderators are putting a lot on the line here, risking the communities they spent countless hours maintaining on the platform.

Since it started, the blackout has kicked off a flurry of news coverage and temporarily crashed the website. The response from Reddit has only stoked the flames of this controversy. 

After a disastrous AMA (i.e. “ask me anything” forum) that breathed new life into the blackout protest, Reddit’s CEO continues to defend the company’s decision. Publicly, Reddit has claimed that these changes are necessary due to operation costs and privacy concerns. “Privacy-washing” has been used as an excuse to limit automated access to a site before, but is undercut here most directly by the availability of a free API tier, which can access the same information as the paid tier for lower-volume uses. 

It’s this labor and worker solidarity which gives users unique leverage over the platform

Details about Reddit’s API-specific costs were not shared, but it is worth noting that an API request is commonly no more burdensome to a server than an HTML request, i.e. visiting or scraping a web page. Having an API just makes it easier for developers to maintain their automated requests. It is true that most third-party apps tend to not show Reddit’s advertisements, and AI developers may make heavy use of the API for training data, but these applications could still (with more effort) access the same information over HTML.

The heart of this fight is for what Reddit’s CEO calls their “valuable corpus of data,” i.e. the user-made content on the company’s servers, and for who gets live off this digital commons. While Reddit provides essential infrastructural support, these community developers and moderators make the site worth visiting, and any worthwhile content is the fruit of their volunteer labor. It’s this labor and worker solidarity which gives users unique leverage over the platform, in contrast to past backlash to other platforms.

Moving to the Fediverse

This tension between these communities and their host have, again, fueled more interest in the Fediverse as a decentralized refuge. A social network built on an open protocol can afford some host-agnosticism, and allow communities to persist even if individual hosts fail or start to abuse their power. Unfortunately, discussions of Reddit-like fediverse services Lemmy and Kbin on Reddit were colored by paranoia after the company banned users and subreddits related to these projects (reportedly due to “spam”). While these accounts and subreddits have been reinstated, the potential for censorship around such projects has made a Reddit exodus feel more urgently necessary, as we saw last fall when Twitter cracked down on discussions of its Fediverse-alternative, Mastodon.

Reddit’s future is still uncertain, as the company doubles down on their changes and communities commit to a stricter and more indefinite blackout. These new API schemes are bad for platforms, and bad for the communities who use them. What we see time and time again, though, is that when a platform turns its back on the community, it doesn’t end well. They’ll revolt and they’ll flee, and the platform will be left trying to squeeze dwindling profits from a colossal wreck.

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