How Reddit crushed the biggest protest in its history

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For more than a decade, the community in Reddit’s r/homeimprovement has been compiling a wealth of knowledge on everything you need to know about fixing up your home. Thousands of people visit the community each day looking for answers or to offer advice. But for much of the past two weeks, none of it has been accessible to the public.

“Pick it up with Reddit. That’s our stance right now,” dapeche, a moderator for the community, said in an interview with The Verge earlier this week. “We are holding the line. And if we lose the sub, we lose the sub.” 

r/homeimprovement and thousands of other Reddit communities locked down earlier this month to protest platform changes that were about to force a variety of popular third-party apps and services to shut down. The protests were supposed to show the strength and fortitude of Reddit’s community: they wanted a path for their favorite apps to exist, and they wanted Reddit to listen.

But more than two weeks later, most communities have opened back up, and Reddit shows no signs of backing down. The conflict has demonstrated how crucial Reddit’s community is to the site and also revealed the limits of that community’s power.

As Reddit flexes its control, it’s playing a risky game ahead of its long-gestating IPO. Even though many third-party apps will likely go away, Reddit’s attitude toward the users that have made it into the giant that it is could harm the platform more than any apps ever did.

Apollo developer Christian Selig was optimistic about Reddit’s decision to charge for API access at first. Developers use Reddit’s APIs to tap into the platform’s data; every time their apps load a community or register an upvote, that’s happening thanks to the API.

“I think if done well and done reasonably, this could be a positive change (but that’s a big if),” Selig wrote when the updates were announced in April. He had just gotten off a series of calls with Reddit’s team. “Reddit appreciates third party apps and values them as a part of the overall Reddit ecosystem, and does not want to get rid of them,” he said. 

Access to Reddit’s API has long been available for free, making it easy for developers to build popular apps like Apollo and rif is fun for Reddit (RIF). It’s also allowed companies like OpenAI to ingest Reddit conversations to help develop their large language models. Reddit positioned the change primarily as a way to make AI companies pony up to use Reddit’s data to train those models — but crucially, at the time, Reddit didn’t share what the pricing would be. 

The move made sense for Reddit, particularly as the company looked toward its IPO. Reddit isn’t profitable, and the infrastructure to support third-party apps costs Reddit $10 million per year. Charging for the API could wipe out that loss and potentially be a net positive on the balance sheet. (Microsoft declined to comment if it would pay for Reddit’s data; OpenAI and Google didn’t reply to requests for comment.)

But when Reddit finally revealed the cost to developers in late May, it was clear the API wasn’t priced to sell.

Apollo, RIF, ReddPlanet, Sync

On May 31st, Selig shared a distressing update: after learning about the actual pricing for the API, he calculated that he’d be on the hook for about $20 million per year based on his current usage. He would have to shut down Apollo. Several other third-party apps, including RIF, ReddPlanet, and Sync, announced that they would have to shut down, too — and soon. The pricing would go into effect just weeks later, on July 1st.

The loss of apps like Apollo, which many preferred over Reddit’s official app, would be disruptive to a lot of Redditors. Selig tells The Verge that Apollo has 1.5 million monthly active users.

“Half our team relied on Apollo for a large part of their moderating actions, and Reddit’s official app cannot possibly replace it — it never will,” says CouncilOfStrongs, a mod for r/fitness. “Most of the moderating going forward is going to have to go through bots and tools that I’m currently scrambling to spin up.” 

Shortly after Selig’s post, Redditors began planning protests, vowing to “go dark” in some way to push for Reddit to provide a path for popular third-party apps to continue to exist.

“Our users recognized the impact these changes would have not only to the moderators’ experience on Reddit but also their own,” the moderators of r/photography, which is still closed, told me. “We received unanimous support encouraging us to join the protest, with several comments recommending we go dark indefinitely.”

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman.
Photo illustration by William Joel / The Verge | Photo by Greg Doherty / Variety via Getty Images

Reddit tried to tamp down concerns through an AMA with CEO Steve Huffman, but Huffman’s refusal to bend only seemed to inflame the situation. “The horrible AMA that Steve put on is probably what sealed the deal,” said Hareuhal, an r/DIY mod. “For me personally, I would have been less bothered if he just didn’t do an AMA rather than do one that ignored everyone and dismissed our problems.”

The community’s plan was in place: moderators would close down their subreddits for 48 hours, making them inaccessible to the outside world, and demand that Reddit reduce the price of API access, allow third-party apps to access sexually explicit content, and offer more accessibility features in its official apps. Some of Reddit’s biggest communities were on board, including two dozen with more than 20 million subscribers. It was supposed to be enough to send a clear message. If Reddit hadn’t caved by the time 48 hours was over, they’d figure it out from there.

On June 12th, the day of the official start of the blackouts, more than 7,000 subreddits went dark. (At the peak of the protests, more than 8,000 participated.) Many popular communities were inaccessible, Google search results were suddenly much worse, and Reddit even experienced an outage because of the number of subreddits going private. The protest seemed to be making a statement, with coverage in mainstream publications like CNN, BBC, and The New York Times.

So Reddit decided to push back.

Huffman wrote an internal memo to rally the troops, telling staffers that the blackout “will pass.” He gave a round of media interviews reiterating that the company would be sticking to its business decision and argued that the protests were hurting the platform’s everyday users. He criticized the platform’s volunteer moderators, equating them to “landed gentry,” and said that Reddit may change its moderator removal policy so users can vote them out.

Reddit’s willingness to wait out the protests proved to be a problem. Some communities decided to extend their blackouts indefinitely, but most had only committed to a two-day event. Coordination began to fracture as moderators debated what to do next. “Going dark for 48 hours was kind of a silly thing for any of the subs to plan,” Hareuhal said. “We joined in on the ‘48 hours’ but also stated and knew it was most likely going to be an indefinite [shutdown].”

A day after the 48-hour window had passed, more than 5,000 subreddits remained inaccessible. It was around then that Reddit started to crack down on moderators.

Reddit began informing mods that the platform may remove them if “a moderator team unanimously decides to stop moderating.” The next day, some moderators of closed communities received messages from the company asking if there are mods who are “willing to work towards reopening this community.” A day after, many moderators signed a post concerned about the company’s “threatening behavior.”

This was unusual. Reddit’s communities grew because the platform gave power to the mods — unpaid participants who worked hard to build the helpful, quirky, and sometimes downright weird places that made Reddit the institution that it is. The company generally trusted those mods to do right by their communities and only interfered in rare circumstances. But now, Reddit was saying it could take that control back whenever it wanted.

“​​Reddit antagonizing its volunteer moderators is an even bigger deal than Reddit’s hostility toward developers,” Andrew Shu, the developer of RIF, said. “[It has] very publicly exposed how little they care about their users’ opinions and autonomy — forcing open even those subreddits that had run community polls and found overwhelming support for the protests from their regular, non-moderator users.”

Feeling the pressure, many subreddits did reopen. Some trolled by focusing entirely on comedian John Oliver or on fashion from the 1700s. Some switched to Not Safe For Work (NSFW) to create friction and stop Reddit from advertising in those communities. But Reddit pushed back on that approach, removing moderators from some that made the change and publicly stated that it’s “not acceptable” to go NSFW in protest.

A mod of a large fashion subreddit, who asked not to be named due to fear of the platform retaliating, wasn’t surprised that Reddit wanted to force subreddits open up. “A month ago, it would have been an unexpected move, but Reddit has a history of treating its mod teams poorly,” they said. “Additionally, given [Huffman’s] behavior, I can’t say it came out of left field.”

“It was only a matter of time.”

CouncilOfStrongs, the r/fitness mod, wasn’t surprised, either. “Once it became clear that there was real potential to make a dent in revenue, it was only a matter of time,” CouncilOfStrongs said. The original plan was for r/fitness to stay dark indefinitely, but a concerning comment from Reddit admins contributed to the decision to reopen. “We’d had to weigh taking our community-based resources away from people who wanted / needed them against the value of the protest, and since the protest was clearly going to be burned down soon, it didn’t make sense to wall that off any more.”

Finally, Reddit dropped the ultimatum. On Thursday, just over two weeks after the protest began, Reddit said it would remove moderators of communities that were still holding out. They would reopen, one way or another.

Reddit did make a few concessions along the way. The company said it would exempt accessibility-focused apps from the API pricing, and it promised to make accessibility improvements to the moderation tools in its app over the next couple months. (Though the accessibility community isn’t totally satisfied: MostlyBlindGamer, an r/blind moderator, says that Reddit has “a long way to go in switching from using exclusionary and vague terms like ‘accessibility apps’ to actual inclusive design.”)

But mostly, Reddit is coming out on top. Beloved third-party apps like Apollo and RIF will be shutting down, and many communities are back open.

Mods and developers, however, say that Reddit lost in one big way: its users are really mad.

“I think Reddit has got what they wanted, but I’d hardly consider it a win,” Selig said. “I’ve been on Reddit for 13 years, and I’ve never seen Reddit’s community have a lower opinion of the site’s management.”

“Communities are made of and shaped by people,” said MostlyBlindGamer. “They’re built around a culture and trust. Many people are already deleting their accounts; many have started moving to federated free and open-source alternatives.” (I’ve heard a lot of people talk about Lemmy, Kbin, and Tildes.)

Around 2,000 subreddits are still offline, according to one tracker. r/explainlikeimfive has a pinned message about why subreddits were going dark. r/NotTheOnion and others pinned an open letter to Reddit. r/PICS, r/GIFs, and r/aww are still obsessed with John Oliver. Even if Reddit got things mostly back to normal, parts of its community are still pushing its message.  

Two days after I talked with dapeche, Reddit issued the ultimatum, and he and the mods of r/homeimprovement decided to reopen, too. The subreddit is in a restricted mode, so users can’t post. But if readers want to see old posts, they can do that.

“We are in restricted mode,” dapeche said in a message to ModCodeofConduct. “We expect better from you all. You should be ashamed.”

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