Inside the Fight for Reddit’s Soul

For the past eight years, Christian Selig has been developing Apollo, an app that lets users read and create Reddit posts. During that time, Apollo had amassed over one and a half million regular users, rising to become the second most popular way to access Reddit: behind only the official website.

Reddit is a social platform, where users across the world can post and communicate together in communities known as subreddits. Each subreddit is run by its own volunteer team of moderators, who work to ensure all posts in their community are positive contributions to the platform. In contrast to other social networks such as Facebook, Reddit does not pay its moderators – saving around 33.5 million a year. However, this empowers its moderators and the communities they represent with enormous leverage over how the company operates. 

In 2015, frustration had built within the platform’s community over the company’s policies and engagement with users. The company had fired Victoria Taylor, Reddit’s liaison to moderators, thereby closing a crucial line of communication. Tensions were already high from Reddit’s systemic disregard of moderators, including refusals to improve the site’s moderation tools to combat floods of rule-breaking content, while shutting down subreddits for letting through rule-breaking content. Realizing that nothing would change without action, moderators took down their subreddits – crippling the site as huge swathes of content became inaccessible in the blackout. After more than two hundred thousand people signed a petition for her to resign, then Reddit CEO Ellen Pao stepped down from the company. The company agreed to communicate better with its moderators about any changes it was making to its policies. By all accounts, the blackout had been a bloodless victory for the Reddit community.

Fast forward to 2023, and Reddit is facing another crisis. Yet this one is different. In February of this year, Reddit officially confirmed rumors that it was planning for an IPO, having already secretly filed the necessary paperwork. The company targeted the second half of 2023 for its big day, when Reddit would begin trading on a stock exchange.1Reuters. “Reddit Aims for IPO in Second Half of 2023 – The Information.” Reuters, February 14, 2023. This would make Reddit’s current owners and management extremely rich, fetching as much as 10 billion dollars.2Singh, Manish. “Fidelity Has Cut Reddit Valuation by 41% since 2021 Investment.” TechCrunch, June 1, 2023. To execute such a maneuver, the company began to shore up its finances. Despite being the twentieth most visited website in the world with over 670 million dollars in yearly revenue, Reddit has faced roadblocks to successful monetization.3similarweb. “Top Websites Ranking.” Accessed August 4, 2023.; Weinberg, Cory. “Reddit Sales Growth Slowdown Preceded Fight Over New API Fees.” The Information, June 22, 2023. Since its launch in 2005, the platform has never turned a profit. Looking for more avenues of growth, Reddit aimed to stop the 10 million dollars it was bleeding annually by supporting third parties who want access to its data. Previously, Reddit allowed anyone to read its content for free. Now, the company wanted to charge for the service. The company initially announced that it was targeting large language models (such as ChatGPT or Google Bard). Developers initially viewed the changes with cautious optimism. Previously, Reddit had restricted some features (like voting in polls) from 3rd party developers, and they hoped that Reddit would use the funds to expand functionality. As Selig wrote, “I think if done well and done reasonably, this could be a positive change (but that’s a big if).”

On May 31, Selig announced to his users an update on Reddit’s pricing: he would be on the hook for 20 million dollars each year after the pricing changes hit. With mere weeks before the changes took effect, he and other developers had no time to implement solutions, and Reddit flatly refused to budge on timing or price. Forced into a corner with nowhere to run, Christian Selig announced that June 30th would be Apollo’s last day before the app lost all functionality.

Reddit’s history with third-party clients was not one fraught with animosity. In fact, it was one of decades-long symbiosis. While traditional desktop users could visit Reddit by simply typing in in a browser, the mobile website (and Reddit’s original half-hearted effort at a standalone mobile app) proved clunky and difficult to interact with on a small screen. This created the ideal opportunity for third-party developers to create their own clients: apps that connect users to the Reddit network.

Yet, this mutually beneficial system came crashing down with surprising speed as Reddit’s impossible pricing went live. Developers simply could not cough up the cash, as almost all (including Selig) made their apps free, relying instead on donations. Understanding that once again, Reddit would not budge without community pressure, moderators from thousands of subreddit communities signed an open letter to “Reddit Community and Management,“ decrying “inconsistencies between what is communicated by Reddit’s management and the actual outcomes” and calling for “a solution that recognizes the vital role these third-party apps play and takes into consideration the negative impacts this decision might have on both users and moderators.” The next day, moderators began to coordinate the most expansive Reddit protest ever. A date was set: on June 12th subreddits would switch to private, taking down their content and blacking out the website.

Meanwhile, at Reddit headquarters, administrators and executives were scrambling to contain the crisis. On June 7th, CEO Steve Huffman set up a meeting with moderators of major subreddits to discuss the situation. An Ask Me Anything (Reddit’s term for a Q&A) with Huffman was announced for June 9th. Employees scrambled to respond to inquiries from journalists. However, these communications would only serve to throw fuel on the fire as the company doubled down. As Selig remarked, Reddit frequently used bizarre and “provably false” accusations to point the blame at developers and moderators. Selig later compiled and debunked a full list of the self-contradictions and bold-faced untruths that came out of Reddit, but it only confirmed the community’s suspicions: Reddit leadership was not acting in good faith. As trust collapsed, the normally decentralized moderators of Reddit raced to coordinate the protest. As the clock ticked, coordinators held their breath as more and more subreddits flooded the protest thread. The community watched on Reddark, a website tracking the protest, as the number of subreddits joining ticked up. The largest previous protest in 2015 had seen 265 subreddits participate. This one had over 8,000. And, split across them were 2.4 billion members.

After the disastrous AMA, management siloed themselves into Reddit headquarters. Administrators and engineers scrambled to get the site ready. They tinkered with the code stack. But the size of the protest was unprecedented– anything could happen. They held their breath and braced for impact.

REDDIT IS DOWN. On June 12th, 7:58 in the morning, Reddit experienced a major outage. The website’s status page stated, “We’re aware of problems loading content and are working to resolve the issues as quickly as possible.” Shouts of celebration. By all measures, the protest had worked. The entirety of Reddit had crashed! Yet by 10:26 am the issue had been resolved and was back up. Not all was sunny for Reddit though. Throughout the 48-hour protest, activity on the website was in freefall, dropping 30 percent from the days before. Indeed, the most viewed posts on the site were all by protesting moderators, advocating for the blackout.

A screenshot showing a protest post from the r/pics subreddit with 143 thousand upvotes. Accessed from Reddit through Wayback Machine.

With over 650 of the top 1000 subreddits offline, Reddit’s viability as an advertising platform (where it earns the vast majority of its revenue) was called into question. This certainly was not helped by the removal of 7.4 billion comments (half of the total comments ever posted on Reddit) from 77 million authors (57 percent of all authors who’ve ever posted on the site). Many companies and advertising agencies began pulling Reddit from their advertiser pools and recommending clients do the same. Casey Jones, founder and head of marketing and finance at global digital marketing company CJ&CO, explained that his team has already pulled out of Reddit. He believes that the blackout could lead to a deterioration in Reddit’s perception by advertisers, explaining that “the uncertainty brought about by the blackout could lead advertisers to reconsider their investment in Reddit.”

The 48 hours came and went. And then things got messy. During previous revolts by the Reddit community, management had quickly caved and made concessions. But now, after the deadline had been reached, there was nothing. Though some subreddit communities chose to continue the protest indefinitely, most had only signed onto the 48 hours. And now that 48 hours had passed, they were opening up. Slowly, the vast majority of subreddits threw in the towel and opened.

Private subreddits went completely dark, while restricted ones merely locked new posts. Accessed from Photon Reddit.

When a few major subreddits chose to continue protesting against Reddit indefinitely, the company delivered an ultimatum: voluntarily open up, or be forcibly replaced and have your community be opened anyway. On r/mildlyinteresting (22.4 million subscribers), r/interestingasfuck (11 million), r/TIHI (1.7 million), and r/ShittyLifeProTips (1.6 million), the entire moderation team was removed. Some were permanently banned from the platform altogether.

Just a day after the blackout, Reddit’s activity metrics returned to normal: destroying any hopes of a mass advertiser exodus. On June 1, as announced, third-party apps like Apollo shuttered after being cut off from the Reddit network. The company’s CEO has been making the rounds, giving interviews to various podcasts and news organizations about his side of the story. Reddit seems to be moving ahead with its original IPO schedule.

The blackout failed. Anticlimactic as it seems. In this story of David and Goliath, of the masses of millions pitted against the iron first, it would seem that Reddit Inc. has won: and Reddit, the community, is all the worse for it. May it rest in pieces.

Cover Image: Reddit user’s pixel artwork directed towards Reddit CEO Steve Huffman (spez) displayed on a digital canvas and captured by The Common Forum

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *