Most non-geeks have never heard of Reddit, nor know of its centrality to online culture.
Once labelled “the front page of news on the internet” – a title once held by Twitter, and now usurped by TikTok – Reddit is the granddaddy of internet forums. It’s as much of an institution as the internet is, partly a throwback to the early bulletin boards and partly its highly engaged community. For a long time, it was the de-facto source of internet memes – before social media apps took over that role.
Despite the advent of so many other ways to lure eyeballs in this mobile, social age, Reddit has shown remarkable resilience to keep ahead of the pack.
“Reddit’s core design has proven remarkably prescient – and durable,” writes Casey Newton, who publishes the excellent Platformer newsletter. “In an age of social networks using arcane recommendation algorithms and one-size-fits-all content moderation policies, Reddit bet on sharply defined niche communities and the principle of self-governance.”
And these subreddits have worked enormously well.
“Where TikTok and its clones offer a chaotic slurry of video tuned to your perceived interests, Reddit invites you to read and participate in contextual discussions moderated by volunteers, with each community organised by rules that they enforce themselves,” Newton adds. “As a result, Reddit is a rare social product that has seemed to become more relevant over time, as a growing user base comes to appreciate its distinctive, human-centred approach to digital conversations. Another result, though, is a user base that feels uncommonly possessive of the product.”
A lacklustre attempt
But Reddit’s own app is – in a word – awful. It barely managed the transition to mobile, for which its own app is notoriously clunky. Like the early days of Twitter, there were many other apps that made the 140-character platform far more user-friendly.
Like Twitter, Reddit allowed other developers to use its application programming interface (API), which is code that lets software speak to other software. But in the middle of April, Reddit announced that it would begin charging third-party apps for access to its API – sending a shock through the tight-knit and highly active Reddit community.
The moderators of subreddits, known as mods, vowed to “go dark” – or take their subreddits private if the company pushed ahead with these plans. When it did last month, the mods held true to their stance and Reddit went dark, briefly crashing the website as a result.
It didn’t help that CEO Steve Huffman’s staff memo was leaked and included the inflammatory lines: “There’s a lot of noise with this one. Among the noisiest we’ve seen”. But, he adds, “like all blowups on Reddit, this one will pass as well”.
Some 7,000 subreddits went dark in June, joined by another 1,500. Some have vowed to stay dark indefinitely until Reddit accedes to the moderators’ demands.
“Reddit is built on volunteer moderation labour, including the creation and maintenance of many tools,” Sarah Gilbert, research manager of Cornell’s Citizens and Technology Lab, told Vox. “Changes like these, particularly the poor communication surrounding them, risks diminishing motivation among existing mods, increasing burnout, and it may be more challenging to find and recruit new moderators.”
Ben Thompson, a journalist who writes the excellent Stratchery blog, points out that the “revolt [is] ultimately an issue downstream from Reddit’s reliance on unpaid workers”.
And that is the crux of the matter for many of the moderators and Reddit fanatics. They feel betrayed that Reddit is applying a profit incentive over this powerful sense of community. Reddit hopes to list itself this year and is clearly trying to make itself more profitable.
Third-party Reddit apps sell their own advertising, which their users see. “That means that users of [apps] Apollo or RIF are making money for their developers, but not for Reddit itself. It’s easy to see how, in the run-up to an IPO, an increasingly finance-minded company would see that as a loose end that needed to be tied up,” writes Newton.
Indeed, says Gilbert, “It’s important that Reddit monetise, and most moderators want Reddit to succeed. I think there is a compromise that’s mutually beneficial to and minimally disruptive to both Reddit, its moderators, and its users. I hope that compromise is reached.”
This is not lost on Huffman, who is one of the founders of Reddit, and its CEO since 2015. “We’ll continue to be profit-driven until profits arrive,” he wrote. “Unlike some of the [third-party] apps, we’re not profitable.”
He is also alive to the threat of generative artificial intelligence (AI) services like ChatGPT, which scrape content from the internet to train its large-language model (LLM) software.
“The LLM explosion put all Reddit data use at the forefront, and our continuing efforts to reign in costs to make Reddit self-sustaining put a spotlight on the tens of millions of dollars it costs us annually to support the [third-party] apps,” Huffman added.
His aims are noble, but the poor communication and hasty implementation (developers were given 30-day notice) have mangled the process and angered an activist user base.
As Newton writes, “Huffman’s bet against the sustained energy of the Reddit community appears to have misfired”.
- This column was first published on Financial Mail.