Reddit blackout: Thousands of communities on the social network go dark to protest controversial new policy


Thousands of Reddit forums gets dark Monday in one of the largest user-driven protests to ever hit the social media platform.

The voluntary blackouts, which restrict group content from being publicly viewable, affect Reddit’s largest online communities, including popular groups devoted to music, history, sports and video games. The protests include more than two dozen subreddits with at least 10 million subscribers, as well as thousands of smaller networks.

Monday’s protests reflect widespread outrage over a Reddit plan to charge millions of dollars in fees for some third-party apps to continue accessing the Platform. The plan has already forced several of Reddit’s top app makers to announce they are shutting down because they can’t afford the new charges, which are set to begin as soon as next month.

The confrontation between Reddit’s corporate leadership and its users and developers marks a turning point for the platform as it reportedly looks to go public later this year. For years, Reddit users could browse posts, write comments, and share photos and videos on Reddit from third-party apps.

Now, however, Reddit is seeking large payments from app makers to maintain the same level of access through its application programming interface (API), in a move apparently aimed at better monetizing Reddit users. Last week, Christian Selig, developer of the popular Apollo app, said Reddit wanted to charge him $20 million a year to keep the app running. He later said he has no choice but to close the app.

Reddit raised tensions with some in the developer community by appearing to misrepresent the details of the private conversation with Selig to suggest he had blackmailed the company. However, Selig recorded his phone conversation with the company, a fact Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman later confirmed in a question and answer with users.

Selig’s app is just one of the upcoming changes. Critics of Reddit say the platform’s high fees will kill any third-party competition against Reddit’s proprietary app, which many users have derided as slow, buggy and inferior. They also fear the moves will destroy a volunteer community that relies on third-party tools to do the critical work of moderating Reddit forums — responsibilities Reddit delegates to users of the site rather than to its own paid employees or to contractors, unlike some other major social networks.

Reddit’s defenders, including some users, have said that it is Reddit’s right to set its own prices for API access, and that it is a business that has the right to control how users access the data on the platform it provides. Some users have said that they were not even aware that it is possible to access Reddit from third-party apps.

“Reddit needs to be a self-sustaining business, and to do that we can no longer subsidize commercial entities that require data usage at scale,” Huffman wrote in a Q&A with users on Friday.

The battle mirrors how Twitter, under its new owner Elon Musk, recently announced its own paywall for data in a bid to develop new revenue streams and shore up the company’s struggling finances. Twitter’s move prompted an outcry from third-party app makers, disinformation researchers and public service account holders who said the move would harm transparency and accessibility. Twitter has responded to the criticism by adding a new tier to its paid plan, but the move was immediately blasted as too little, too late.

Now Reddit is facing a similar upheaval, one that may prove even more effective given its greater reliance on community members for the site’s basic upkeep.

The fight’s efforts aren’t limited to Reddit alone. It takes place against the background of a wider debate about who creates the value in social networks, and who gets to reap the benefits. And it reflects years of growing public skepticism about large technology platforms that became economically dominant through the collection and exploitation of vast amounts of other people’s personal information.

For Reddit and its future shareholders, the company’s value comes from the infrastructure the site provides for conversation. Operating that infrastructure, safeguarding what’s stored there, and charging for access to that proprietary data generates value that Reddit believes it should be able to keep.

For Reddit’s developers and moderators, however, the platform’s value comes not only from the company’s operation of the platform, but also in user-directed moderation of the site’s countless forums, as well as the various tools and features that others have created to make Reddit more usable – for example for the blind and visually impaired . These solutions may not have been built by Reddit itself, but the company benefited from them by helping the site grow and reach a wider audience.

To some extent, unlike Instagram or YouTube, Reddit owes its rise to the voluntary work of many of its users who bore the costs of developing features that the company did not see fit to invest in. In this way, Reddit is more like Wikipedia, digitally crowdsourced encyclopedia, whose volunteer editors are seen as an important resource.

But now many users feel betrayed.

“If they’re going to start charging for API calls, [moderators] should start charging reddit for the time they spend keeping the website up,” one user wrote. “This site ONLY works off the back of free labor from mods.”

Some have vowed to stop using Reddit, and others have suggested they might even scrub their entire account so the company can’t monetize their historical activity.

“For a large number of Apollos users, its existence is the only reason we still use the platform,” wrote another user. “I’ve been here 15+ years, but have no intention of sticking around when Apollo goes dark.”

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