Featured Article: Reddit’s ‘Blackout’ User Protest
Following thousands of moderators making their subreddit communities private for 48 hours as a protest, we look at the reasons why, together with the implications for Reddit, its users, and other stakeholders.
What Is Reddit?
Reddit is a social media platform where users can join communities called ‘subreddits’ to share content, participate in discussions, and interact with others. These subreddits each focus on a specific topic of interest.
Reddit users, also known as ‘Redditors’ create an account, subscribe to subreddits, and contribute by submitting posts or commenting on existing ones. The platform uses a voting system where users can upvote or downvote content, influencing its visibility.
Subreddits are moderated by volunteers who enforce rules and guidelines, plus Reddit also features a ‘karma’ system that reflects user engagement. Overall, Reddit is a diverse and interactive platform for sharing and discovering content with a vast user community.
Who Are The ‘Mods’, And What Do They Do?
The volunteer Subreddit moderators (also known as ‘mods’) oversee and maintain specific communities within Reddit by enforcing the subreddit’s rules and guidelines, monitor user activity, review, and approve posts and comments, remove spam or inappropriate content, and respond to user reports. They may also engage in discussions, facilitate AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions, organise events, and promote community growth. Reddit is, therefore, heavily reliant upon moderators, who tend to spend one or two hours per day on their moderating activities.
What Happened To Cause The Blackout?
Recently, Reddit introduced a series of charges to the third-party developers who want to continue using its Application Programming Interface (API) to access its data, i.e. the code which allows third-party apps to find and show the content on Reddit. For example, ‘Apollo’, ‘Reddit is Fun’, ‘Sync’ and ‘ReddPlanet’ are four third-party apps which were set up to enable users to access Reddit on their mobile devices. However, because of the new API charges, all four have said they will be shutting down.
Many subreddit monitors (some with large numbers of users in the subreddits) protested about the effect the move would have on them, supported the third-party app owners, and tried to put pressure on Reddit to reverse its new API charging decision by imposing a blackout, known as “going dark”. For most users, this involves making their communities private for 48 hours from June 12 , although some threatened to go away permanently unless the issue is adequately addressed. Making a subreddit private means that its content and discussions are no longer accessible to the general Reddit userbase.
Key reasons why the moderators are protesting include the fact that apps leaving the API mean that the platform will be less accessible, plus voluntary moderators will have fewer quality tools to work with through the official app, thereby making their job more difficult and making it nearly impossible (some argue) for them to maintain their levels of service to users.
How Will “Going Dark” Hurt Reddit?
“Going Dark” for a substantial period of time is likely to cause a noticeable decrease in the Reddit platform user engagement and activity since private subreddits limit content accessibility, which means less time spent on Reddit and potentially impacting metrics like page views and user interactions.
If there were more (longer) blackouts following this one, advertisers might also become concerned because private subreddits limit visibility and reach, potentially affecting the attractiveness of Reddit as an advertising platform. Also, private subreddits becoming widespread could impact the platform’s reputation as an open and inclusive community, deterring new users and affecting the overall user experience. Reddit’s business model relies on advertising revenue and premium subscriptions, so if private subreddits significantly impact these revenue streams, Reddit might need to adapt its model or explore new sources of revenue or, as the protesting moderators hope with their protest action, reverse the new policy for charges for third-party apps.
With five of the ten most popular communities on Reddit (r/gaming, r/aww, r/Music, r/todayilearned and r/pics), each of which has more than thirty million members, 48 hours of “going dark” is likely to cause some damage, generate some adverse (and potentially damaging) publicity for Reddit, and give Reddit’s owners (Advance Publications Inc) a painful reminder of the importance and power of moderators, and how things could become more challenging if their concerns aren’t addressed. Some moderators, for example, have said they will make their subreddits indefinitely inaccessible until Reddit reverses its policy.
Some moderators have been quoted as saying they would not continue to moderate if the ‘unpopular’ changes were pushed through, and their hope is that strength in numbers by acting together will provide enough pressure to change Reddit’s mind about the changes, and make Reddit realise the value and the power of its moderators.
Extortionate … Or Necessary?
Some people have suggested that the new charges are extortionate. For example, Apollo’s developer Christian Selig, (who has announced he will shut the app down on June 30) has suggested that the new Reddit charges could cost him £15.9 million if he continues operating the app.
Reddit’s CEO, Steve Huffman, has said that the platform “needs to be a self-sustaining business”, indicating that there would some form of increased revenue is needed, such as the new charges. He also said that he respected the communities taking action to highlight what they needed.
Reddit’s own (multi-million dollar) hosting costs and their need to be compensated according to usage levels to support third-party apps were two of the main reasons highlighted for introducing the charges.
Reddit Went Down
The action taken by the 7000+ subreddit moderators is thought to have been the cause of Reddit going down on the first day of the protest, 12 June. It was reported that over two and a half billion Reddit users may have “gone dark” on the platform as part of the protest.
Some commentators have suggested that Reddit has been a platform in decline anyway. Also, Reddit recently downsized its (leased) office space and reportedly announced a 5 per cent cut of its staff (90 employees).
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
Reddit’s move to get payment from the makers of third-party apps (after seven years of maintaining a free API) has been very poorly received and it has been likened to Musk’s Twitter which also stopped free usage of its API in February (and then backtracked a little). For third-party app developers, the charges are clearly very bad news, which some say will put them out of business and with several saying they will be shutting down.
The protest by moderators has already led to the whole of Reddit going down, has produced damaging publicity, has affected potentially billions of users, and could have a hugely detrimental effect on Reddit’s business if it continues, e.g. loss of advertisers, moderators not maintaining the platform (affecting users and quality), damage to reputation, users leaving, business/premium users cancelling, and more. In short, Reddit’s move to suddenly impose a change to its model and raise more revenue in this way has been met with fierce resistance and has exposed how voluntary moderators (which are a strength of the company’s services) feel undervalued and ignored and how they have enough power (if organised) to seriously put pressure on (and damage) the company. Reddit is currently showing no signs of backing down and it remains to be seen whether the pressure of moderators proves to inflict too much damage and force back-peddling or whether this is the start of major changes to Reddit’s model.
For many users of the platform, including businesses, the site going down and too much ‘going dark’ could see them run out of patience and look at alternatives.