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Reddit communities go private to protest pricing plan for apps

Reddit plans to charge third-party apps to use its data.
The Reddit app icon.
Many subreddits, including r/gaming, began the protest early by going dark over the weekend, and the content strike will go on for at least 48 hours and possibly longer for some subreddits, moderators said.Matt Slocum / AP file

Reddit, the online forum that popularizes a major share of the world’s memes and viral content, was the target of a mass protest Monday.

Major subreddits — the message boards on the site devoted to various topics — locked out users to broadcast their disapproval of Reddit’s plan to charge third-party apps that rely on the site with hefty new fees

Hundreds of subreddits — including the highly ranked subreddits r/gaming, r/blind and r/music — participated in the protest by turning on “private” mode. The action prevented new users from freely joining those communities and limited Reddit’s ability to feature their posts. 

The rebellion could be a watershed moment for Reddit, a company that has struggled to turn a consistent profit for its owners despite a long history as one of the most visited and influential sites on the internet. The San Francisco company is aiming to raise revenue and cut costs ahead of a planned initial public offering of stock. 

The protest is over one of Reddit’s efforts to bring in more money. While many people use its official app or website, others get a similar experience through apps made by third-party software developers that use Reddit's API (application programming interface). Under a plan that Reddit announced in April, after it learned that its data was being used to train potentially lucrative artificial intelligence chatbots such as ChatGPT, those third parties would at some point need to pay large fees for access. 

One moderator with r/gaming — the No. 3 subreddit with 37 million members — said the blackout shows where Reddit’s value comes from. 

“A very small percentage of the users are power users, and they generate the content, they generate the value and they perform a lot of the free moderation,” the user, tylersburden, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he does not use his real name online, said in a phone interview. 

Reddit’s management, he said, had “disenchanted and disillusioned the real people who provide the value for Reddit.” 

Many subreddits including r/gaming began the protest early by going dark over the weekend, and the content strike would go on for at least 48 hours and possibly longer for some subreddits, moderators said. 

Third-party apps such as Apollo and RIF, formerly “Reddit Is Fun,” are especially significant for many users since Reddit was slow to introduce its own app. Its first mobile app came out in 2016, nine years after the first iPhone, which meant that many users turned to third-party Reddit apps on their phones. 

Now, Reddit is asking all users to rely on its official app, which some power users consider inferior to third-party apps. The moderator tylersburden said the company’s planned changes would also affect the tools that he and other moderators use to remove objectionable content, such as spam and hateful materials. 

“The whole hacked-together infrastructure has been cut off at the knees, and I don’t know what’s going to happen when it does go down,” he said. 

Christian Selig, creator of the popular third-party app Apollo, said that to keep operating, he estimated he would need to pay $20 million to Reddit per year. 

“I hope it goes without saying that I don’t have that kind of money or would even know how to charge it to a credit card,” he said in a recent Reddit post. He’s planning to shutter his app June 30. 

Some users threatened to quit over the issue. 

“I’ve got nearly 12 years on this account with regular engagement through all that time. Once Apollo is gone I’m done,” one user wrote last week. “Our experience means nothing to the people running this place.” 

And even if third-party apps could afford to keep operating, another planned change by Reddit would eliminate the apps’ access to Reddit posts that are “not safe for work.” Pornography continues to exist and be popular on Reddit. 

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, a co-founder of the site, said in an “ask-me-anything” thread Friday that Reddit had to rein in costs including the “tens of millions of dollars” a year it spends to support apps like Apollo. 

“We’ll continue to be profit-driven until profits arrive. Unlike some of the 3P apps, we are not profitable,” he said, referring to third-party apps. 

The plan by Reddit echoes a similar move by crosstown San Francisco rival Twitter, which under new owner Elon Musk has dramatically raised the price of its application programming interface, or API, the service that makes third-party apps possible. including for training AI models

It was not immediately clear if the content strike this week would affect the thinking of Reddit's management. 

“Expansive access to data has impact and costs involved,” Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt said in a statement last week. “We spend multi-millions of dollars on hosting fees and Reddit needs to be fairly paid to continue supporting high-usage third-party apps. Our pricing is based on usage levels that we measure to be comparable to our own costs.” 

Reddit has offered exemptions to some software developers who make noncommercial apps that address accessibility needs, such as for blind users, he said. 

Founded in 2005, the same year as YouTube and a year after Facebook, Reddit has failed to deliver the same mountains of cash as its social media peers in Northern California. 

For years, advertisers have often shunned Reddit in part because of content that some find objectionable, such as pornography or extreme political views. But the company began a new push for ad money around 2018 and has since cracked down on certain controversial communities, including by shutting down r/The_Donald, a hub for fans of former President Donald Trump where conspiracy theories and violent threats were also posted. 

Financial progress has been uneven. Fidelity Investments, which owns shares in Reddit, has slashed the estimated value of its stake by 41% since August 2021, TechCrunch reported this month. 

Adding to the pressures to raise revenue and cut costs is a long-term plan by Reddit’s owners for an IPO. Reddit is privately held and is majority owned by Advance Publications, the parent company of Conde Nast and a major shareholder in Charter Communications and Warner Bros. Discovery, according to CNBC

Reddit is still led by one of its co-founders, Huffman, but some users said the latest revenue push was a betrayal of the site’s culture, which is based on volunteer moderators, a democratic voting system for posts and a fondness for the open web over walled-garden ecosystems. 

Reddit users are famously some of the most politically savvy and organized on the internet when they can agree on an issue. The site has been a hotbed of protests in favor of net neutrality, the idea that internet service providers should not charge extra to handle certain types of traffic.