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21 June 2023

What the Reddit blackout means for the wider internet

The specialised content on the forum has for years been hidden scaffolding for the internet. What happens when it is dismantled?

By Sarah Manavis

For better or for worse, there are few social media platforms whose users are as organised as those on Reddit. The message board site – which has more than 50 million daily visitors – is known for hosting the internet’s biggest special-interest forums (from gardening to gaming to deep sea creatures). These subreddits are ready-built for engaging relevant groups and producing a co-ordinated backlash. In January 2021 users across a handful of finance-related subreddits caused the second biggest day of stock market trading for a single company – for the gaming retailer, GameStop, as a protest against concentrated powers on Wall Street shorting the stock. During the pandemic two user-led protests – one against weak hate speech rules on the site and one targeting lax policies on Covid-19 misinformation – succeeded in getting Reddit to permanently shut down popular forums for harmful content. (Other protests have been less noble, such as the 2015 backlash to Reddit’s chief executive at the time banning controversial subreddits, such as one dedicated to “fat people hate”.)

Over the last week, this collective action has turned against Reddit again in a protest over the company’s decision to begin charging app developers to access the wealth of information on the platform – from posts to comments to metadata – via Reddit’s site tools or application programming interface (API). Since the decision was announced, nearly 9,000 subreddits have been taken offline. The blackout, which began on 12 June, was only scheduled to last 48 hours but after Reddit confirmed it would still be going ahead with the charges and Steve Huffman, its chief executive, told staff the protest “will pass”, it is continuing indefinitely. Reddit has said the decision to charge for API access was made in response to the rise of generative AI. Tools like ChatGPT and Google Bard use Reddit’s data to train their responses – Reddit is now saying it should get a cut of the profits. The company is also planning a potential initial public offering this year, which would be buoyed be a sudden influx of cash. For their part, developers behind the apps which will be affected by the charge have said that to keep using Reddit’s API as they currently do could end up costing them $20m a year – a price so high many apps have said they are being forced to shut down.

This may seem like a story that only affects you if you’re on Reddit or are involved with the third party apps that rely on its API (the company has rolled back on some of its charges, saying apps which are specifically built to help people with disabilities and ones which use the API infrequently will be exempt from the rule). But the impact of this decision – and, in particular, the backlash to it – will affect how we use the wider internet and what we see on it.

[See also: Banning TikTok will bring on the splinternet]

The volume of user-generated and highly specialised content on Reddit has for years been hidden scaffolding for much of the internet: from its data being used for other apps or to train AI bots, to supplying information to search engines. In fact, every major search engine is now heavily reliant on pulling data from Reddit. They often yield Reddit links in their results (a common trick to get better responses to a search is to simply add “reddit” to the end of it) and use Reddit’s data to refine their results more generally by combing through popular and vetted content on the site. This meant that within days of the blackout beginning search engines were generating worse results for users. Reddit posts and comments offered up as search results – some of which were hosted on subreddits dating back more than ten years – were suddenly unavailable.

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The impact isn’t just contained to the period of the blackout. Even if each subreddit comes back, Reddit is never going to be quite the same. It relies heavily on the unpaid labour of its volunteer moderators, many of whom in turn relied on the third party apps that used Reddit’s API to make it easier to identify inappropriate content. A large motivation for the blackout is that moderators need these apps and have committed to quitting the site for good if they can longer use them. If moderators go, users will go too – meaning a dramatic fall in new content being generated.

This cycle would destroy Reddit, and damage the rest of the internet: moderators leave the platform, search engines no longer direct users to it, fewer apps access it, and more and more users leave. Reddit is primarily a home for unique, special-interest communities, the appeal of which diminishes when millions of people stop using it. Some experts have compared this controversy to what’s happening with Twitter: executives are taking a gamble on making sudden changes to the site in a bid to increase profitability, hoping the backlash from users won’t make these cost-cutting measures redundant. (Reddit has also just laid off five per cent of its staff and Huffman even praised Elon Musk’s management of Twitter in a recent TV interview.) It’s a risk, one that so far isn’t paying off for Twitter and seems even more unlikely to work with Reddit’s user base.

All the evidence suggests that users will not quietly accept these changes. Reddit has succeeded where other forums have failed. What makes it special is that it has never been like any other platform. This protest has gone on so long precisely because Reddit users are committed, no matter what. Whatever happens, this will not simply pass.

[See also: The internet is unusable now]

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