The Media Today

Reddit goes to war with its volunteer moderators

June 22, 2023

If you use the internet, you may think of Reddit—if you think of it at all—as a largely harmless repository of discussion forums about nerdy topics like Star Wars. Last week, however, even those who don’t follow news about the platform may have seen a blizzard of articles about a “moderator revolt” that caused thousands of its most popular forums, or “subreddits,” to go offline by changing their status to private, a process the moderators referred to as “going dark.” The unlikely-sounding catalyst for this uprising was a change to the company’s application programming interface, or API, a set of software instructions that allow third-party apps to access Reddit’s data. Reddit had announced plans to start charging for access to its API, which used to be free. On June 8, Christian Selig, the creator of Apollo, a popular app used for browsing Reddit, said that the new rates would cost him at least twenty million dollars a year. He had no choice, he said, but to shut down his app.

In interviews with The Verge and CNBC, Steve Huffman, the cofounder and CEO of Reddit, suggested that the company decided to implement the API changes because it didn’t want to continue subsidizing third-party apps like Apollo, which essentially compete with Reddit’s official app. But some of the volunteers who moderate the site’s most popular forums seemed to see things differently: they have argued that they rely on third-party apps like Apollo to do the work of moderating posts, because such apps are faster and have more features than the official one. Some critics have also speculated that the API changes—which reportedly involve fees that are hundreds of times higher than those charged by other social media services—have been driven by a desire not to improve the site, but to boost revenue so that Reddit can go ahead with an initial public offering, a step it has been eyeing since 2021.

Reddit was founded in 2005 by Huffman and his college roommate Alexis Ohanian. In 2006, it was acquired by the magazine publisher Condé Nast, which is owned by the Newhouse family, through their holding company Advance Publications (the site was spun off as an independent unit in 2011, but Advance is still the majority shareholder). Huffman left Reddit for a time to start a travel company called Hipmunk, but he returned as CEO in 2015. Some still see Reddit as little more than an overgrown discussion forum or a politer version of extremism-riddled communities like 4chan. But according to one estimate, the site has more than five hundred million visitors per month, which would make it the sixth most popular website in the US, behind Google and Facebook but ahead of Amazon and Yahoo. Some observers argue that Reddit now going dark not only affects regular users of the site, but could also mean lower-quality results for some Google searches, which draw on user-generated content from such communities.

What began as a simple dispute over API terms seems to have become an existential debate over the future of Reddit itself—a situation that many Reddit fans have blamed, at least in part, on Huffman’s responses to the initial protest. In what The Verge referred to as a disastrous Reddit Q&A session—known on the site as an “Ask Me Anything,” or AMA—earlier this month, Huffman met with what Wes Davis, a writer at The Verge, described as “seemingly universal anger.” “There were a lot of f-bombs from commenters [and] a lot of people called him a coward,” Davis wrote; if users made any positive comments about Huffman or the changes, Davis “didn’t find them.” The moderators of one forum said that they had initially planned to go dark for forty-eight hours, but Huffman’s responses persuaded them to do so indefinitely. Yesterday, Casey Newton wrote, in his Platformer newsletter, that Reddit’s approach to the changes has been a “communications disaster.”

Selig said recently that Reddit refused to negotiate a cheaper deal on API fees, and that Huffman then started accusing him of blackmailing the company by threatening to shut down his app unless he got the deal he wanted. Selig says that he did nothing of the kind, and that recordings of phone calls with Reddit executives (which he has linked to online) prove it. In an interview with NBC, meanwhile, Huffman compared the volunteer moderators of forums that went dark to the “landed gentry,” and suggested that Reddit might remove them. A spokesperson for the company later said that this was not its official position, but according to some moderators, Reddit has been trying to replace them by asking others to take over their roles. And yet—according to Reddark, a site that is tracking the protest—over a third of all the Reddit forums that initially took themselves offline remain dark.

Writing in New York magazine over the weekend, John Herrman described Reddit’s rhetoric around the protest action as “confused.” In some ways, the protest looks like a garden-variety labor dispute, Herrman said—except nobody’s getting paid. The volunteer moderators who have taken their communities offline are seen by many as valued members of the Reddit community, he added, but the company seems to see them as “insignificant weirdos who are power mad and holding the site hostage,” and who therefore deserve to be replaced. In the past, Herrman writes, Reddit seemed to understand that if it tried to monetize the site too aggressively, its most valuable users would “see their contributions as unpaid labor” and would start to lose interest. This is exactly what seems to be happening now.

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In his Stratechery newsletter, Ben Thompson argued that Huffman’s irritation at Reddit’s data being harvested by third-party apps—as well as artificial intelligence engines indexing the site’s content for their own purposes—is based on a fundamental tension at the heart of the community. “Reddit is miffed that Google and OpenAI are taking its data, but Huffman and team didn’t create that data,” Thompson writes. “Reddit’s users did, under the watchful eyes of Reddit’s unpaid mod workforce.” The dissatisfaction of those moderators also ties into a broader phenomenon that’s sweeping social media, Thompson writes. “What undergirds everything that is happening…is widespread angst and irritation that everything that was supposed to be special about the web…has turned out to be nothing more than grist to be fought over by millionaires and billionaires.”

Some Reddit users and supporters see similarities between the conduct of Huffman and that of Elon Musk, the owner of Twitter, who angered app developers and researchers alike when he moved recently to hike his own platform’s API fees. Huffman himself seemed to encourage this comparison, saying in the interview with NBC that he admired Musk and in particular the dramatic cost-cutting that he has implemented at Twitter, which has laid off at least 80 percent of its staff since Musk took over. While recent changes at both Twitter and Reddit may have been designed to increase the value of those companies, however, the opposite seems to be happening. Last month, Fidelity, an investment fund, implied that Twitter is now worth just fifteen billion dollars—much less than the forty-four billion that Musk paid last year. In April, Fidelity also revised the value of its stake in Reddit, claiming that it was worth about 40 percent less than when the firm invested in 2021.

Moderators of some Reddit forums have responded to Huffman’s threats to replace them in typical Reddit style: a popular forum called r/pics, for example, reopened after initially going dark, but changed its rules so that users can only post photos of the comedian John Oliver, who is popular with many Reddit users. Others labeled their forums “not safe for work” to prevent Reddit from selling ads against their content. Sarah Gilbert, the research manager at Cornell’s Citizens and Technology Lab and a moderator for the r/AskHistorians forum, told CNBC that there’s a risk that, if Reddit forces unpaid moderators out, others may be less likely to do such work, which can be unpopular. This in turn could “have a downstream effect of more disinformation, more hate, more spam, more harassment, and more abuse on Reddit.”

Even if Reddit succeeds in overthrowing its recalcitrant moderators, Herrman reckons that the company will have to “confront the question that has haunted it since the very beginning: Did Reddit become invaluable despite its inability to make money? Or because of it?” Writing for Defector, Alex Pareene has an even darker view. Every time a great internet resource is created by a for-profit company, he writes, it is eventually destroyed by the desire to monetize that resource, a process that Cory Doctorow, an author and adviser to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has called “enshittification.” We are living through “the end of the useful internet,” Pareene says. All of the real, human interaction on Reddit will eventually be just “training material for the mindless bots and deceptive marketers that replace it.”

Such predictions may seem overly dramatic, but even if Huffman is right, and the “going dark” protests prove a flash in the pan, the company’s drive for profitability will likely change the nature of the site and its communities, perhaps irrevocably, as seems to be happening at Musk’s Twitter. What emerges may be better for investors (although that is still very much an open question). But it could be worse for users.

Other notable stories:

  • The fallout continued yesterday from the Wall Street Journal opinion section’s decision to let Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito respond in its pages to a ProPublica investigation about an undisclosed luxury fishing trip that he took with a Republican billionaire—before the investigation had even been published. Numerous journalists and media-watchers—including, notably, John Carreyrou, a onetime star reporter at the Journal, who is now at the Times—slammed the Journal’s move to undermine a rival’s unpublished story as unethical, or at least impolite; Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica’s editor in chief, welcomed Alito’s response, but rejected his contentions and said he was “curious” as to whether the Journal had fact-checked them. Last night, the Journal’s editorial board defended its decision and accused ProPublica of smearing Alito.
  • Benjamin Mullin, of the New York Times, explored the “uneasy” relationship between his newspaper and Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who passed the Pentagon Papers to the Times in the seventies, and who died last week aged ninety-two. Ellsberg “was happy with the prominent coverage the Times gave the Pentagon Papers,” Mullin writes, but was upset that Neil Sheehan, the main reporter on the story, misled him, and felt that the Times later mischaracterized their relationship in Sheehan’s obituary. (Sheehan died in 2021.) In the last year of his life, Ellsberg expressed frustration with the paper in interviews with Jill Abramson, a former Times editor, and Jim Risen, of The Intercept. (Risen’s story will run soon; talks about an Abramson column in the Times fell through.)
  • Margaret Sullivan, the former Washington Post media critic who now writes for The Guardian and teaches at Duke, is adding a Substack podcast to her repertoire; she told Vanity Fair’s Brian Stelter that it will explore “whether journalism, at its best, can help save democracy.” In other media-jobs news, the veteran media reporter Claire Atkinson, who recently left Insider, this week launched The Media Mix, a new Substack newsletter about the industry. And, per the AP, Geraldo Rivera is stepping down from The Five, on Fox News, citing “a growing tension that goes beyond editorial differences and personal annoyances and gripes.” (He plans to remain at Fox as a “correspondent at large.”)
  • Yesterday, a bipartisan group of US senators reintroduced the PRESS Act, a bill that would implement a federal shield law barring the government from forcing reporters to give up confidential sources and protect them against electronic surveillance. “Last Congress, the PRESS Act was passed unanimously by the House and came within a hair’s-breadth of becoming law before it was stopped by a nonsensical objection from a single senator,” the Freedom of the Press Foundation notes. “The PRESS Act is the strongest shield law Congress has ever proposed. Now it’s time to pass it.”
  • And Sopan Deb, of the Times, reports from a University of Southern California boot camp that trains current and former professional basketball players “in the lucrative art of broadcasting, podcasting and throwing verbal bombs on camera.” While “superstars typically compete for more than a decade, the average NBA player lasts only a handful of years,” Deb writes. “Crossing over into film and television has proved to be a viable, and often lucrative, alternate path, even for players who weren’t big stars.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.