Beginning June 12th, 2023, Reddit experienced its second-ever “blackout,” triggered by the platform’s decision to charge companies for API access. Reddit, known for its diverse user-generated content organized into topic-specific “subreddits,” heavily relies on volunteer moderators and third-party apps to maintain its communities. The proposed API pricing changes led to these crucial popular third-party apps shutting down, sparking a widespread protest where over 8,800 subreddits participated in a “blackout” by going private. During this period, tensions escalated between moderators and Reddit’s CEO, Steve Huffman, resulting in a “flame war.” The blackout highlighted the power and importance of trust and safety workers in shaping online spaces and shed light on the emerging clash between traditional social media and the industry utilizing large language models trained on internet data. Despite the protest, Reddit enforced the API pricing, leading to the closure of some popular apps and causing some users to explore alternative social media platforms. This event underscores the significant capabilities of collective action among trust and safety workers and site users and how moderation influences social media platforms in the new internet era.
Reddit, self-described as “the Front Page of the Internet,” has gone from being an empty site full of fake users and a haven for fans of gaming and adult content to being considered by some as the “most influential site on the internet.” The site’s content—organized by its topic-specific “subreddits”—can be anything from hobby and fandom discussions to practical information about home ownership, advice on relationships, free legal counsel, etc. These subreddits can be private, restricted, or public and unlike anything on Facebook or Twitter, public subreddits allow anyone traversing the internet unrestricted access to every conversation, or “thread,” ever had in that subreddit. An account is not necessary to access any discussions existing on the site’s public subreddits but if someone wants to request specialized information that they can’t find elsewhere on the internet, they can create an account and post in the relevant subreddit in a matter of minutes. For those who frequent the site, any number of subreddits can be “joined” with the simple click of a button, and account-holding users can stay in touch with the daily ongoings of the community specific to the subreddit.
Like most user-generated content (UGC) platforms, content is generated by users, money comes from advertising, and Reddit grows as site traffic increases. Unique to Reddit, however, is the role of its moderators and third-party app developers. Reddit’s moderators uphold Reddit’s Content Policy and ensure the well-being of their respective subreddits. Unlike moderators for many other platforms, however, Reddit’s moderators are volunteers who spend approximately 466 cumulative unpaid labor hours every day to maintain their communities. Especially for larger subreddits with millions of users, this is no simple task. Third-party apps exist as useful tools that help Reddit moderators organize their subreddits, block accounts, flag unsafe posts, find patterns of abuse, and communicate all of this easily with the moderation team. Reddit has never had any official tools to assist in these processes and only came out with an official mobile app in 2016–11 years after the site’s inception. Thus, Reddit has historically relied on volunteer third-party app developers to provide essential services such as moderation tools, mobile compliance, and accessibility for visual- and hearing-impaired users.
On April 18th, Reddit announced that it would begin charging companies for the use of its API. Reddit’s API, or application programming interface, has been free to access for the site’s entire history and it is the interface by which third-party apps “connect” to Reddit. Starting July 1, 2023, however, these apps would have had to pay $12,000 per 50 million API requests, summing up to around $20 million dollars per year for apps like Apollo, a popular Reddit app for iOS. Instead, Apollo and other third-party apps popular with Reddit users and moderators announced that they would shut down in light of the API pricing changes. Steve Huffman, co-founder and once-again CEO of Reddit made this announcement mere months after Twitter announced its own API charges which priced out app developers and researchers, and not long before the expected Reddit IPO later this year. The main reason cited for the changes is that Reddit needs to be “self-sustaining” and “can no longer subsidize commercial entities that require large-scale data use,” referring to language models such as GPT-4 which are trained on large swaths of Reddit data.
In response to the proposed changes, over 8,829 subreddits pledged to “go dark” from June 12-14 in what was called a “blackout.” Broadly supported by their respective communities, this online protest meant that all but a significant fraction of the site switched from public to private. This switch–called “going dark”–effectively shut off a subreddit by granting moderators the power to prevent anyone who was not already approved as a member of the community from accessing it, thus halting the flow of information. An act of “sabotage,” according to social movement theorists, the blackout was intended to make visible moderators’ demands to stop the API update which will take away the third-party tools necessary for them to ensure the trust and safety of their communities. The blackout caused significant disruption in several forms including the site crashing on June 12th, the quality of Google searches declining, and journalists claiming the “end of the useful internet.”
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, aka u/spez on Reddit, responded to the blackout primarily by criticizing moderators and remaining unflinching on upcoming API access changes. Over the course of the two-day blackout, Huffman’s responses went from, “It will pass,” to suggesting that volunteer moderators were abusing their privileges and compared them to “landed gentry.” All of this—alongside new propositions that Huffman made regarding introducing strategies to remove moderators—has led to what is being called a “flame war” between Reddit’s moderators and its CEO.
The moderators broadly took on a strategy of attrition warfare. One week after the end of the original blackout, over 3,000 subreddits remained dark and many others threatened to shut down completely. After moderators were threatened with consequences for not re-opening their subreddits, some subreddits engaged in entertaining forms of malicious compliance. For example, subreddits r/pics and r/aww decided after a community poll that they would return to re-open but host exclusively photos of satirical news show host and comedian John Oliver.
For some moderators, this strategy did not work. Tagging a subreddit as NSFW prevents Reddit from getting advertising revenue when users scroll through those subreddits on mobile and some moderators decided to reopen their communities after tagging themselves as Not Safe for Work (NSFW). The entire moderation team for these subreddits was suspended by an Administrator but later reinstated.
In spite of all of this, as well as threats from a ransomware group to leak hacked data from the site if API changes were not stopped, Reddit enacted its API pricing. Though accessibility-focused apps were left exempt, other popular apps like Apollo and BaconReader faced the full force of the new cost structure and were left with no option but to close up shop. As a result, a handful of communities have continued protesting and some have left the site entirely only for the mod team to be replaced by Administrators and the subreddit reopened. This sort of forced reopening has been the theme for most of Reddit’s online communities in the wake of the protests: reopen or be forced to by having the moderator team replaced. And while the blackout was resolved ultimately with moderators being forced to comply by returning their subreddits back to normal, users have continued to leverage their creativity and collective power to let their feelings about the API pricing continue to be known. Similar to the exodus seen on Twitter following their API changes, some Reddit users are also exploring novel social media platforms as an alternative to Reddit.
This blackout is a reminder that the backbone of the internet is made up of those employees and volunteers who work to ensure the trust and safety of online spaces. Both the successful 2015 Reddit blackout and this one are some of the few instances we have seen of collective action among trust and safety workers. In both instances, we catch a glimpse of how much power trust and safety workers have when brought together for a common cause, and how social media is not a “black box” but rather something users and moderators can unpack and influence.
The events leading up to this blackout were also the first instance of tensions between the existing industry of social media and the industry emerging from deployable large language models which train on internet text data. The 2023 Reddit blackout is the first evidence of growing pains as the internet enters its new era where trust and safety workers are at the heart of it all.
- What is the opportunity cost of allowing LLM companies to mine large amounts of text data? Is it equivalent to the amount being proposed for API calls?
- What incentivizes volunteer moderators and third-party app developers to contribute without expecting pay? Do such actions undermine that incentive?
- How do the actions of moderators shape the site? How do the effects of these actions trickle up into corporate decisions?
- Can a distinction be made between Reddit as a community of users and Reddit as a corporate entity? If so, how can they be reconciled?
- What made Reddit’s 2015 blackout successful? What is different about this 2023 blackout?
- Given their importance in the modern era, should social media sites like Reddit be considered a utility or public good and regulated as such?
- Do moderators have a right to speak and take action on behalf of the communities they oversee?
- Both Twitter and Reddit have significantly increased API pricing—what are the potential impacts of this trend? Will the user and moderator responses towards these actions lead to new platforms gaining ground?
Written by Sagar Kumar, August 2023.