If you tried to find information on Reddit over the last week, you might have had a hard time.
Thousands of subreddits — the individualized communities where people discuss dog breeds, allergies, influencers, dating — have gone dark in protest of some recent changes to Reddit’s business model.
The platform recently announced it would begin charging other companies that want to access its content using an API (Application Programming Interface). Reddit announced the changes earlier this spring after the rise of generative artificial intelligence companies like OpenAI, which used Reddit’s rich trove of human conversations to train ChatGPT for free.
It wasn’t just about A.I.
Reddit’s own app is considered by many to be garbage, but there are a number of third-party apps like Apollo that make browsing more enjoyable. Up until now, those apps could access Reddit’s data for free. Once Reddit starts charging at the end of the month, Apollo has said it will close down rather than pay an estimated bill of $20 million per year.
Reddit has long been bolstered and operated by a network of unpaid moderators who keep subreddits from disintegrating into chaos. The API fee became a tipping point for those superusers, who are worried that the company is prioritizing its business over the needs and preferences of the community. Reddit’s chief executive has explicitly said he is looking into ways of weakening moderator’s power.
Many of the subreddits that went dark in protest — though notably not all — are now back online. The question that remains is what this will mean for the platform going forward.
The thing is, Redditors really love Reddit. That’s in stark contrast to platforms like TikTok, where the predominant ethos is figuring out how to harness the platform for personal profit. Redditors invest time and care into their specific communities and are quick to protect them from outside invasion. They are what makes the best parts of Reddit work.
As with all things online, Reddit has had no shortage of hatred and garbage. But if we’re talking about the ideal Reddit — the many, many subs where people come together in good faith to discuss the genuine, the scary, the supernatural and the gross — these new changes to the platform stand to ruin the very thing that ever made the platform good.
Earlier this week, Alex Pareene over at Defector wrote: “We are living through the end of the useful internet. The future is informed discussion behind locked doors, in Discords and private fora, with the public-facing web increasingly filled with detritus generated by LLMs, bearing only a stylistic resemblance to useful information.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that.
Ultimately, Reddit needs Redditors more than Redditors need Reddit. If forced, Redditors will simply find new places and ways to ask strangers, “Am I The Asshole?”
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