The biggest communities across the platform have gone dark—in protest against Reddit’s plan to charge third party apps that access its data. At the heart of this battle is a question that tech companies have long tried to duck: Who has to pay for user content—and who has the right to profit from it?
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
First, a Reddit refresher
Reddit is a network of communities that at its core operates exactly like other social media platforms. The users generate content—links, images, comments etc—which the company monetises by selling ads. But it differs from the others in certain important ways:
One: Unlike other social networks, people do not follow other people—but topics of interest. Users create these ‘subreddits’ around a subject—as broad as music (r/music) or a specific video game. People share related content—and other users upvote or downvote their posts. There are millions of subreddits, but only a small number are very active.
Two: Users both create content and moderate the discussions—for free. These tens of thousands of unpaid moderators are called mods and help police these subreddits. They spend several hours each day making sure the comments stay on-topic—and do not violate content guidelines. In return, Reddit does not charge these communities any hosting fees. The likes of Facebook etc. hire large content moderation teams to do the same job.
Three: Unlike Twitter or Insta, most Reddit users do not use its app—but those developed by other companies. One reason is that Reddit did not release its own app until 2016—11 years after its launch in 2005: “It meant that for years, users had to rely on third-party apps, and many became so used to their preferred choice that they've stuck with them and never turned to the official one.” The most popular ones include Apollo, Narwhal, Relay, and Infinity.
Enter the API: Any app needs access to Application Programming Interface to tap into the content on the Reddit platform. The protocol allows the two of them to ‘talk’ to each other. Reddit—which owns its API—has been giving it for free to these third party-apps. This has long been the norm across the industry—since it served everyone’s interest:
There has long been sort of this unwritten rule that users provide these social media platforms with data via their content and usage, platforms utilize that data to monetize, and to show that the platform didn't have ownership over such user data, third-party indie developers and startups were able to access that data freely to create cool and interesting apps to the benefit of the platforms and its users alike.
Key point to note: Not having “ownership” over user posts is critical to social media platforms—since it frees them from any liability for illegal content. Without this ‘safe harbour’ clause, these companies will not be able to stay in business:
If a poster creates a post on your site which violates a criminal statute or a civil law (e.g. defamation) the liability for that action resides with the poster and not the web site owner. Without this safe harbour, sites like Facebook and YouTube could not exist as no company could afford the staff to review every post for potential liability to the company for every one of the millions of posts they receive daily.
The Reddit ‘pay to play’ firebomb
It all started in April when the company announced that third parties will have to pay to get access to its API. It came on the heels of a similar announcement by Twitter—which revealed plans to charge an eye-watering $42,000 per month from third party developers. Many of these apps shut shop—and dialling down the rate to $5,000 didn’t improve matters.
The Reddit rationale: At first, Reddit signalled that the move was aimed at companies like Microsoft, Google and OpenAI—that used Reddit content to train their AI chatbots. CEO Steve Huffman declared: “The Reddit corpus of data is really valuable. But we don’t need to give all of that value to some of the largest companies in the world for free.” Framed in that way, the decision seemed reasonable:
The move is one of the first significant examples of a social network’s charging for access to the conversations it hosts for the purpose of developing A.I. systems like ChatGPT, OpenAI’s popular program. Those new A.I. systems could one day lead to big businesses, but they aren’t likely to help companies like Reddit very much. In fact, they could be used to create competitors — automated duplicates to Reddit’s conversations.
More importantly this: Huffman also signalled that the API would remain free for products that directly benefit Reddit users—or have a more public good purpose (example: research):
Mr. Huffman said Reddit’s API would still be free to developers who wanted to build applications that helped people use Reddit. They could use the tools to build a bot that automatically tracks whether users’ comments adhere to rules for posting, for instance. Researchers who want to study Reddit data for academic or noncommercial purposes will continue to have free access to it.
But, but, but: When Reddit rolled out its API pricing in June, third-party apps created specifically for Reddit users got a rude shock. They were asked to pay a whopping $12,000 per 50 million API requests. According to its founder Christian Selig, the Apollo app—for instance—made 7 billion API requests in May. The average Apollo user makes 344 requests daily—adding up to an API bill of $20 million a year. So Apollo would have to pay $2.50 per user per month. But it only charges $1.49 for its premium tier. According to Selig, he would be in the red even if he cut out all free users and goes strictly with a subscription-only model.
Point to note: Selig’s supporters point out that apps like Apollo actually help Reddit users access its content in a better, more streamlined fashion—encouraging them to use the platform more often.
A spate of shutdowns: Popular third party apps like Apollo, ReddPlanet, and Sync all announced plans to shut shop on June 30.
The great Reddit blackout
Apollo’s announcement enraged Reddit users—many of whom declared they will boycott the platform. Nearly 8,000 subreddits have “gone dark” for 48 hours. This means users will not be able to see their content. These include two dozen subreddits with at least 10 million subscribers, as well as thousands of smaller networks.
The key reason: Reddit users are furious:
Critics of Reddit say the platform’s steep fees will kill off all third-party competition against Reddit’s proprietary app, which many users have derided as slow, buggy and inferior. They also fear the moves will decimate a volunteer community that relies on third-party tools to do the critical work of moderating Reddit forums — responsibility Reddit delegates to users of the site rather than to its own paid employees or to contractors, unlike some other large social networks.
The Reddit response: has been to dig in. Huffman said:
Expansive access to data has impact and costs involved; 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.
He instead suggested that third-party apps make their products “more efficient”—so they rely on fewer API requests. In an internal memo sent to employees on Monday, Huffman remained defiant:
Huffman says the blackout hasn’t had “significant revenue impact” and that the company anticipates that many of the subreddits will come back online by Wednesday. “There’s a lot of noise with this one. Among the noisiest we’ve seen. Please know that our teams are on it, and like all blowups on Reddit, this one will pass as well,” the memo reads.
The bottomline: Whether or not you use Reddit, this battle is important to any person who uses social media. In the end, this is a fight over who owns the content that you create. And yet you have no control over decisions that will directly affect you, as Mashable points out:
APIs help developers access your data. Yet, the social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit, which already use your data to monetize via advertisers, want to now charge exorbitant fees just for access to your data.
Which platform will be next? There's relatively few major social media platforms to begin with. What happens when they all want to box you in to only use their official apps to access your own data? What happens to the tech industry when only a student developer can no longer afford to create apps and software?
Sky News, CNN and The Verge have more on the Reddit battle. This New York Times piece—which includes an interview with Huffman—lays out his argument against free access to AI companies. This quick Mashable take does a good job of explaining why you should care about Reddit’s API decisions—and The Guardian does the same for Twitter. This Mashable piece lays out the pricing dilemma for third-party apps like Apollo. New Yorker looks at user-related problems on Reddit—like trolls and toxic communities.