I feel compelled to weigh in…

June 15, 2023, 10:10 PM

Recently, Reddit has been embroiled in a controversy over the site management’s plan to charge for access to their application programming interface, or API, which would affect the operation of various third-party apps, which previously had free access to the API.

First of all, this is how I browse Reddit.  I have a Reddit Premium subscription, which means that I get an ad-free experience using a web browser or the official Reddit app, along with a few other perks.  When I’m on my phone, I will typically use BaconReader, a third-party app, to access Reddit.  I started using BaconReader before Reddit had an official Android app, and I’ve gotten used to it and have seen no reason to change.  More specifically, I use the paid version of BaconReader, which provides me an ad-free experience on the app.  The free version of the app runs its own ads in an effort by the developers to make some money that Reddit sees no part of, regardless of Reddit Premium subscription status.  So before we get into things too deeply, that’s my situation, i.e. I have a premium subscription to the site, and I use an ad-free third-party app on my phone.

As far as the issue at hand goes, I feel that charging a fee for API access is reasonable enough.  To me, it only seems fair.  Third-party apps depend on Reddit for their content, and so if Reddit were to die, the third-party apps die right along with it.  You profit from Reddit’s content, selling subscriptions, app licenses, and running ads against it, so you need to pay your content provider.  Especially when one considers that Reddit is, in fact, a for-profit company and not a charity.  Just because one has never turned a profit doesn’t make one a not-for-profit entity.  It just means that you’re a for-profit company that has never managed to make a profit.  Consuming server resources through your app but not compensating the operator of said server just makes you a parasite, since you’re not paying for the resources that you consume.  It’s nice that Reddit has offered it that way for a while, but it sounds like the free ride is about to end.  It’s a perfectly valid business decision.  I will say that when it comes to how much to charge for API access, I do not know what the proper amount is.  I am not an app developer, nor do I know how much it costs to operate Reddit.  All I know is that paying some amount for API access seems fair.  And you don’t get to complain when someone who was offering a service for free stops offering it for free, because you weren’t paying for it, and, as my mother likes to put it, “You’ve got to pay to say.”

However, what bothers me is the way that the userbase has reacted to this, and how absolutely messed up the relationship between Reddit management and its userbase – particularly a number of its moderators – has become.  In response to the announcement that the API would no longer be offered free of charge, coupled with some complaining from a few high-profile app developers, the various “power moderators”, i.e. the anonymous volunteers who moderate the site’s largest subreddits, pitched an absolute fit, and planned a “Reddit blackout” where, for a period of time, a bunch of these subreddits would go private, i.e. the moderators would restrict access to those subreddits to only themselves, as a way to pressure Reddit management into reversing their decision to charge for API access.

I take issue with this for a few reasons.  First, this seems to paint Reddit management as the villain here, while holding up the developers of third-party apps as victims.  A better way to think of it is that, Reddit is the core figure in the ecosystem, and they’re the entity from which everything else flows.  Licking the boots of third-party app developers doesn’t help Reddit operate, and is a very misplaced loyalty when the core service is needed in order for the third-party services to function.  Pitting one against the other is not a good way to do business, especially when one is fully dependent on the other.  If you choke Reddit to death because they can’t fund the operation anymore, everything else ceases to matter, because if there is no more service, it’s all a moot point.  If Reddit folds, there is no more site, which means that the third-party apps have nowhere to pull content from anymore, and therefore the third-party apps won’t work anymore.  And if there is no longer a reason for them to exist anymore, everyone’s hard work has just gone straight down the toilet.  In other words, if Reddit shuts down for lack of funding, everybody loses.

Second, I really dislike the tactics that various subreddit moderators have decided to take to protest these changes to the Reddit API.  Like when they wanted the /r/NoNewNormal subreddit banned, they implemented a subreddit blackout in order to protest the API fees, anticipating that the management will capitulate to their demands like they did with /r/NoNewNormal.

There are times that my stance falls on the side of the masses, and some where my stance falls on the side of the management.  This is one of those instances where my stance falls squarely on the side of the management, as it seems like what we have here is a bunch of subreddit moderators who do not know their place in the Reddit ecosystem and are acting like petulant children.  It’s said that if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product being sold, and that is exactly what Reddit’s userbase is.  Reddit’s customers are its advertisers and its premium subscribers.  The non-premium userbase is the product being sold to the advertisers (since the premium users are customers in their own right and see no advertising).  Much like how Google is an advertising company with a search problem when it gets right down to it, Reddit is also an advertising company with a social media problem (Facebook, too, for that matter).  The social/link-aggregator aspect of it is the hook to get eyes on the advertisers’ ads.  And if you don’t want to see the advertisers’ ads, you have to make up the difference that the site would make off of you by paying for a subscription.  Anyone who isn’t an advertiser or a paid subscriber is not a customer.  And those people are the product that Reddit is selling to their advertisers, i.e. their actual customers.

Additionally, Reddit’s moderators, in the vast majority of cases, are not paid staff, and are volunteering their services for no compensation whatsoever.  No matter how many subreddits some of these people moderate, they still do not work for Reddit, and are ultimately providing free services for a for-profit company.  Therefore, if anything, the people who spend all of their free time on Reddit performing moderator functions are suckers, because they are treating it like it’s their job or something, and Reddit is gaining valuable services from them and not paying a dime for it.  If that’s not being a sucker, I don’t know what is.

As such, a large swath of the userbase has no real financial stake in the site.  If you are not an owner, an employee, an advertiser, or a paid subscriber, you have no stake in Reddit’s financial situation, because you are not putting funds into Reddit, nor are you receiving funds out of Reddit.  Therefore, business decisions like charging for API access seem to be completely out of the userbase’s wheelhouse, because you’ve got to pay to say.  As such, I won’t even entertain discussion on it, because the site has to be able to pay its bills through whatever combination of funding sources that it deems necessary.  Charging for API access seems perfectly reasonable, because it helps ensure that Reddit is able to pay for the server usage that the traffic through the API generates.  I don’t know what a reasonable amount for API access should be or at what rate it should be charged, but charging some amount for access seems quite fair.  If Reddit has determined that the free ride needs to end, then it needs to be over.

The “blackout” also demonstrated a longstanding problem with the way that Reddit is run.  It really lays bare that Reddit management doesn’t assert nearly enough control over its own platform.  I said something similar last year about Reddit’s governance, discussing how volunteer moderators have far too much control over the operation of the site.  At that time, I said, when referring to subreddit bans, “subreddit moderators should not be able to issue indefinite (‘permanent’) bans to users.  An indefinite ban from any part of the service, especially for users with a paid subscription (which I have had since 2013), should be above the pay grade of any moderator.  The ability to issue a ban of a finite duration, such as 90 days, six months, or a year, is reasonable for a moderator, but anything longer than a year, and especially an indefinite ban, should be the sole prerogative of Reddit management, and only used in extreme cases.”  I practice what I preach on the subreddits that I moderate.  I do not issue indefinite bans.  I will ban a disruptive user for a period of no greater than a year, and their ban will be allowed to expire.  The way I figure, the purpose of a ban is to give the user a long enough time away from the subreddit to forget that it’s there, but they’re welcome to come back after their ban has expired.  It is not intended to be a punishment for misbehavior, because generally speaking, one should not treat other adults like that.  If they don’t disrupt again following their ban, then I don’t notice that they’re back because they’re participating in a way that doesn’t cause any disruption.  If they do disrupt again, then they get another ban of a defined length.  If they’re causing other issues, then it’s time for Reddit management to take action on them, suspending their account from the site and/or taking other actions.  But indefinite bans for any portion of the service are outside of the scope of my responsiblilty as a moderator – especially at my pay grade, where they pay me exactly zero dollars for the services that I provide.  I also don’t take these roles too seriously, because the amount of seriousness I take it with directly correlates to how much I’m paid for it.

In the instance of these subreddit blackouts, it was always my understanding that the subreddits ultimately belonged to Reddit, as in the company, and the moderators were performing their moderation roles in the company’s stead.  You could create a subreddit about anything, but at the end of the day, the subreddit still belongs to the company, and you were merely a steward of it for the company.  Considering that /r/redditrequest, a subreddit whose sole purpose is for people to alert Reddit management that they would like to take over a subreddit that has been abandoned by its moderators, banned by the management, or otherwise fallen into disuse, exists, that’s a good reminder that you only get to keep a subreddit as long as you continue to operate it.  So if they are not willing to operate it anymore, then it is time for Reddit management to firmly assert that they are the ones who control the platform.  I believe that Reddit management should draw a firm line in the sand: the moderators of any subreddits that participate in any sort of “blackout” will be removed from all of their moderator roles across the entire site, and blacklisted from serving in a moderator role anywhere on Reddit in the future.  By doing that, the message would be straightforward and clear: we have a site to run, and if you’re not going to help us do that, then get out of the way.  If these people were truly serious about their stance, then they should do like others have done throughout history, and resign their role in protest of the changes.  That would essentially say, “I know that I can’t stop you from doing X, but I’m not going to have any part of it.”  In other words, if it’s that important to you, wash your hands of the whole affair and get out.  But that’s not what they did.  Instead, they took their subreddits private, while holding onto their moderator roles while squatting on the titles and holding the content hostage, and therefore disrupting the operation of the site.  I suspect that these people did not resign their moderator roles, because for some of them, being able to moderate a bunch of subreddits is the only thing that gives them any meaning in their life, because their lives have no real meaning otherwise.  So to give up their power as the moderator of a large subreddit would mean that they would be back to having an empty, meaningless existence.  By locking up their subreddits in protest, they wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.  I would argue that these anonymous volunteer moderators do not recognize how replaceable they really are, and if Reddit management knocked them out of their roles and took over those subreddits, then we would ultimately get over it, since I imagine that most people’s loyalties do not lie with individual moderators.

Let’s pretend for a moment that these volunteer moderators actually are employed by Reddit (even though they aren’t, but stay with me here), and this was a workplace action in protest of a new policy.  This would be considered a sit-down strike, which was ruled to be an unprotected action in NLRB v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp.  There, the court held that the National Labor Relations Board had no authority to order the reinstatement of workers fired for engaging in a sit-down strike.  Generally speaking, when you strike, you have to completely vacate the workplace, leaving the management to figure out how to run things without their workers until the strike ends.  If that means running it themselves, hiring replacement workers, shutting down to wait it out while negotiations continue, whatever, then so be it.  But the workers are gone and off of the property, because, as I understand it, to do otherwise deprives the owner of the use of their property.  So in this case, Reddit’s moderators have denied Reddit, the company, the use of their property, i.e. parts of their website.  The management would have fired them, and rightly so.  Sticking with this example, the correct way to strike would have been to simply stop moderating anything, and just walk away, i.e. we’re out of here, and whatever happens while we’re away happens.  We’re on strike until our demands are met, and it’s just going to have to be like that for the time being.  If that means that the subreddits are overrun with spambots, then so be it.  If that means that low-quality or out-of-scope content is not culled, then so be it.  If no pending posts are approved and are allowed to just pile up in the queue, then so be it.  You get the point.  Then Reddit management would have to figure out how to proceed from there, negotiate with the strikers, and then when everyone comes to an agreement and the strike is over, the regular workers would come back, catch up on the backlog of work, and resume normal operations.  What these moderators are doing now should be an instant kick out the door, since they are holding parts of the site hostage.

As far as operation of the site goes, Reddit management should determine what subreddits are considered core to the operation of the site and take those subreddits over directly.  Subreddits considered core to the site’s functionality should be fully operated by Reddit’s paid staff, with no volunteer moderators of any kind involved.  It ensures that these core subreddits maintain a certain appearance as a major public face of the site, and are run the way that Reddit wants things to be run.  It also ensures continuity of operation no matter how the political winds may blow.  Thus if the volunteer moderators decide to throw a temper tantrum, the core subreddits will not be affected, because they are run by staff.  That would mean that if the subreddit that you moderate drives a significant amount of traffic to the site and Reddit decides to make it a default subreddit (i.e. one that new users are subscribed to automatically), that subreddit will formally become an arm of the company, and paid staff will be the ones calling the shots, and volunteer moderators are out, or, at the very least, outranked by and subordinate to the paid staff.

Then I also got some minor flack for not participating in the blackout on one of the subreddits that I moderate.  This came through the modmail for /r/SuicideFood from /u/Lazerpop:

"Why is suicidefood not participating? I am unsubscribing from this subreddit."

I just ignored them, because I surmised that no matter what I said, it wouldn’t change their mind, and would probably be used against me.  My decision not to respond was confirmed to be correct when I looked at a comment of theirs posted elsewhere on the site:

I am going through my subscriptions and messaging moderators for subreddits that are still active, and then unsubscribing from subreddits that aren’t cool and didn’t go dark.

So they had gone out and spammed all of the subreddits that they were subscribed to that didn’t participate, in an attempt to bully them into participating.  I was not about to be bullied into taking an action that I opposed by some anonymous Reddit user.  Therefore, not responding was the correct action, because nothing that I could have said was going to convince them of anything, so just as well that it remained unsaid.  If they want to unsubscribe, that’s their business.

Meanwhile, the blackout also produced an unintended result: I had a much better Reddit experience than usual while all of these subreddits were missing.  The subreddits that participated in the blackout were generally the ones run by the more toxic moderators who act like moderation is their job, and who give the site a reputation for hostility.  I also got to see more posts from other subreddits whose posts typically get crowded out in my feed by the bigger subreddits.  It makes you wonder: did these subreddit moderators actually play themselves when they pitched their fit?  I’m inclined to unsubscribe from a lot of these fit-pitching subreddits, because my experience was a lot richer without them and their attitudes.

I also loved that a user requested to take over moderation of /r/science because of that subreddit’s participation in the blackout, and that there was some lively discussion about it.  I think that sends a strong message to everyone that these moderators need to either run the subreddit that they volunteered to moderate or get out of the way, and that a lot of users do not agree with these actions, and are willing to put their own actions behind it.  I also saw a number of requests for alternate titles for subreddits in an attempt to work around the subreddits whose moderators decided to sit and pout.  I’m glad to see that a lot of people actively disagree with the actions of a few.  It’s not as unanimous of a sentiment as we thought it was, now, was it?

And really, when it comes to third-party apps, if they have to shut down because of API fees, then I would argue that they weren’t built on a sustainable business model in the first place.  And if they do go away, I said it this way in a response to a post:

If BaconReader stops working, I grumble, I start using the official Android app, I get used to it with time, and I ultimately move on.  Too many people are being very overdramatic.

I believe that I hit the nail right on the head.  “Overdramatic” is exactly what this is, as people are turning the drama up to eleven with their misplaced loyalty.  I saw one post where people were falling all over themselves to delete their Reddit accounts that they’ve had for 10+ years.  Who cares?  They may have gotten rid of one account, but I’ll bet you that they have another one that they’ll just move over to.  Somehow, I doubt that many will completely leave Reddit because of a change in mobile apps, and I think that the management knows that.  I was using the official Reddit app today just as a test, and in practice, it wasn’t too bad compared to BaconReader.  So if BaconReader and other third-party apps go away, it’s not going to be the end of the world.  People will switch to the official Reddit app, they will get used to it with continued usage, and everyone will move on.

Meanwhile, will Reddit management capitulate to the demands of the “power moderators” like they did about the removal of /r/NoNewNormal?  I don’t think so.  Reddit founder and CEO Steve Huffman has indicated that this will eventually blow over.  Besides, the /r/NoNewNormal issue was a content matter, which is fairly minor in the grand scheme of things.  This is a business matter about funding the site, i.e. something of an existential matter, regardless of what various moderators might think about it.  And even if some third party apps close down on account of it, as some have already promised to do, we’ll all adjust accordingly and move on.  And if this spells the end of the “power moderator”… oh, well.  They did it to themselves.

Categories: Reddit