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The great Reddit blackout: Why your favorite subreddit went dark

Whether you’re an hardcore redditor or a classic lurker, there’s a high chance you’ve been affected by the blackout that saw some 8,000 subreddits with the cumulative number of subscribers of more than 2.6 billion going dark.

Some of the most popular subreddits, such as r/funny with over 30 million users, went private on June 12 to protest Reddit’s move to charge third-party developers for using its API. The protest was to last two days and end on June 14, but some subreddits, like r/iPhone, said that they would not return unless a “a reasonable resolution is proposed.”

Thousands of subreddits went dark on June 12

How Reddit turned its own community on itself

Before we dive into the current drama, let’s rewind a bit and see how it all started. In April, Reddit announced that it would start charging for access to its API (application programming interface), which is a way for other apps to tap into Reddit’s data and features. This move followed Twitter’s footsteps, which had cut off free access to its API and introduced paid tiers, with an enterprise tier aimed at developers starting at a whopping $42,000 per month.

At the time Reddit claimed that the reason for charging for its API was to rebuff the “largest companies in the world” like OpenAI, Google, and Microsoft who scrape Reddit for data to use it in AI training. “Crawling Reddit, generating value and not returning any of that value to our users is something we have a problem with,” Reddit CEO Steve Huffman told the New York Times. “It’s a good time for us to tighten things up,” he added.

Indeed, WebText2, a dataset which was used to train OpenAI’s GPT-3.5 model was revealed to consist of web pages with high rating or karma scraped from Reddit. We have long criticized the practice of Big Tech where they gobble up publicly accessible information from the Internet, without caring about whether it’s copyrighted or not or if it contains sensitive personal data, for the supposedly higher goal of training AI. So, when Reddit aired its grievances against the insatiable appetite for “free” data on part of big corporations, the grievances themselves were, in our opinion, quite valid.

Apollo is crash-landing

It is how Reddit chose to enforce its new developer terms with regards to relatively small third-party developers (compared to the mighty Big Tech monsters) that has raised questions.

All hell broke loose in early June when Christian Selig, the solo developer of a popular ad-free Reddit client Apollo, exposed Reddit API’s pricing plans in a blog post. He claimed that he would have to fork out about $1.7 million per month, or $20 million per year to keep using the Reddit API at the current rate.

Apollo is free, but it also offers two paid options: a one-time payment of $4.99 or a monthly fee of $1.49. However, Selig said that even if he only kept the paid subscribers, he would not be able to afford Reddit’s rates. Reddit later confirmed it would charge 24 cents for every 1,000 times API calls are made by an app. Selig calculated that an average Apollo user makes 10,600 API calls per month, which means that each user would cost him $2.50 per month, putting him “in the red.”

Selig accused Reddit of breaking its promise to come up with pricing for its API that would be based “in reality.” Apparently, it’s not that he did not see the paid API tier coming — in fact, Apollo community members did so as far back as three years ago.

Apollo saw the paid API tiers coming

After all, Apollo does not show Reddit ads, which, you guessed it right, are the primary source of income for the platform by a wide margin. The problem is rather that Reddit has become too greedy, according to Selig. He estimated that Reddit makes about $1.40 per year, or 12 cents per month, from each user, based on public data on Reddit’s revenue and user base. This means that Selig would have to pay Reddit 20 times more than what Reddit makes from each user, if his estimates are correct.

The irony is that high, by any standards, fees that Reddit plans to charge third-party developers from July 1 onwards are ones that arguably only the large corporations it claims to challenge would be able to afford. Apollo announced that it would shut down before the new API pricing kicks in, as did several other third-party clients like Reddit is Fun and Sync.

Reddit clumsily attempts damage control

Reddit faced huge backlash from the community over its new demands and tried to do some damage control. To assuage some of the concerns, Reddit said that over 90% apps would still be able to use the API for free as long as they did not exceed usage limits. Reddit also spared some “non-commercial, accessibility-focused apps and tools” from having to pay the fee. However, some developers of these apps and tools expressed concerns that Reddit could change its mind at any time. “I think it’s very reasonable to be concerned about Reddit’s current trajectory, and nobody can know for sure how long the exemption will last,” wrote the developers of RedReader, an app that helps blind people to screenread Reddit.

In another attempt to make amends with redditors, Huffman held a Q&A session, where he refused to backpedal on the unpopular changes, but admitted that the deadline to switch to the paid API plans was “tight” and said he would “continue talking” with other third-party apps. Though, when a user questioned Reddit’s apparent pursuit of profit over community (surprise, surprise), Huffman did not argue, while also taking a swipe at third-party clients who, he claimed, were living the high life profitable.

Reddit CEO has insisted on making access to its API a paid product

Why is Reddit doing this: our theory

One must wonder why Reddit would pit its community against itself to suffer arguably one of the most steep falls from grace in recent internet history. The most likely reason behind that seemingly self-destructive move is that Reddit wants to cash in on its ad revenue.

Third-party clients like Apollo or RIF (Reddit is Fun) do not display Reddit ads, but they may have their own ads. For example, Apollo would occasionally annoy its users with its own product ads, however, one could argue that these types of ads are relatively harmless.

In their farewell message, the RIF developers revealed that as part of the changes Reddit was “blocking ads in third-party apps, which make up the majority of RIF’s revenue”. As we noted earlier, ad sales make up the lion’s share of Reddit’s total revenue. Although ad revenue dwarfs the money Reddit makes selling premium subscriptions, the number of premium subscribers who can enjoy the forum ad-free has been slowly growing. Reddit Premium costs $5.99 per month or $49.99 per year, which makes it more expensive than Apollo’s paid plans, for example.

Considering that Reddit is trying to boost its ad business, it makes sense that it may want to kill popular Reddit clients that take away its ad revenue while also selling subscriptions (some of them, at least).

What to take away from all of this

Charging for API access is not inherently a bad thing, as it can help cover the costs of maintaining and improving the service. Third-party clients, either by placing their own ads or selling subscriptions, or both, were profiting off Reddit’s data without compensating it. That was hardly a sustainable model in the long run.

But it’s how you do it, not what you do, that matters most. Third-party applications, including Reddit clients, were apparently blindsided by the changes, especially the API pricing, and given a very tight deadline. Moreover, the way Reddit treated some developers, suggesting they pay exorbitant fees they could not possibly afford and offering no more flexible pricing options, is not a good look for Reddit.

We hope that Reddit has not closed the door on client apps who are willing to pay a fair share for using its data. Hopefully they can find a compromise that allows both Reddit and third-party developers to thrive. Most likely, this should involve Reddit receiving compensation from third-party clients for using its data such as through API fees, but in a reasonable amount: this could benefit both Reddit and developers, as well as users who enjoy the apps.

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