What Is the Reddit Blackout, and Why Should I Care?

Man holding a smartphone with Reddit social media app on the screen on black background table. Office environment.
Diego Thomazini/ShutterStock

More than 6,500 communities on the online message board Reddit have “gone dark” for a two-day protest over the site’s contentious decision to charge third-party app (TPA) developers “prohibitive” fees for API access, or access to the site’s data.

Starting Monday, June 12, millions of Redditors will no longer have access to some of the most popular subreddits, including r/videos, r/funny, r/gaming, r/apple, r/sports r/science, and r/Music, marking one of the largest user-led revolts in social media history.

A message currently on the r/apple subreddit simply reads: “We stand in solidarity with numerous people who need access to the API including bot developers, people with accessibility needs (r/blind) and 3rd party app users.”

What is the Reddit blackout?

Last month, Reddit announced the deeply unpopular changes to the API arrangement. On June 1, the site’s unpaid moderators penned a letter to management praising third-party apps and outlining their concerns (unlike other social media sites, Reddit leans heavily on community moderation to keep communities safe and functional).

This all culminated in thousands of subreddits “going dark” for 48 hours—though some have signaled they’ll stay dark for longer—meaning they will no longer be public and will only be viewable to community subscribers.

Reddit wants to charge TPA developers fees that are so gargantuan they are effectively death sentences. The company gave them 30 days’ notice, though some have been around for a decade. The new pricing is supposed to go into effect July 1, 2023.

Why are Reddit mods and Redditors protesting if the API changes affect third-party apps? Also, what are APIs?

Reddit has been around since 2005, but “the front page of the internet” didn’t have an official mobile app until 2016. As a result, third-party apps such as Apollo, Sync, and Relay, popped up to help users access and navigate the platform on their phones. A lot of users hate the official Reddit app and rely on these third-party apps to browse, comment, and generally enjoy the site.

These apps were able to exist because Reddit allowed them access to their API—application programming interface—meaning it basically allowed them to pull information from the backend and communicate with one another. Social media APIs are generally free because it benefits the site for outside sources to freely drive more traffic and engagement while enhancing user experience (like blocking annoying ads).

Why is Reddit doing this?

Reddit announced it would start charging for access to its API to make the site profitable. This comes ahead of an anticipated move to take the company public and start issuing stock. 

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman (u/spez) recently said in a Reddit AMA “We’ll continue to be profit-driven until profits arrive. Unlike some of the 3P apps, we are not profitable.” 

From Reddit’s point of view, these third-party apps are currently free riders, profiting from Reddit’s free data while they have been unable to. Spokesman Tim Rathschmidt said Reddit spends “multi-millions of dollars” yearly allowing TPA access and it now “needs to be fairly paid.”

Additionally, Google announced plans to use Reddit data in search results and many AI bots, such as ChatGPT, have been scraping Reddit to train their programs without paying.

It’s clear to many Reddit moderators, users, and developers themselves that Reddit wants to drive mobile users to its official app—to the detriment of users—in order to (potentially) monetize through the form of invasive ads or by paying for Reddit Premium. There will be less choice, less content, and less actually good content with this smothering of indie developers.

Will having to pay Reddit really force third-party apps to shut down?

It’s impossible to know without taking a peek at their books, but it seems likely. Christian Selig, CEO of the popular Apollo app, has said Reddit will charge him $20 million per month under the new rules and that he can’t afford to pay. 

Selig has written that the company “would have to pay Reddit $20 million per year to keep running as-is.”

Reddit has said they will be providing more moderator tools in the future that are set to launch between now and September 2023. 

Is this bad?

Yes. Reddit, following in the footsteps of Twitter and Meta, is essentially strongarming its users into using its (bad!) app in order to access their own data. Moderators and users who have spent countless unpaid hours growing and taking care of the site, expanding features Reddit itself never bothered to invest in, are rightfully indignant. Many have promised to stop using the site and others have promised to delete their accounts.

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