Thousands of subreddits go dark in mega-protest over Reddit's app-killing API prices

As if billions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced

Reddit, the self-proclaimed "front page of the internet," is experiencing some turbulence right now, as thousands of subreddits have gone dark in protest over the site's planned API pricing. 

Nearly 8,000 subreddits, with a combined non-unique subscriber count of nearly three billion people, went either private or read-only today, meaning the vast majority of users can't browse or post in those forums. That's rendered the site a lot less useful than it was a week ago. The subreddits were switched to private by their volunteer moderators.

This mass protest is in response to Reddit's punitive plan to charge for API access: $0.24 per 1,000 calls. That's maybe not much at first glance, but it adds up to tens of millions of dollars a year for popular third-party apps, such as Apollo, Reddit is Fun, and Sync, which rely on the API to customize and improve the Reddit experience for netizens.

The move seems designed to either dramatically squeeze the pips of these outside applications, or force those apps to shut down over costs and drive more people to the official Reddit app, something the company would perhaps like to see ahead of its long-predicted IPO this year. Apollo, for one, has said it will shut down on June 30 as a result of the steep API pricing.

Meanwhile, subreddit moderators rely on third-party tools to corral and police their forums, so they're protesting not just over the unexpected huge bills app developers now face, but also the likely death of the software they use to keep Reddit mostly on track.

While those subreddits were gradually switching to private mode – a process that has to be done manually by moderators – Reddit itself started going dark, too, with the site returning "failed to load" errors or just going full 404. Reddit admitted it was suffering an IT breakdown, and said within an hour that it was "observing improvements," though instability continued.

Reddit's official explanation was vague. In an email to the site asking for comments on several issues related to this story, Reddit director of consumer and product communications Tim Rathschmidt told us that "a significant number of subreddits shifting to private caused some expected stability issues, and we've been working on resolving the anticipated issue." 

Reddit has argued that it needs third-party devs to pay for API access because large language models like OpenAI's ChatGPT are being trained on its data, and so it wants to get a slice of the revenue from that. The argument is similar to one put forward by Elon Musk's Twitter

In Reddit's case, its volunteer mods have temporarily pulled the plug on primary forums, such as /r/funny and its 40 million+ subscribers, as well as smaller ones. The protest is supposed to last until June 14.

Faced with disaster, Reddit refuses to budge

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman on Friday held an "ask me anything" session, and doubled down on the moves, which that went quite poorly with the site's users.

"Reddit needs to be a self-sustaining business, and to do that, we can no longer subsidize commercial entities that require large-scale data use," Huffman said in his original post. 

Huffman called out the three aforementioned third-party Reddit apps by name in his post, saying the trio "have decided this pricing doesn't work for their businesses and will close before pricing goes into effect. For the other apps, we will continue talking."

When asked to address the three particular demands being made by protesting mods – improving the API and making it affordable; allowing accessibility apps to continue using the API; and not removing adult content from third-party apps – Huffman did little to please readers.

According to the Reddit CEO, adult content rules won't be changed because "it's a constant fight to keep this content at all," but accessibility apps are being given a free pass to access Reddit's API. As for improvements to the API that would make it easier for third-party apps and Reddit to both benefit from monetization, no mention was made.

Huffman did answer a Redditor who asked him about the perception among the Reddit community that the site has become too profit driven at the expense of users, saying: "We'll continue to be profit-driven until profits arrive. Unlike some of the third-party apps, we are not profitable."

Huffman also took time to call out Apollo for its instigation of the API protest, accusing developer Christian Selig of "saying one thing to us while saying something completely different externally … to the point where I don't know how we could do business with him." Selig denied that was the case, and released portions of a call between himself and Reddit staff late last week after they reportedly accused him of threatening to blackmail the site – another claim Selig has rubbished.

Reddit has been considering an IPO since 2021 and rumors point to it going public in the second half of this year.

As we reported previously, investment firm Fidelity revised its stake in the company (in a report made after news of the API pricing had been published) from an original value of $28.2 million in 2021 to just $16.6 million two months ago. That's a 41 percent decline since Fidelity plowed cash into the business. 

Whether the decline in Fidelity's Reddit holdings is related to API changes or fears over losses isn't clear. We've reached out to Fidelity to learn why it believes its Reddit investment has shrunk, but haven't heard back. Regardless of the cause, the slipping value of Fidelity's investment alongside Huffman's own admission makes something clear for Reddit: it's not making money. 

As other big internet firms have struggled to keep the advertising income up, Reddit has also had to turn to other sources that could be just as valuable, said Stanford researcher Joseph Seering.

"Reddit is a gold mine for companies that need a lot of data and they've been getting it for free forever. It's understandable Reddit would want to do this in that context,' he said.

Whether Reddit, whose users are lower value in terms of monetization than those on other social networks, will manage to squeeze cash out of its APIs won't be known until the protest dust settles.

Now, though, with thousands of subreddits shuttered (for at least the next 48 hours, if not longer) and media attention turning sour, would be the perfect time for Reddit to issue some positive words of encouragement for the developers that rely on it and the users who love it. 

Instead, we leave you with Rathschmidt's response to our questions on whether Reddit is reconsidering any of its recent decisions: "We're not planning any changes to the API updates we've previously announced." ®

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