Your favorite subreddit had probably gone dark this week — and it’s far from alone.
On Monday, over 8,000 subreddits went private or read-only in protest over the sweeping changes in Reddit’s API pricing policy, which users say will make it impossible for vital third-party apps to continue operating.
And though thousands of protesting subreddits have opened up again on Wednesday, at least 300 others — including r/aww (34.1 million members), r/music (32.3 million), and r/videos (26.6m) — have committed to being in it for the long haul, remaining private or otherwise inaccessible until Reddit budges.
Now, casual Redditors or non-users might be wondering: Why has something that sounds as dry as API (short for application programming interface) ignited one of the largest user protests in social media history? And, now that the 48-hour protest is supposedly over, what does it mean for our favorite subreddits?
Why Is There a Reddit Blackout?
Reddit first announced a change in its API pricing in April, explaining that it was meant to help Reddit earn from companies that use Reddit data to train AI tools.
But in the weeks since, it became clear that the changes would also drastically affect third-party app developers, like Apollo for Reddit and rif is fun for Reddit, who provide millions of users alternative (and better) ways to browse the site.
One of the policy changes set to roll out on July 1 would charge $0.24 for every 1,000 API calls, or the process where an application requests data or services from a separate application, like Reddit. This process is integral to the services provided by these third-party apps, and will soon be too expensive for them to maintain. According to Apollo creator Christian Selig, the new policy would cost his company $20 million a year.
This has led Apollo, alongside apps like rif is fun for Reddit and Sync, to announce that they will shut down their services by June 30.
In solidarity, nearly 9,000 subreddits organized a blackout from Monday to Wednesday earlier this week.
In other words, the blackout is about money.
Of course, it’s not that people don’t want Reddit to generate enough income to keep going. The site is a vital resource for some 52 million people across the globe, and its management claims that it only wants to be “fairly paid” for its API. Third-party apps that use Reddit content don’t have Reddit ads on them, so Reddit is losing out on the revenues that could be generated from millions of eyeballs.
And with the company gearing up for an IPO later this year, it’s understandable that management is trying to get the company’s finances in order. Combined with its recent layoffs, Reddit’s API policy changes places it among the host of tech companies looking for even more ways to increase profit and decrease costs.
But Reddit is also unique in the world of social media and tech in that so much of its popularity was made possible by third-party efforts. Without apps like Apollo or Narwhal, users will have only Reddit’s official mobile app — an app that is notoriously not handicap-accessible. It’s also widely regarded as clunky and difficult, both for readers and moderators.
Ironically, the current Reddit app was one that the company had bought from a third-party developer back in 2014 and launched as its own in 2016. Then, instead of improving its own app to match the features and tools that popular third-party apps provide — and which users and moderators very clearly want — they are now choosing instead to set a price on API calls so high that it kills third-party apps that need them.
To their credit, Reddit has promised that accessibility apps for users who need screen readers will be exempted from the controversial new API pricing, and rightly so.
But the loss of nearly all major third-party apps means that moderators who have relied on them to create and build the communities — the beating heart of Reddit — will have a harder time moving forward. As the company refuses to make meaningful negotiations with this core group of Redditors, the message being received is that all the moderators’ hard work is not valuable. And that is so, so far from the truth.
In fact, scholars have estimated the free labor of Reddit moderators to be worth some $3.4 million a year. Losing out on this civic labor of love — and having to pay for content moderation like everybody else — would be worrisome for Reddit’s bottom line, which is what started this whole thing in the first place. For a point of comparison, Facebook spends at least $500 million a year on content moderation alone.
What Happens Next?
For protesting Redditors, the two-day blackout “isn’t the goal, and it isn’t the end.” They hope to use the buzz and the growing community to plan further action.
When Will the Reddit Blackout End?
The blackout lifted for most subreddits on Wednesday, June 14, but many are staying down indefinitely until they get what they want. Primarily, it is to decrease the price of API calls “to a level that doesn’t kill Apollo, Reddit is Fun, Narwhal, Baconreader, and similar third-party apps,” and to communicate about policy changes better.
For their part, Reddit’s management is standing by their decision. In an internal memo sent earlier this week to Reddit staff, CEO Steve Huffman had asked employees to “stay focused, adapt to challenges, and keep moving forward… we absolutely must ship what we said we would.” He also assured staff that the Reddit Blackout — and, presumably, user protests — “will pass.”
Whether it will truly pass or not remains to be seen. Things will be clearer come June 30, when third-party apps shut down a day before the pricing changes take effect. By then, it’ll also be clear just how critical these third-party apps are to users, and Reddit will come to terms with the gamble its management has made.
Is There a List or Tracker of Subreddits Going Dark?
Here is an incomplete list of subreddits that are continuing the blackout indefinitely, as of this writing:
Some organizations have also tried to build trackers for subreddits that have gone dark on the front page of the internet. Kanaries offers a cool data visualization feature for its tracker.
What Can We Do to Help?
In the meantime, Redditors interested in supporting the continuing blackout can message the mods of r/reddit, or add to the heaping pile of valid criticism on their post about the API pricing changes. You can even leave a negative review on their iOS and Android apps.
Organizers also recommend spreading the word: “Meme it up, make it spicy. Bitch about it to your cat.”