The Reddit blackout was only meant to last a couple of days. Now, as Redditors dig in to protest a series of new company policies and Reddit leadership refuses to compromise, it’s looking like this temporary blackout is going to be a standoff pitting some of Reddit’s most necessary and powerful users — the people who moderate the platform’s many subreddits — against the top of Reddit’s food chain: co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman.
Thousands of Reddit forums, or subreddits, went private on June 12, primarily to protest the company’s decision to start charging third-party developers for access to its data starting in July. The blackout was supposed to end on the morning of June 14, and some subreddits are back online. But others decided to stay down indefinitely. Reddit continues to refuse to give in to their demands and has lost patience as the blackout wears on. Redditors have claimed that Reddit has begun forcing mods out of their subreddits in order to reopen them.
At the same time, Reddit is also facing threats from a hacker group that it will release 80 gigabytes of compressed data it stole from the company last February unless Reddit pays a $4.5 million ransom fee and reverses the controversial policy that’s being rebelled against. Reddit had no comment on the threat specifically.
We’ll soon see just how much Redditor outrage, a mass subreddit outage, and a heavy-handed retaliation by Reddit against the mods who have helped create much of its value will affect Reddit’s bottom line — a bottom line that motivated what Redditors are protesting against in the first place.
If you don’t use Reddit, you might think a bunch of internet forums going dark for a few days or even permanently has nothing to do with you. But if you use any other social media or, really, any free online platform, it may be more relevant to you than you think. The business model behind the free and open internet that lets you pay with your eyeballs instead of your wallet is changing. Your experience will, too.
Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and, yes, Reddit, are either seeing their massive profits get slightly less massive or are feeling the pressure to make a profit at all. Even ByteDance, the parent company of the hugely popular app TikTok, isn’t immune. Either your attention and data aren’t as valuable as they used to be, or the platform wasn’t effectively monetizing them in the first place and now it really needs to figure out how. The days of social media being free because you are the product may be coming to an end. The days of getting the best experience on a platform without paying for it are definitely over.
In the case of Reddit, users aren’t being asked to spend money. The developers behind the apps many Redditors rely on to read and moderate the site — that is, to get the most enjoyment possible out of it — are. They’re pretty angry about that, and they’ve done protests like this in the past to make their point. But aside from a few small concessions, Reddit doesn’t seem willing to change its mind on this one.
The Reddit blackout, explained
For most of Reddit’s history, its value was its community and users, who post, comment, and moderate forums, also known as subreddits, for free. That adds up to millions upon millions of hours of unpaid labor that Reddit really can’t do without.
But Reddit is not just a community; it’s also a business. Its business needs will always come first, and right now, the company says it needs to make more money. So Reddit is soon going to charge for commercial access to its API, or application programming interface, which several third-party developers rely on to power their own Reddit-based apps. Those apps are often better, faster, and have more features than Reddit’s own. Reddit is also cutting sexually explicit content off from those third-party user interface apps entirely, while still allowing it on its official app. Reddit says the vast majority of services that use its API will not be affected, and that non-commercial tools that help moderators won’t be charged. Reddit is also rolling out its own moderator tools to replace what they’ll likely lose once the API changes are implemented.
When Reddit first announced it would start charging for API access in April, it framed the decision as a response to generative AI companies that scrape its content to build their lucrative large language models while paying Reddit nothing in return. Reddit app developers probably didn’t think they would be affected. After all, their products are supposed to make the Reddit experience better, and Reddit’s been just fine with that for many years.
But at the end of May, Christian Selig, the developer behind Apollo, one of the most popular Reddit apps, said that Reddit was going to charge him an estimated $20 million a year for access to its API. That’s much more than Apollo was pulling in, and, Selig believed, far more than it cost Reddit to let his app operate. He later announced that Apollo would shut down on June 30, the day before Reddit’s new prices are set to take effect. Several other third-party apps have said they plan to shut down, too.
Seeing the impact that Reddit’s cost-cutting plan would soon have on them, a group of Redditors, many of whom are moderators, organized a temporary boycott, with participating subreddits going private or restricted for 48 hours starting on June 12. A Twitch stream tracking the blackout claimed that nearly 8,500 subreddits, some with tens of millions of subscribers, had gone dark by June 13. As many as 3,300 remained dark on June 20, well after the blackout was supposed to end.
The blackout has certainly had some short-term impact, including lots of media attention and even temporarily causing Reddit to crash entirely because it couldn’t handle so many subreddits going private at the same time. But the long-term effect remains to be seen. Again, while the blackout was only supposed to last two days, some subreddits have said they’ll stay down indefinitely, and others are in the middle of deciding what to do next.
As the blackout wore on and some subreddits showed no signs of giving in, Reddit began threatening to remove mods and forcing subreddits to reopen. Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt told Vox that the company hasn’t removed any mods, nor has it forced any subreddits open.
But that denial came with a caveat: Rathschmidt also said that Reddit has a long-established Code of Conduct, which includes finding new mods if a moderator has “abandoned” a community, or finding new mods if a mods keep a large subreddit private that many of its users want to be open. If moderators disagree on whether to leave their subreddits private or reopen them, Reddit will give the moderators who want to reopen the forum priority “so the most constructive, community-minded leaders are at the top.”
Rathschmidt said those were just “potential scenarios and actions,” but mods are complaining that these measures have indeed been taken against them. The Minecraft subreddit posted that it was forced to reopen despite a user poll voting to stay private. A moderator for the Celebrities subreddit claimed that they were removed after 14 years. Reddit says “those claims are not true.”
Some mods have reopened their subs, but they’re going the cheeky route. The Steam subreddit, which was for the Steam gaming platform, is now dedicated to literal steam and steam-powered engines. The Pics subreddit is now only photos of HBO host John Oliver. A subreddit for Colombo, a city in Sri Lanka, is now about Colombo, the fictitious detective famously portrayed by Peter Falk. It’s also marked NSFW, which some others are also doing because Reddit can’t run ads on NSFW content.
But we still have 10 days until the API pricing changes take effect on July 1 and the third-party apps shut down. A lot can happen in that time, though it’s increasingly unlikely that Reddit will acquiesce. We’ll see just how important they were to Redditors and therefore Reddit itself.
“It’s important that Reddit monetize, and most moderators want Reddit to succeed,” said Sarah Gilbert, research manager of Cornell’s Citizens and Technology Lab. “I think there is a compromise that’s mutually beneficial to and minimally disruptive to both Reddit, its moderators, and its users. I hope that compromise is reached.”
But Reddit doesn’t seem interested in a compromise. CEO Steve Huffman said in a letter to employees that he expected this “to pass” like “all blowups on Reddit.” He followed that up with an interview with NBC News where he suggested that the actions were taken by relatively few moderators who didn’t have the support of their subreddits’ users.
Reddit has made a few small concessions in response to outcry, like promising that accessibility apps won’t be subject to the API pricing and that moderators will be able to see sexually explicit content on all public subreddits to help them make moderating decisions. Rathschmidt told Vox that Reddit isn’t planning any additional changes.
Reddit says it just wants to be “fairly paid” for its API. And you can see the company’s point. It costs Reddit money to provide the services that its API needs to function, so it’s basically paying for another developer to make money (Apollo, for instance, has 50,000 users who pay to use the app). And those apps don’t have Reddit’s ads on them, which means Reddit’s not directly making money from those eyeballs. Reddit is also reportedly preparing for an IPO later this year and needs to shore up its finances. That situation might explain the company’s recent layoffs, though downsizing has become standard practice in the tech industry at this point. Seemingly every platform is scrambling to make more money while spending less.
On the other hand, Reddit was happy to outsource these tools to third-party developers for years. It didn’t even have its own mobile app until 2016, when it replaced Alien Blue, a third-party app it had acquired in 2014, with a new Reddit-branded app. The Reddit app still doesn’t have some of the features and tools that many third-party apps do — and that a lot of users clearly want. Instead of making its own app as good as those, Reddit made a decision that will likely shut down those other apps with almost no warning for their users. It was always possible that something like this could happen on Reddit, but you can’t blame developers if they assumed it wouldn’t after all this time.
Reddit is also framing this as power-hungry mods making major decisions for their subreddits that compromise the experience for all of their users, who may well not have any issues with the API changes and just want their favorite subreddits back.
Why Silicon Valley wants you to pay for what used to be free
The fact is, Reddit is not the only platform doing something like this. Advertising isn’t as valuable as it used to be, and your eyeballs and data increasingly aren’t enough to justify free services anymore. So there’s been a broader shift to a paid business model in the social media industry.
Now, everyone from Meta and Twitter wants literal money from you, and they’re being a lot more aggressive about getting it. Paid offerings — including Reddit’s own Premium service, which gives users an ad-free experience, more customization options, and access to an exclusive subreddit — used to be nice little add-ons to existing services rather than a significant source of revenue. But lately, some social media platforms are seeing them as being a much bigger and more necessary revenue generator.
Elon Musk’s Twitter is the epitome of this these days. While he’s avoided paying the rent for its office space and laid off the vast majority of its employees — consequences like lawsuits and reduced functionality be damned — Musk is trying to squeeze every possible dollar out of Twitter’s users. That includes pushing a new version of the paid Twitter Blue service, which effectively makes Twitter’s free experience much worse in order to entice more people to pay. There are also changes to Twitter for Business, which is trying to wring tens of thousands of dollars out of brands, and — this may sound familiar — charging for API access.
For its part, Rathschmidt, the Reddit spokesperson, told Vox it’s just a coincidence that Twitter rolled this paid API plan out before Reddit did, saying, “we don’t look to other social platforms to make business decisions.” But Huffman, the CEO, said in the NBC interview that Musk’s Twitter leadership has been “an example for Reddit to follow,” though he seemed to be more interested in Musk’s job cuts than the API fees.
Perhaps it was also a coincidence that Meta introduced a paid verification plan shortly after Twitter did. Meta’s version lets Facebook and Instagram users pay a monthly fee for better customer service, increased visibility, and a blue “verified” check. Meta actually verifies these users, too, by asking them to provide a government ID to prove they are who they say they are; Twitter does not. Also unlike Twitter, Meta isn’t yet taking features away from its free users to make its paid service more desirable.
For now, many social media services still offer a version of their service that’s free for users. You can still post a photo on Instagram or send a tweet without paying a subscription fee. We’ll have to wait to see if the more aggressive pay-to-play schemes like Twitter Blue are a boon or a bust to these companies’ business models and how that affects the future of the industry.
We don’t yet know if the Redditor outrage over the API decision will lead to a real, long-term drop in users and revenue. Reddit doesn’t think it will, and it’s very possible that people will stick with Reddit because there’s nowhere comparable for them to go, as has been the case for many of Twitter’s dissatisfied users in the Musk era. Their user experience won’t be what it was with their favorite third-party app, but it might still be good enough to stick around — until and unless the next paid Reddit feature shows up and makes the free offering even worse, anyway.
“Reddit is built on volunteer moderation labor, including the creation and maintenance of many tools,” Gilbert said. “Changes like these, particularly the poor communication surrounding them, risk diminishing motivation among existing mods, increasing burnout, and it may be more challenging to find and recruit new moderators.”
With Reddit sticking to its guns and other platforms making similar moves, it may be something the moderators — and the rest of us who got used to everything being free for so long — have to live with in the new paid social media era.
Update, June 20, 12:20 pm: This article has been updated to include the latest protest efforts and Reddit’s response to them.
A version of this story was also published in the Vox technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!