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Reddit Is Already on the Rebound

Jun 29, 2023 7:00 AM

Reddit Is Already on the Rebound

Despite mass protests by users and moderators, Reddit’s unique communities look likely to survive the rebellion over the company’s new business strategy.

A silhouette of an angry mob under an imposing reddit logo. The mob has pitchforks and protest signs

Illustration: James Marshall; Getty images

Social media researchers at the Network Contagion Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, got a rude awakening early last month. They were roused by 6:30 am phone calls from a colleague warning that Reddit had started blocking the institute's Pushshift service from updating its ongoing archive of every post on the discussion platform.

That was a problem for more than just NCRI, because some of Reddit’s 50,000 volunteer moderators depend on Pushshift to quickly investigate problem users, and many academics rely on the service. If it went stale, mods, as Reddit calls moderators, would have to work overtime or let more trash content accumulate. Researchers studying online communities would be forced to put projects and doctoral dissertations on ice.

The Pushshift blockade and its consequences are just part of the collateral damage from an aggressive pivot by Reddit’s leaders to shut off free, wholesale access to the platform’s content by outside software. The policy shift has triggered two months of turmoil, including mass protests by Redditors and a mod rebellion that has left 2,400 of the platform’s over 100,000 communities shut down. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman likened mods to “landed gentry” flexing undemocratic power as he tried to describe tensions within Reddit’s community.

The saga is due to reach a climax on July 1, when Reddit’s new fees for data access go into effect. A few popular independent apps for accessing the platform have said they will shut down, because the cost and new terms are too burdensome. But Reddit’s leaders say changes are needed to bring stability to a company that, despite having 57 million daily users, has struggled to find a firm financial footing and delayed going public. They hope to cash in from outfits ranging from small services like Pushshift to rich tech companies like ChatGPT maker OpenAI, which uses online conversations to train chatbots.

The drama has led to speculation that Reddit has choked off the fuel of its success, repelling a generation of power users who curated a uniquely helpful, creative, and profanely silly corner of the internet. Some mods have resigned, including one using the handle desGroles, who was among four leaders of Reddit's sourdough baking community, or subreddit, in recent years. This week, he blocked Reddit access on his router at home in Cape Town, South Africa. “You don't want to put in hours for someone who treats you so abusively—for me, it’s irreparable,” says desGroles, who declined to be named, fearing online harassment. “It has soured,” he adds—and not in a tasty way.

But while mods have been lost and the company’s reputation with users bruised, there are signs that Reddit is already on the rebound.

Adam Sohn, CEO of NCRI, says that Pushshift’s shock shutdown resulted from a miscommunication and that Reddit has restored his team’s ability to download new posts free of charge, under an exemption for noncommercial projects. “This was really a concern about not knowing who is using their data and for what reasons,” Sohn says. Over the past week NCRI and Reddit have vetted Pushshift users and reinstated access to several hundred moderators. Next they will do the same for academic users. “Everything is going in the right direction,” Sohn says.

Reddit is also working on incorporating more accessibility and moderation features into its own apps and other systems to reduce users’ reliance on independent apps that can’t afford the coming data fees. Spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt says the company is continuing talks with apps “who are willing to work with us and follow our terms.” (Disclosure: WIRED is a publication of Condé Nast, whose parent company, Advance Publications, has a majority ownership stake in Reddit.)

Some seasoned Reddit watchers see a familiar cycle taking shape. Every few years, new policies trigger rebellion that eventually subsides, sometimes after concessions by company leaders, says Ethan Zuckerman, whose Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has studied the social media service. “Reddit is amazingly resilient,” he says.

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In 2015, users rebelled against interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao after she fired a popular staffer and banned a handful of communities such as “FatPeopleHate” that fostered harassment. (Pao resigned amid the uproar, but the subreddits stayed blocked.) More recently, during the pandemic, some users pushed back against a crackdown on health-related misinformation.

Amaury Trujillo, a researcher at the Institute of Informatics and Telematics in Italy, says many people vow to leave Reddit following such changes but may find its pull too strong. Many of the self-exiled come back after a while. He believes Reddit executives are betting that this latest round plays out no differently. Already in recent days, “many of the subreddits that initially joined the protests have come back to business as usual,” Trujillo says.

One reason for Reddit’s stickiness is that users don’t have many alternatives. Most social networks, such as TikTok and Instagram, are oriented toward following celebrities and connecting with offline friends. Reddit is organized around communities of strangers who discuss hobbies such as knitting or cooking, or trade local news and information, and it has a unique atmosphere that can be reminiscent of an earlier, less commercial online era.

Losing mods may change the tenor of discussions in some Reddit communities, perhaps sharply if many quit and a new regime of volunteers seizes power. Zuckerman points to Twitter’s “sharp turn to the right” under its new chief moderator, Elon Musk, over the past eight months. After acquiring the platform, Musk gutted its existing workforce and content policies. “Twitter looks more spammy and abusive, and a lot of important people aren't using it,” Zuckerman says. “You can see that happening thousands of times across Reddit if moderators decide the new policies don’t work for them.”

DesGroles, ex-mod of the 411,000-user-strong sourdough subreddit, says he doesn’t envision himself returning. He takes credit along with his colleagues for fostering a group where people exchange and discuss recipes, rather than just posting boastful pictures of beautiful bread. Alongside his software engineering day job, he’d put in 30 minutes a day expunging photos of loaves shaped like genitalia and posts without recipes. The three other moderators aren’t ready to give up on the culture they’ve nurtured, so despite the drama of recent weeks, sourdough fans can probably rest assured that not much will change.

That’s not the case for every redditor. Tim Weninger, a computer scientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana who has studied Reddit, knows he will have to make a big decision on July 1. Rif Is Fun, the independent app he uses to browse Reddit because of its simplicity and out of habit, has announced that it will shut down tomorrow due to the new data charges. Will he finally download the official app? “Probably, because there’s no alternative,” he says, “I’ll grit my teeth, download, and bear it.”

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Paresh Dave is a senior writer for WIRED, covering the inner workings of big tech companies. He writes about how apps and gadgets are built and about their impacts, while giving voice to the stories of the underappreciated and disadvantaged. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times,… Read more
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