Reddit is in danger of a death spiral

Can Reddit survive as its volunteer workforce close down subreddits and walk away from the site in protest at the management's new policies?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Reddit app download page on phone
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For years, Reddit's slogan has been "the front page of the internet". However, a ham-fisted attempt by Reddit's management to monetize the site's content has led to a user upheavel and a revolt by volunteer subreddit managers. 

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said Reddit would start charging for using its application programming interface (API) because AI companies, such as Google and OpenAI, had been using the site's data to train their large language models. What was unsaid -- but was widely recognized by outsiders -- is that Reddit also wanted to show that it could be profitable before it launched its initial public offering.

Also: Reddit will start charging some users for API access

These new fees for APIs, however, would also affect small companies and their apps. Popular Reddit apps, such as Apollo, Sync, and Pager, can't possibly afford the new costs. Their developers and users were ticked off. Then Reddit's users and managers revolted. What started as a 48-hour protest turned into an "indefinite blackout" by millions of Reddit users.

Now, days later, many Reddit subreddits, which are social forums centered on specific interests, remain closed.  Members of these subreddits, which can number in the millions, are now unable to reach their favorite subreddits because the ongoing blackout has rendered these forums inaccessible.

The blackout, supported by subreddit moderators and community voting, affects some of the most popular subreddits, including r/Aww, r/Music, r/Programming, and r/Futurology, which collectively have over 100 million members. That means you won't find what you're looking for if you go to Reddit today and check out these and thousands of other subreddits. Instead, you'll find endless John Oliver jokes or spam. Other subreddits are completely unavailable or are marked only with a "private" flag. Reddit is becoming an unusable garbage site. 

Despite the outcry, Huffman remains determined not to change his policy. In a Verge interview, he stridently claimed, "We're not undoing that business decision." Internally, Reddit issued a "reopen or else" memo to its volunteer subreddit moderators. 

The "or else" part of the memo is the suggestion that Reddit will reopen the subreddits with new, more tractable moderators. Reddit doesn't pay its moderators -- they're all volunteers, which complicates matters further.  

Also: The best AI chatbots to try

Huffman has said, "We are not in the business of giving that [Reddit's content] away for free." That stance makes sense. But it also ignores the reality that all of Reddit's content has been given to it for free by its millions of users. Further, it leaves aside the fact that the content has been orchestrated by its thousands of volunteer moderators. The fundamental Reddit question: "Is Reddit its community or its executives?"  

Running any social networking site, whether it's a mailing list for your local sewing circle or a multi-million member subreddit like Funny, is a ton of work. Spitting in the faces of the volunteers that make Reddit work is just asking for trouble.

Also: Instagram feed fix: How to see more of what you want (and less of what you don't)

Reddit's management seems to think that Reddit is too big to fail. They're wrong.

Back in 2006, the social media site Digg was what Reddit is today. It was one of the top 25 U.S. websites, and its heart was sub-forums based on users' interests. It looked, acted, and worked like Reddit. Matt Williams, Digg's CEO, said: "Digg has always been a site built by the community and for the community." Digg's mission: "to discover the best stuff on the web." Sound familiar?

So, what happened? Digg took the power of how stories became popular out of users' hands and put it into management's grip. Then, adding insult to injury, 2010's new version, Digg v4, did away with down-voting posts, saving favorites, and posting videos.

Also: Micro-social media: What is it and which tools should you try?

Over a decade later, Reddit is blindly following Digg's failed path. The company is ignoring its users, alienating the volunteers it depends on, and making it impossible for third-party apps to provide a better interface, thus fouling up its frontend. 

There is nothing special about Reddit except its community and the content the community created. Its software is trivial. Unless Reddit reverses course, Reddit will join Digg, MySpace, and LiveJournal in the dustbin of social network history, and a new site, such as the user-funded Beehaw, or an old one, such as Digg, will take its place. 

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