When OpenAI’s ChatGPT exploded onto the scene in late 2022, it quickly became clear that language learning models (LLMs) and generative AI in general were game changers — likely even world changers. And those LLMs learned a lot of what they know from Reddit’s massive archive of natural conversations.
When The New York Times reported on April 18 that Reddit was going to start charging companies for access to its application programming interface (API), the focus on why was 100% because highly profitable LLMs were using Reddit data in their development for free, and the company said it deserved to be compensated.
So how did we get here, on June 12, when thousands of subreddits have gone private in a coordinated protest — against Reddit?
Why Reddit has gone (mostly) dark
Some wondered why Reddit should be paid for their content and not the users themselves. But that isn’t what led to the blackout on Reddit that started today and will last 48 hours.
It’s not technically a “strike” by subreddit moderators, who create and run subreddits without pay, similar to someone who runs a Facebook group — though moderators, as well as developers, are central to the protest that has led to a huge number of subreddits now either in private mode or displaying a public protest post, with member posting frozen.
Reddit’s decision to charge Big Tech companies like Google, Microsoft and OpenAI will have collateral damage: third-party apps.
This came to light when the iPhone app Apollo, which offers a stylized Reddit interface with moderation tools not found on the official app, crunched the numbers and found that, despite being told that were being given equitable pricing, they would owe about $20 million a year ($2 million a month) in API fees. Apollo is a successful app with a lot of followers in the Apple community, but that amount was more than they would agree to, and the company announced that it would discontinue on June 30.
“The third-party client price raise would be tenable if it was executed over a period of 12-18 months, but effectively 60-90 days kills it,” said Colin Dean, a Pittsburgh-based software engineer and Reddit user since 2006, on Technical.ly’s public Slack. “But that could be the point, since reddit wants to derive more revenue from ads and the complexities of serving first-party ads in third-party clients is untenable for advertisers.”
Other third-party apps would be impacted similarly, including Android Reddit apps including Joey (this reporter’s preferred third-party Reddit app), Atom and BaconReader.
It’s not just about aesthetics. Third-party apps offer moderation tools that otherwise are only available on desktop — highly inconvenient for mods who don’t live in front of their computer and want to be able to deal with an issue while out living life if necessary.
“The official Reddit mobile app is garbage and if the third-party clients actually do go away (I’ve used BaconReader since 2011) then I’m likely done using reddit on my phone, just as I am done using Twitter on my phone,” Dean said.
Some third-party apps offer accessibility features; Joey, for example, offers text to speech for blind Redditors. Reddit announced last week that it would exempt noncommercial accessibility apps from paying API fees. Apps like Joey, however, are not considered non-commercial, and r/blind, the subreddit that brought the issue to Reddit’s attention, is participating in the blackout.
The list of who is participating is too long to list here, but locally it includes:
(Technical.ly reached out to local Reddit moderators for this story, but did not receive responses by the time of publication.)
Impact so far
It’s not just social gathering places that is taking a hit. Reddit is a hub of information and advice, so much so that Google searchers often tack “reddit” to the end to find what they’re looking for more easily by bypassing less valuable SEO content. It’s a reminder of just how centralized the internet has become.
Watching everyone slowly realize in realtime that reddit being down means a major source of practical knowledge and advice that is searchable on the general internet is gone, and so is everything that reddit had replaced
— Freyja Katra Valentine (@FreyjaErlings) June 12, 2023
Meanwhile, on Wall Street
Beyond the issue of third-party apps, it seems Reddit is planning to officially go public later this year after confidentially filing for an IPO in December 2021. Less than a week ago, Reddit laid off 5% of its staff. The new API policy is likely not completely isolated from the IPO, especially since Reddit’s Fidelity valuation has dropped 41% since 2021.
With an IPO will come changes for Reddit, including, potentially, an increase in those ads that are often blocked by third-party apps.
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