The company’s move sparked backlash from Reddit moderators and users, who responded by taking down about 9,000 subreddit message boards for 48 hours. Some moderators have indicated their subreddits will remain blacked out indefinitely in protest.
Huffman, a Reddit founder, has downplayed concerns about the protest action, telling employees in an internal memo Monday that the blackout “will pass” like “all blowups on Reddit,” according to the Verge.
Huffman targeted the moderators leading the blackout in an interview with NBC News on Thursday, saying he was looking to change site policies to allow subreddit users to depose moderators more easily. Reddit spokesman Tim Rathschmidt told The Washington Post on Friday that the comment had been taken out of context and that “Steve did not confirm we are moving in this direction.”
Huffman compared the moderators to “landed gentry” and said they were not being held accountable.
“If you’re a politician or a business owner, you are accountable to your constituents. So a politician needs to be elected, and a business owner can be fired by its shareholders,” he told NBC. “And I think, on Reddit, the analogy is closer to the landed gentry: The people who get there first get to stay there and pass it down to their descendants, and that is not democratic.”
Huffman also told the Verge that the protests “are not representative of the greater Reddit community.” More than 80 percent of Reddit’s top 5,000 communities remain open on a site with more than 57 million daily users, according to a fact sheet published by the company Thursday.
The group of Reddit moderators organizing the blackout on the r/ModCoord subreddit wrote in a post that Huffman’s comments illustrated that “Reddit’s communication has been poor from the very beginning” about its plans to charge for data.
“They have attempted to gaslight us that they want to keep third-party apps while they set prices and timelines no developer can meet. The blowback that is happening now is largely because Reddit launched this drastic change with only 30 days notice,” Reddit user BuckRowdy, a moderator of the subreddit coordinating the protest, wrote Thursday. “We continue to ask Reddit to place these changes on pause and explore a real path forward that strikes a balance that is best for the widest range of Reddit users.”
Reddit spokesman Rathschmidt told The Post that the site has been in touch with “a number of communities to clarify any confusion around our Data [application programming interface] Terms, platform-wide policies, community support resources, and timing for new moderator tools.”
“We are not removing moderators who protest, nor are we taking over subreddits for participating in the blackout,” he said, adding: “Redditors want to reddit.”
The blackout is occurring at a crucial time for the social media giant, which was valued at $10 billion when it landed $1 billion in fundraising in August 2021. In April, Fidelity, the lead investor in that fundraising boom, announced that it had slashed its valuation in the company by 41 percent, according to TechCrunch.
That same month, Reddit announced that it would start charging third-party sites for API access, framing the move as essential to respond to generative AI companies such as ChatGPT that could scrape sites and potentially duplicate content for nothing in return.
But the conversation surrounding the move shifted in late May, when Christian Selig, the developer behind Apollo, one of the most popular third-party apps, said Reddit would be charging him an estimated $20 million a year for data access. Third-party apps such as Apollo are often ad-free, meaning the decision by Reddit essentially ended Selig’s business.
“I don’t see how this pricing is anything based in reality or remotely reasonable,” Selig wrote May 31. “I hope it goes without saying that I don’t have that kind of money or would even know how to charge it to a credit card.”
Selig announced last week that Apollo would shut down June 30 before the pricing change goes into effect. Several other third-party apps followed with similar announcements to close before July 1.
“The hurdles placed on third-party apps by Reddit just aren’t a feasible obstacle to overcome,” Tony Lupeski, the developer of ReddPlanet, wrote.
Since then, Huffman has faced blowback for how the company has handled the decision to charge for data. The rallying cry for the coordinated backlash was consistent: “Don’t Let Reddit Kill 3rd Party Apps!” The blackout even caused Reddit to crash temporarily because the site could not handle all of the subreddits going private.
Huffman acknowledged to the Verge that he took a “beating” in an Ask Me Anything post he did on the platform last week in which he defended Reddit’s plans. But he maintains it is not Reddit’s responsibility to help keep third-party apps alive.
“It costs a lot of money to run an app like Reddit,” he told NBC. “We support ours through ads. And what we can’t do is subsidize other people’s businesses to run a competitive app for free.”
Huffman told NPR that the blackout effort was led by “a small group that’s very upset, and there’s no way around that.” He said that the protest created “a fair amount of trouble” but that it did not cost the company much money.
“We made a business decision that upset them,” Huffman said. “But I think the greater Reddit community just wants to participate with their fellow community members.”
Some moderators say, however, that the problem is much larger than the CEO is making it out to be. Some have said the moderators’ high-level control on the subreddits comes from the hours of free labor they have put into managing the message boards. Reddit user SpicyThunder335, a moderator of six subreddits and the forum coordinating the protest, wrote that more than 300 subreddits “have already announced that they are in it for the long haul, prepared to remain private or otherwise inaccessible indefinitely until Reddit provides an adequate solution.”
In his interviews, Huffman said the blackout could be a good thing for a company that will turn 18 years old in the coming days.
“I think it’s time we grow up and behave like an adult company,” Huffman told NPR.
As the July 1 change approaches, how long the blackout will last is unclear. Reddit user Karmanacht summed up the mission of the moderator group in a few words: “The protest is not currently likely to end very soon.”