Online forum Reddit touts itself as the “front page of the Internet” and because its API has been freely available, it has a rich selection of third-party apps. However, this is about to change: as of July 1, it would cost millions to maintain another popular alternative to the official Reddit application. Users are voicing their distaste with a massive protest. Eight thousand subreddits (i.e. forums within Reddit) are temporarily inaccessible. For now, the complaints seem to have brought about little change in Reddit’s API policy.
Seven years ago, Reddit made its API available for external use. Many parties benefited from this. Developers dissatisfied with the standard app’s relatively limited functionality could come up with their own alternative. Thus arose the popular third-party variants of Reddit in the form of Apollo, Reddit is fun (rif) and Sync, among others. Applications with accessibility options for the blind and visually impaired, such as RedReader, also saw the light of day.
The problem? These apps were mostly profitable, while Reddit itself was not. The worldwide plummeting of ad revenues will have been felt by this platform as well, since beyond that revenue generator there were only some microtransactions and Premium memberships to sell.
The solution: close the gates
Following Twitter’s lead, Reddit opts for a pricing model that puts the API under lock and key. Those who want to benefit from the content featured on Reddit will have to pay dearly for it. As of July 1, the pricing structure is per request, which would cost several million dollars per month for popular third-party apps. An unfeasible payment, which means Apollo, rif and Sync will seize operations at the end of this month.
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman took office eight years ago and in that time span has had a lot of contact with Redditors (read: users of Reddit). The most recent attempt did not go how he would have liked, resulting in furious reactions from users. The only concession they seem to be making at Reddit is to offer the API at no additional cost to apps such as RedReader. Thus, people with disabilities should retain their way of accessing the forum. It could be that these apps suddenly become much more popular as a result, since many are reluctant to opt for the limited functionality of the official app. However, NSFW content, i.e. explicit material with violent or sexual content, is not accessible on an API basis.
Another thorn in Reddit’s side was AI development, which targeted the online forum via its API to develop giant data sets. For this reason, it is hard to imagine the company changing course, as this seems to have been the primary motivator for shutting down the API at this very moment. After all, the AI hype is everywhere. Reddit wants to make hay while the sun shines and may be trying to win back users. That should lead to more ad revenue, control, and a profitable model. It remains to be seen how many users will disappear from the platform, regardless of the duration or severity of the protests.
The reason is simple: Reddit is primarily a robust content aggregator. Although discussions between users dominate in terms of UI, the main page and feed of subscribed subreddits are enough for users to return again and again. That ultimately changes little if users are forced to switch to the official app. It may not be elegant, but a system in which Reddit itself makes no money while other parties benefit from it could never go on forever. For now, there is also no logical alternative to the platform in sight.