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Dozens of major subreddits say they will temporarily shut down to protest a change Reddit is making that would effectively kill third-party Reddit apps by making it financially unviable for them to operate. Last week, the developer of the hugely popular Apollo app said it would cost him $20 million annually to keep his app operational with the new API fees, which were announced earlier this spring and are set to go into effect on July 1.
“It went from $0 to effectively $20 million a year if I kept the app as it is currently,” Christian Selig, the developer of Apollo, told me. Apollo and other third-party apps like Reddit Is Fun, Narwhal, BaconReader, and dozens of others are essentially apps that let users browse, post on, and interact with Reddit without using the official app. When I asked him if other third-party app developers are “freaking out,” he said “very much so. I think that’s apt language. We were expecting bad, but when we saw [the pricing] we were like, ‘This has to be a joke.’”Selig made a hugely viral post last week explaining the financial reality of Reddit’s changes. In a call, he said he believes the changes as currently proposed will ultimately kill all third-party apps, which are a popular way of accessing the site. Apollo, for example, has roughly 1.5 million monthly usersEarlier this spring, Reddit announced that it would begin charging businesses and other groups for access to its API, which allows developers, researchers, and third-party websites to build tools that allow people to access Reddit without using official apps (among other things—you could use API access to, for example, train an AI on Reddit posts or create bots that post on Reddit). Reddit announced this change after Twitter announced it would be charging for access to its API, and after a controversy about people training AI on Reddit posts.
Third party apps have helped Reddit grow and thrive because for years its official app was buggy and bloated. At this point, lots of people simply prefer using a different, unofficial app to access Reddit. I like using Apollo and the Narwhal app, for example, but hate using the official Reddit app. There’s a particularly important, vocal, and powerful set of people who disproportionately use third party apps like Apollo: Reddit’s moderators. Apollo and other third party apps have used their API access to build specific moderation tools that don’t exist on the official Reddit app, making it easier for those unpaid workers to keep the site running. Moderators, while not perfect, make Reddit one of the most useful sites on the internet by moderating its biggest communities without compensation from a company worth billions of dollars.“Many moderators depend on tools only available outside the official app to keep their communities on-topic and spam-free,” the mods of r/videos, which has 26 million subscribers, wrote. Over the weekend, a series of subreddits announced they would go dark between June 12 and 14th to protest Reddit’s API changes; some subreddits will stay dark indefinitely or will shift to read-only after the 14th. “Some will return after 48 hours: others will go away permanently unless the issue is adequately addressed, since many moderators aren't able to put in the work they do with the poor tools available through the official app. This isn't something any of us do lightly: we do what we do because we love Reddit, and we truly believe this change will make it impossible to keep doing what we love,” the mods of r/videos wrote.
“The biggest thing with the API change is that it limits user option and what they can choose for their software. It’s beyond the superficial,” Selig said. “Apps like ours can implement moderator features Reddit can’t. There are large swaths of people moderating communities of millions of people in their free time, which is fundamentally important for Reddit, which doesn’t have employee-level moderators.”Another critical userbase of third party apps are disabled people who use accessibility tools that have been built into third-party apps: “It’s a decent amount of work to make your app accessible to people who don’t have full vision, for example,” Selig said. “I’ve had a lot of blind users say ‘I can’t browse Reddit on the official app, now I can view and use Reddit for the first time in years.’ It’s those kinds of experiences you can tailor to folks with third party apps.”So far, more than 100 subreddits have said they will participate in the protest, including dozens of subreddits with more than a million subscribers. The moderators of r/blind said that “many of us on the mod team are also blind, and we depend on those third party apps to make sure that this community remains a safe, fun, and productive place. Unfortunately, new Reddit, and the official Reddit apps, just don't provide us with the levels of accessibility we need in order to continue effectively running this community. As well, the Transcribers of Reddit, the many dedicated folks who volunteer to transcribe and describe thousands and thousands of images on Reddit, may also be unable to operate.”
A protest like this—and widespread backlash to the move—wouldn’t have been hard to predict, and it could have been easily avoidable. The move followed Elon Musk announcing that he would begin charging astronomical rates for Twitter API access, which was universally ridiculed. Selig said that after Reddit announced it would follow suit, he and his fellow third-party app developers figured that Reddit would choose a low price: “I thought our apps were mutually beneficial for both parties,” he said. “A lot of people were excited to interact with Reddit in a more official partnership relationship, but the prices don’t really give us that option.” “The response has been enormous,” Selig added. “But I knew from the outset people are passionate about these apps. To be overly aggressive with the pricing and look a little greedy isn’t in anyone’s interest.” “The Twitter API pricing bar was universally understood to be a comically high bar [to clear],” Selig said. “We thought, as long as Reddit is nowhere near that, we’ll be OK. But they came within spitting distance of it. It’s given whiplash to everyone I’ve talked to.” Beyond being expensive, Reddit’s pricing strategy, which charges by API usage and not by user, has made it difficult for app developers to come up with a pricing strategy that would allow them to continue to operate while charging users a nominal fee or adding advertising to their apps. “I could maybe charge, say, $3 per month per user,” Selig said. “But not everyone on Reddit uses it in a similar fashion. Someone might use it for five minutes a month, but then you can have a moderator who uses it for hours every day.” That first user might cost a few cents a month; the power user could cost far more than Selig is willing to charge.Reddit, for its part, seems to be sticking with its API pricing strategy. On Thursday, before the protests were announced but after Selig’s post went viral, Reddit told Motherboard that “Expansive access to data has impact and costs involved, and in terms of safety and privacy we have an obligation to our communities to be responsible stewards of data.”“We have been in contact with third-party apps and developers, including Apollo, over the course of the last six weeks following our initial announcement about API changes, and our stance on third-party apps has not changed. We’re committed to fostering a safe and responsible developer ecosystem around Reddit - developers and third-party apps can make Reddit better and do so in a sustainable and mutually-beneficial partnership, while also keeping our users and data safe,” the spokesperson added. “Reddit data for commercial use will need to adhere to our updated API terms of service and premium access program. We’ve had a long-standing policy in our past terms that outlined commercial and non-commercial use, but unfortunately some of those agreements were not adhered to so we clarified our terms and reached out to select organizations to work with them on compliance and a paid premium access tier.”Selig remains hopeful that the backlash will ultimately help Reddit come to its senses: "My last intention is to burn bridges with Reddit," he said. "I have great respect for them and they’ve shown me a lot of respect over the years, but I really hope they can reach a compromise in a way that’s equitable with developers."