Social media researchers at the Network Contagion Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, got a rude awakening early last month. They were roused by 6:30 am phone calls from a colleague warning that Reddit had started blocking the institute’s Pushshift service from updating its ongoing archive of every post on the discussion platform.
That was a problem for more than just NCRI, because some of Reddit’s 50,000 volunteer moderators depend on Pushshift to quickly investigate problem users, and many academics rely on the service. If it went stale, mods, as Reddit calls moderators, would have to work overtime or let more trash content accumulate. Researchers studying online communities would be forced to put projects and doctoral dissertations on ice.
The Pushshift blockade and its consequences are just part of the collateral damage from an aggressive pivot by Reddit’s leaders to shut off free, wholesale access to the platform’s content by outside software. The policy shift has triggered two months of turmoil, including mass protests by Redditors and a mod rebellion that has left 2,400 of the platform’s over 100,000 communities shut down. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman likened mods to “landed gentry” flexing undemocratic power as he tried to describe tensions within Reddit’s community.
The saga is due to reach a climax on July 1, when Reddit’s new fees for data access go into effect. A few popular independent apps for accessing the platform have said they will shut down, because the cost and new terms are too burdensome. But Reddit’s leaders say changes are needed to bring stability to a company that, despite having 57 million daily users, has struggled to find a firm financial footing and delayed going public. They hope to cash in from outfits ranging from small services like Pushshift to rich tech companies like ChatGPT maker OpenAI, which uses online conversations to train chatbots.
The drama has led to speculation that Reddit has choked off the fuel of its success, repelling a generation of power users who curated a uniquely helpful, creative, and profanely silly corner of the internet. Some mods have resigned, including one using the handle desGroles, who was among four leaders of Reddit’s sourdough baking community, or subreddit, in recent years. This week, he blocked Reddit access on his router at home in Cape Town, South Africa. “You don’t want to put in hours for someone who treats you so abusively—for me, it’s irreparable,” says desGroles, who declined to be named, fearing online harassment. “It has soured,” he adds—and not in a tasty way.
But while mods have been lost and the company’s reputation with users bruised, there are signs that Reddit is already on the rebound.
Adam Sohn, CEO of NCRI, says that Pushshift’s shock shutdown resulted from a miscommunication and that Reddit has restored his team’s ability to download new posts free of charge, under an exemption for noncommercial projects. “This was really a concern about not knowing who is using their data and for what reasons,” Sohn says. Over the past week NCRI and Reddit have vetted Pushshift users and reinstated access to several hundred moderators. Next they will do the same for academic users. “Everything is going in the right direction,” Sohn says.
Reddit is also working on incorporating more accessibility and moderation features into its own apps and other systems to reduce users’ reliance on independent apps that can’t afford the coming data fees. Spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt says the company is continuing talks with apps “who are willing to work with us and follow our terms.” (Disclosure: WIRED is a publication of Condé Nast, whose parent company, Advance Publications, has a majority ownership stake in Reddit.)
Some seasoned Reddit watchers see a familiar cycle taking shape. Every few years, new policies trigger rebellion that eventually subsides, sometimes after concessions by company leaders, says Ethan Zuckerman, whose Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has studied the social media service. “Reddit is amazingly resilient,” he says.
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