Reddit communities ‘go dark’ to protest planned platform changes


(NEW YORK) — Popular Reddit pages, known as “subreddits,” with names like /r/funny, /r/sports, /r/todayilearned and /r/music are currently inaccessible for new posts in a protest over planned changes to the website.

The protest is over how the company plans to reshuffle pricing for its application programming interface, or API, which is the code that allows third parties to build apps. In recent years, the API also has been used to train artificial intelligence programs like ChatGPT.

Both OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, and Google, which makes a similar chatbot called Bard, use Reddit data to train their systems.

In April, as AI-powered chatbots soared in popularity, Reddit announced it was planning to change the pricing to access its API. Engadget Senior Editor Karissa Bell said the move was intended to crack down on companies that use Reddit’s API for AI programs.

“A lot of these companies had been training using Reddit’s data, because it was open and because their APIs were readily accessible,” said Bell. “So, at the time Reddit said, ‘hey, we are not going to be allowing these big companies, which are extremely profitable, to access all of our data for free.’”

But soon after, other companies that use Reddit’s API began raising concerns, saying the changes make the API too expensive and could take many popular Reddit-based apps out of commission.

“Third party developers, who make these Reddit clients, started sounding the alarm and saying, ‘hey, we’re probably not going to be allowed to continue operating our services at these prices,’” said Bell.

Christian Selig is the developer behind the app “Apollo,” which he said has about 1.5 million monthly active users. He told ABC Audio that Reddit’s move to charge for access to its API wasn’t completely unexpected.

“It is something in the back of my head that I thought they’d entertain at some point,” he said. But the actual cost ended up being much more expensive than he was anticipating.

Selig said his company would have to pay $20 million annually for API access. “I don’t see how this pricing is anything based in reality or remotely reasonable,” Selig wrote in a post on Reddit, adding, “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.” Apollo said it would shut down its app on June 30, when the new API pricing goes into effect. Other apps, like ReddPlanet and Sync, have announced similar moves.

The prospect of losing apps like Apollo prompted some Reddit users to coordinate a protest of the pricing changes.

“Thousands and thousands of these subreddits have said that they’re going to ‘go dark,’ which means that they’ll be setting their communities to ‘private’ so people who aren’t subscribers can’t access them,” said Bell.

On Monday morning, visitors to Reddit were greeted with a variety of messages from some of the platform’s most popular communities. The subreddit /r/Music currently displays a message that says it is “Closed Indefinitely for Reddit API Policy Change Protest.” The /r/aww subreddit, which is dedicated to cute images, notes that it has gone private “due to Reddit’s decision to effectively kill 3rd party applications with their API costs. If or when /r/aww returns will depend on Reddit’s continued responses to the situation.”

“Reddit’s historically had a massive focus on being, like, a very community-driven website,” said Selig. “And now that, just, everybody feels very unheard and dismissed, I think that it’s not surprising that there’s some pushback there.”

Selig said he’s in favor of a pricing structure that differentiates between companies that use it for artificial intelligence programs, and those that use it for apps like Apollo.

“Of course, bills need to be paid and they need to have a sustainable platform going forward, and they need to charge bills to do so” said Selig. “But do so in a way that respects the community and makes them feel like they’re not being taken to lunch.”

Not all subreddits have joined the protest. Moderators of the popular /r/AskReddit continue to allow new posts, writing in part “as mods of a community dedicated to conversations, we think it’s more impactful to keep the subreddit open so people can discuss this controversial change and the surrounding impacts.”

In response to a request for comment, Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt drew attention to the “efficiency” of certain third-party Reddit apps – that is, how often they use the company’s API. “Some apps are more efficient (and require significantly less API calls),” said Rathschmidt, adding, “Apollo is notably less efficient than other third-party apps.”

Last week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman took to Reddit to answer questions about the API changes. In his introductory post, Huffman told users “we respect when you and your communities take action to highlight the things you need, including, at times, going private.”

About 57 million people visit Reddit every day.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.