The Reddit App Disaster

Millions in the dark

On July 1 Reddit imposed a new policy that left millions of people around the world excluded from the website, and leaves blind moderators unable to moderate their communities. The new policy increases costs for developers who make unofficial Reddit apps such as Apollo.

Thousands of communities are protesting the new policy by concealing all their content created for the last 18 years, or by creating facetious responses in hopes that management and Reddit investors will notice the users’ dissatisfaction. They hope this will cause management at Reddit to reconsider the new policy.

This is a self-inflicted disaster ultimately caused by poor design. Will it end in the demise of Reddit or can the site recover?

Reddit is the largest anonymous social media site in the world, home to thousands of communities about hobbies, discussing TV shows, the news, learning to program and frankly anything you can imagine. If it’s of interest to anyone then there’s a community for it on Reddit.

For years Reddit grew at double-digit growth in all countries and amassed millions of users who are looking to learn, share, discuss and have a laugh. According to Statista the site had an estimated 1.7 billions visits in May. The company filed for an IPO with a valuation of 15 billion dollars in 2021.

To many the site remains a very important part of their past-time, their professional skill development and even their identity. Unlike other social media sites that encourage people to identify themselves with their full name and personal data, Reddit has been largely successful by avoiding identification and instead encouraging people to decide for themselves what the site should be about.

The new Reddit API policy

How could one decision spark this angry revolt, what is cause of this problem and how might management at Reddit hope to solve it?

Reddit started as a website in 2005, allowing users to share, vote on and discuss links, pictures and videos. Its modular design allows users to decide what is in their feed by selecting the communities of interest. The site is free to use and has been paid for in large part by advertisers and investors.

Over the years many apps have been created to make the user experience better on the web and on phones, and tailoring the experience to suit the needs of millions of people around the world. This meant people had to pick their user interface of choice by picking an app that met their needs and preferences.

Reddit management noticed this a long time ago, but only decided to take action on it in 2023. The new policy increases the API cost and imposes rate limits for developers of the unofficial Reddit apps.

Management at Reddit claims the new policy is necessary in order to profit from developers using their API, and they claim this is driven in part by companies including Open AI training their chatbot software on user data. It is probably also an attempt to gain the expected revenue from their IPO valuation.

However these claims have not been substantied, leaving many wondering if this is merely an attempt to shut down the unofficial Reddit apps. Any advertising revenue from these apps don’t go to Reddit, and so the company must find its revenue elsewhere.

Consequences of the new policy

As a result of the cost increase, developers of unofficial apps like Apollo have decided to shut down their app and business. They don’t believe they can afford the cost.

For the people using these apps, they are left with the choice to either use official Reddit apps or lose access to the site entirely. Volunteer moderators and blind moderators in particular are completely dependent on the Reddit API for managing their communities.

The service BotDefense also announced their moderator service will be shut down due to the new policy. This leaves the door open for spammers to create bots that will pollute communities with spam and hate speech. Without access to the API the volunteer network of moderators will slowly begin to quit Reddit since the amount of work required to moderate massive communities is too daunting.

Reddit management knew for years that these volunteers must have API access, and that the site has several accessibility issues that have gone unresolved. It is very surprising that they don’t see the risks of spam, hate speech and users migrating away as threats to achieving the company IPO.

The root cause: Design and accessibility

What is the real cause of this disaster? Is it profitability or something else? Is this about APIs or apps?

I believe management at Reddit is asking the wrong questions. Why are there multiple apps and user interfaces for Reddit in the first place? Which other social media service has this specific problem?

As far as I can tell this is a result of poor design choices. When someone chooses to replace the official Reddit design with something else it’s because the official design doesn’t meet all the user needs and preferences. It’s as simple as that, and no amount of scraping can be as damaging to the site’s business model as being the second choice user interface for your own business.

Prior to July 1st you could choose to use the new web design, the old web design, the official mobile app, or an unofficial app like Apollo.

If Reddit had been designed with inclusion and accessibility in mind, odds are that the API would be much less important and it might not even exist in the first place.

Now that the management of Reddit is in yet another argument with its users over this API I hope they will pause to reflect on why this is an issue for Reddit and less of an issue for its competitors.

Reddit management ought to realise that the users make and can break Reddit, and that they must choose a business model that aligns with the users’ interests. Investors are certainly not impressed, which means the new policy might have an adverse impact on both the relationship between users, management and potential investors.

Charging more money for the API will not improve the design of the official apps and it might even invite competition from other businesses. It’s probably easier to just design the official apps better so people will prefer them, rather than using force to shut down the unofficial apps.