API-ocalypse Now:

Reddit's API Misfire and the Moderator Uprising

Henry Chapman, Research and Insights Analyst


Reddit steps on a landmine

Recently, Reddit has encountered a significant crisis. The popular online platform, aiming to boost its profitability for an assumed upcoming initial public offering, made substantial modifications to its public API product. This API has been accessible to users for more than 15 years, enabling tech-savvy individuals to create and utilize third-party apps to access Reddit's content.

Next month, Reddit will lock down its public API. It will charge owners of third-party apps $0.24 for every 1000 API calls. This is widely seen as an unsustainable price increase which will force many beloved third-party applications like Apollo or Reddit Is Fun to shut down. Furthermore, many of these third-party applications have accessibility features that Reddit's application lacks. By restricting public API access, Reddit can potentially shut disabled people out of the site.

These recent changes have raised outrage among the Reddit community. As a result, there has been a significant surge in the volume of posts related to this issue over the past month. Reddit's API post volume has skyrocketed by a staggering 506%, thrusting the controversy into the mainstream news.

We will delve deeper into the reasons behind the anger among Reddit users and explore the indicators that should have alerted Reddit to this brewing controversy. By identifying these warning signs, we hope to shed light on the missteps that Reddit could have taken to prevent the current situation.

Post volume pertaining to Reddit's API
Figure 1: Post volume pertaining to Reddit's API (June 2020 through June 2023); Infegy Atlas data.

Explaining the controversy and protest's mechanics

Unlike many other social networks, Reddit employs a unique approach to content moderation. They rely on passionate volunteers for moderators, known as mods, who are responsible for monitoring and regulating specific subreddits. This decentralized approach has allowed Reddit to avoid some of the severe misinformation issues that have plagued platforms like Facebook, now known as Meta.

However, the volunteer moderators of Reddit have now taken matters into their own hands and are leading the protest themselves. In a powerful display of frustration, moderators from around 8,000 popular subreddits have chosen to lock them down, making them private and inaccessible to anyone outside the moderation team. This mod-action has caused a Reddit blackout and has impacted hundreds of millions of Reddit users by rendering the site unusable for them.

Screenshot of r/apple, a subreddit with millions of subscribers
Figure 2: Screenshot of r/apple, a subreddit with millions of subscribers.

Reddit's technical audience increases awareness

The controversy surrounding Reddit might have been less intense if the majority of its users were unfamiliar with terms like API or didn't rely on third-party apps to access the site. By analyzing the source bio descriptions of our sources, we discovered that many users on Reddit possess technical expertise, evident through their titles such as Engineer, Developer, Software, and Dev.

Source bios of social media accounts discussing the Reddit API
Figure 3: Source bios of social media accounts discussing the Reddit API (June 2020 through June 2023); Infegy Atlas data.

A disastrous IAMA

In response to the controversy and blackouts, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, who goes by the username spez, held an IAMA, a popular question-answer format on Reddit. However, the session did not go well. Huffman faced an overwhelming 83% negativity, primarily fueled by anger. With over 33,000 comments, he only managed to answer 14 questions, none of which were visible due to being heavily downvoted by thousands of Reddit users. Analyzing the topics discussed, it becomes evident that only one topic was positive. The rest of the conversation was overwhelmingly negative, encompassing themes such as "Delete my account," "quit," and "confusion."

Positive and negative topics sourced from Steve Huffman's IAMA
Figure 4: Positive and negative topics sourced from Steve Huffman's IAMA (June 2023); Infegy Atlas custom dataset

Comparisons to Twitter

While Reddit has come under fire for pursuing profit over its current user base, it is not the only platform facing such criticisms. Following Elon Musk's takeover, Twitter also implemented similar API changes that led to increased prices and the closure of many apps. The protests against Reddit's API changes received similar levels of attention as Twitter's. This is surprising, given Twitter's significantly larger user base and approximately three times higher site traffic than Reddit. This suggests that the controversy surrounding Reddit has been disproportionately significant.

Let's look into the reasons why.

Post volume comparative view between Twitter and Reddit's API
Figure 5: Post volume comparative view between Twitter and Reddit's API (March 12, 2023 through June 13, 2023); Infegy Atlas data.

Comparing Reddit's API conversation to that of Twitter led to some interesting findings. Twitter is traditionally the most negative social media platform Infegy collects data from. However, you'll notice here that the conversation around Reddit's API changes is 22% more negative than Twitter's. Moreover, we observed more consistent and pronounced negativity surrounding Reddit after the subreddit blackout crisis. This volatility is markedly different from typical conversations and sentiment about Reddit's API. In other words, previous conversations about Reddit API surged and calmed quickly.

This deviation is alarming and should raise concerns among Reddit's executives.

Comparison of Reddit's API sentiment with that of Twitter
Figure 6: Comparison of Reddit's API sentiment with that of Twitter (March 12, 2023 through June 13, 2023); Infegy Atlas data.

Social intelligence that points to a crisis response: A wake-up call for Reddit's executives

The fallout from Reddit's API changes highlights a critical issue for the platform. The significant backlash and protests demonstrate the dissatisfaction and frustration among Reddit's community, impacting the platform's reputation and user experience. The involvement of volunteer moderators, who play a crucial role in Reddit's content moderation, further emphasizes the gravity of the situation.

These takeaways should serve as a wake-up call for Reddit's executives to address user concerns. The social media analytics on the response to their decisions indicate that they should prioritize effective communication. It also shows that they should implement future changes with transparency and user-centricity in mind. Failure to do so may result in further alienation and potential long-term repercussions for the platform's growth and success.

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