Social Media Researcher at the Network Contagion Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, experienced a rude awakening early last month. They were woken up at 6:30 a.m. by calls from a colleague who announced that Reddit had begun preventing the institute’s pushshift service from updating its rolling archive of all posts on the discussion board.
This wasn’t just an issue for NCRI, as some of Reddit’s 50,000 volunteer moderators rely on Pushshift to quickly investigate problem users, and many academics rely on the service. If it were outdated, what Reddit calls moderators, mods would have to work overtime or allow even more trash content to accumulate. Researchers studying online communities would be forced to put projects and PhD theses on hold.
The Pushshift blockage and its aftermath are just part of the collateral damage resulting from Reddit executives’ aggressive initiative to block external software from free, full-scale access to the platform’s content. The policy change has sparked uproar for two months, including mass protests from Reddit users and a mod rebellion that has led to a riot 2,400 of the platform’s more than 100,000 communities have been shut down. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman compared mods to “country gentry” by exercising undemocratic power when trying to describe the tensions within the Reddit community.
The saga is about to reach its climax on 1st of July, when Reddit’s new data access fees go into effect. Some popular independent apps for accessing the platform have announced that they will be discontinued because the cost and the new terms are too high. But Reddit executives say change is needed to bring stability to a company that, despite 57 million daily users, has struggled to find a solid financial footing and has delayed going public. They hope to benefit from companies ranging from small services like Pushshift to rich tech companies like ChatGPT maker OpenAI, which uses online conversations to train chatbots.
The drama has fueled speculation that Reddit has choked off the fuel of its success and repelled a generation of power users who have curated a uniquely helpful, creative, and profanely goofy corner of the internet. A few mods have resigned, including one using the alias desGroles, who was one of Reddit’s four leaders 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 spend hours with someone who is so abusive to you – to me that’s irreparable,” says desGroles, who declined to give his name for fear of online harassment. “It’s gone sour,” he adds — and not in a tasty way.
But while mods have been lost and the company’s reputation with users has been damaged, there are signs that Reddit is already on the rise.
Adam Sohn, CEO of NCRI, says that Pushshift shock shutdown resulted from a miscommunication and that Reddit has reinstated its team’s ability to download new posts for free as part of an exemption for non-commercial projects. “We were really concerned because we didn’t know who was using their data and for what reason,” says Sohn. Over the past week, NCRI and Reddit have reviewed Pushshift users and restored access to several hundred moderators. Next, they will do the same for academic users. “Everything is going in the right direction,” says Sohn.
Reddit is also working to build more accessibility and moderation features into its own apps and other systems to reduce users’ reliance on independent apps that can’t afford the data fees to come. Spokesman Tim Rathschmidt says the company is still in talks with apps “that are willing to work with us and follow our terms.” (Disclosure: WIRED is a publication of Condé Nast, whose parent company Advance Publications holds a controlling interest in Reddit.)