Siding with the pitchfork mob?

By: Rob Corbidge, 15 June 2023

Pitchfork by Stable Diffusion

Is Reddit is fighting against the stuff of its very soul? The worth that unpaid moderators and users bring to its unique offering is proving a tricky thing to tinker with.

Brand loyalty is a hard-earned relationship between a business and its customers. It takes time to build, but once in place can provide a multitude of benefits to both parties. Publishers are of course mostly all striving to build and maintain such relationships, and in an industry where eyeballs (sometimes ears) are the most sought-after currency, a loyal eyeball is worth a lot.

What then of a situation that Reddit has found itself in? In attempting to once again transition to a more business-like model of operation, so that it starts to resemble other platforms that are much better at monetisation, it finds that many of its users consider themselves custodians of Reddit, not just users and certainly not customers.

So it is that Reddit finds itself in a situation where the CEO Steve Huffman has rather theatrically warned staff to be "please be mindful" of wearing Reddit gear in public. 

"Some folks are really upset, and we don't want you to be the object of their frustrations," he wrote in a leaked memo. At the time of writing, no pitchfork wielding mobs have been sighted near the company's San Francisco HQ.

Yet, as has been observed about Reddit, if people are told something is theirs often enough and for long enough, they will regard it as such.

Reddit has an unusual conundrum in that this very sense of ownership is vital to the site's well being. To explain, Reddit is split into subreddits - particular topic or interest areas, from the inane to the super-esoteric - of which it's currently estimated 140,000 are active at any particular time. Each subreddit is overseen by a moderator, or more frequently a number of moderators, depending on how active a subreddit is, or what content is being posted. They have a large degree of control.

This moderation system has been profoundly successful. Yet only because those moderators feel a sense of ownership beyond that it is likely even a paid employee would. Human-centred, human run.

So then to this recent rather poorly managed attempt to increase the cost of access to Reddit's API in order that Reddit benefits from the all Machine Learning applications mining its data  to spit out as their own work.

In short, this has put the future of a number of third party Reddit app developers in doubt who say they cannot bear the cost of such access. The reason such third-party apps exist in the first place is that Reddit didn't produce an app until 2016, and when it did such a third-rate job was done, particularly around video, that there was no incentive to shift to it. 

It turns out a lot of the people who really like, and contribute to, Reddit, really like those apps too.

Hence this week, a┬álarge number of subreddits went dark for 48 hours in protest at the move. It could all just go away of course, but in the resistance Reddit finds to such changes is also the positive element at the core of what makes it unique and an asset - that sense of ownership. 

In the leaked memo this week, Reddit CEO Huffman told staff: "There's a lot of noise with this one. Among the noisiest we've seen. Please know that our teams are on it, and like all blowups on Reddit, this one will pass as well."

It does seem like a hastily thought-through decision. For example, an addition to the API charge announcement said that accessibility apps wouldn't be charged for use - something a forward-thinking outfit such as Reddit should have foreseen as an issue.

For those of us who actually make Google search at least bearable by appending "reddit" to many of our searches - in order to find human-curated content - the struggle Reddit is having isn't really good news. Any publisher must now be alert to the relationship between their content and AI tools, and have some degree of sympathy.

Many publishers also value user generated content, and most would feel they don't get enough of it. However, in the case of Reddit, the limits of what it possible while still maintaining control are visible.