How Reddit broke Reddit, or why some of your favorite Reddit apps are about to shut down

ELI5: The Reddit drama


If you've been long enough on the internet, you've definitely stumbled upon Reddit one way or another, either as an active member of the community or as a regular netizen that's simply browsing the interwebs. 

The spiritual successor to the internet forums of the (g)olden days, Reddit is a community-driven content aggregator that also passes as a social media these days. What becomes popular and what not is determined by Reddit users, or redditors, who can 'upvote' or 'downvote' any community-submitted content, including links, pictures, videos, GIFs, comments, and other kinds of content. 

Reddit has become the 'almighty' hub for different online communities, encompassing both major and the nichest topics. Thanks to its partition into different communities, dubbed "subreddits", the platform makes it easy for people with similar interests to communicate and interact with user-submitted content as well as with one another. There are more than 2 million subreddits right now, of which 130,000 are considered "active" communities. 

In fact, if you're looking for something extremely specific, adding the simple "reddit" suffix to your regular Google search will more often than not deliver more accurate results. Reddit comments, in particular, often hold the answers to even the most specific questions one might have. 

In May 2023, Reddit was the 8th largest website in the world, as per Semrush, merely toppled by online giants like Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia. 

Reddit's business model

How did Reddit come to be, exactly?

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During a brainstorming session at Paul Graham's startup incubator Y Combinator, University of Virginia roommates Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian came up with the basic idea for Reddit, which was quickly nicknamed "the front page of the Internet" by Paul Graham. Shortly after, the general formula behind the platform was outlined, and in June 2005, Reddit was launched, marking the beginning of an era. For a deeper dive into Reddit's origins, check out this excellent Vanity Fair piece on the platform's inception

Huffman is Reddit's current CEO and plays a vital part in the ongoing drama, while Ohanian remained on board until 2018, but left the company in order to pursue other. Currently, Reddit is privately owned, with media companies Advanced Publications and Tencent Media owning 30% and 5%, respectively. 

Reddit was initially eyeing an IPO in 2021, Reddit is currently eyeing an IPO (initial public offering) in late 2023, which will make it a publicly traded company. 

Now, how does Reddit make money, exactly?

Just like most websites and social media platforms, Reddit sells ad space. Back in 2021, when plans for the IPO were initially disclosed, it was revealed that Reddit's advertising revenue was up to $100 million a quarter, but forecasts have it that Reddit might earn up to a billion dollars per quarter by 2024. 

Aside from advertising, Reddit also makes money by offering a premium tier, dubbed Reddit Premium. It costs $5.99 a month or $49.99 a year, allowing users to enjoy an ad-free Reddit browsing experience, along with some extra functionalities, like custom app icons, avatars, premium awards and coins to give out, and so much more. Reddit has said that as of late 2021, it has more than 300,000 paying Premium users, which add up more than $24 million in revenue. 

Reddit's API changes, third-party apps, NSFW, ads, and beginning of the drama

Finally, we are getting to the inception of the latest drama, and the thing that started the fire was the change of Reddit's API policy, which allow Reddit chatbots and third-party Reddit clients to function properly. Reddit first declared its intention to change the way its APIs work in April 2023 in a lengthy post on the subreddit dedicated to... Reddit. Yeah, it's weird like that.

First off, what's API? The abbreviation that stands for "application programming interface" basically is the link that allows third-party apps to display content from Reddit, allows users to post comments, interact with other user's comments, upload content, and pretty much anything you'd normally expect out of a third-party Reddit client. Basically, the API is the "key" that lets a third-party app inside the Reddit stronghold.  

With that out of the way, the changes in the APIs command the following:

  • Unrestricted access to Reddit's Data API is suspended;
  • Reddit's Data API now has a free tier with severely restricted rate limits, aimed at developers;
  • Introduction of new premium access to Reddit's Data API for third parties that require higher usage limits and expanded functionalities;
  • Third-party apps are banned from displaying ads and monetizing on their own; 
  • As part of an ongoing effort to offer guardrails for how sexually explicit content and communities on Reddit are discovered and consumed, Reddit will limit access to adult content via the Reddit Data API, so basically no adult content in third-party clients, even if they pony up for the full premium access to the database. 

And, as detailed in Reddit's updated Data API terms, "Reddit reserves the right to charge fees for future use or access to the Data APIs, rates to be determined at Reddit's sole discretion." 

This most important change––the introduction of the paid API–– essentially cuts off free access to Reddit for third-party apps, like Apollo for Reddit, Boost for Reddit, Reddit is Fun, Sync for Reddit, Relay for Reddit, Baconreader, Narwhal, and many more. 

Each of the aforementioned apps would need to pay a hefty monthly premium in order to have access to the Reddit API, and as we'll see later, the pricing is excessive at best. 

All of these changes are objectively aimed at making it impossible for third-party Reddit apps on iOS and Android to function, which would fuel Reddit users to the platform's official (and feature-poor) mobile app. 

Consequences for third-party Reddit apps: The killing blow

  • After July 1, 2023, all Reddit traffic on mobile will go through the official Reddit app or through your mobile browser

So, now that we've established that Reddit is phasing out the free access to its data API, what will the consequences be for all the third-party apps across both iOS and Android? Things aren't looking good at all, and sadly, most apps will have to close shop. 

A few weeks after the announcement for the change of Reddit's business model, the company started making calls to the developers, and things quickly got ugly, with most popular third-party apps revealing that their apps will cease to function on June 30, a day before Reddit's new official API pricing model goes in full effect.

As revealed by Christian Selig, u/iamthatis, the developer behind one the most popular Reddit apps on iOS, Apollo, Reddit has revealed its projected pricing of $0.24 per 1,000 API calls.

This would seemingly cost Mr Selig roughly $2 million per month based on Apollo's current usage (more than 7 billion API calls per month), or easily more than $20 million per year. Apparently, that's way more than what Apollo currently makes per month, so the app's fate is pretty much sealed.

In a lengthy blog post that received an enormous visibility and garnered over 217,000 upvotes, Apollo dev Chris Selig explains what's going to happen with its app come June 30.

Relay for Reddit, developed by u/DBrady, will also be killing off its app:

Developer u/rmayayo has revealed that Boost for Reddit, another superb Android app, is also getting killed off in late June due to the exorbitant pricing. 

Sync for Reddit developer u/ljdawson has also revealed that Sync for Reddit will shut down on June 30

Reddit is Fun developer u/talklittle reveals that the app will also go dark on June 30 in response to Reddit's API changes

Only a few third-party Reddit clients will continue to have unrestricted free access to Reddit's API. RedReader, Dystopia (for blind users), and Luna (an Apple Watch Reddit client) offer unique accessibility features that can't be replicated by the official Reddit app, so they are safe for now. 

Reddit CEO Steve u/spez Huffman responds

Thus far, we've only heard one side of the story, subjectively painting Reddit as the "bad guy" in this scenario. 

Due to the seriousness of the proposed changes and the large outcry by just about anybody, Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman, also known as u/spez, had to chime in and clear some of the confusion regarding the changes. This was done in an AMA post, which stands for "Ask Me Anything", and allows any Reddit user to ask a question that might or might not be answered to be the interviewee. 

Unfortunately, the AMA session backfired spectacularly. Despite garnering more than 35,000 comments, Reddit's CEO only posted 14 replies, doing little to nothing to clear the confusion and calm the waters. On the contrary, the CEO's belated and lackluster answers seemingly infuriated just about any participant in the AMA. As a passive witness, it's hard to feel anything different as well.

On June 16, 2023, Steve Hoffman revealed in an interview with The Verge that Reddit will no longer "subsidize businesses built on taking our data for free". What's more, Steve Huffman also revealed that the Reddit API was never intended to allow third-party clients to function, but was aimed at mods, admins, and bots.

Vox populi? The Great Reddit Blackout of '23

As you might imagine, as soon as the news about all the different third-party apps preparing for their digital funerals broke out, users and subreddit moderators alike quickly sprung to action. An open letter written by u/BuckRowdy neatly summarized the issue in excellent detail.

The best course of action was to protest, and protest in such a way that will affect Reddit's bottomline and raise awareness for the major issue in the Reddit-verse. So, subreddit moderators quickly banded up and came up with one of the harshest instruments in their arsenal: the ability to blackout the subreddits they are responsible for. 

So it was decided: a vast majority of Reddit was to go dark between June 12 and June 14, with mods shutting down the subreddits they are responsible for. Thus, users couldn't access and submit posts to their favorite subreddits for these two days. 

Some subreddits, like r/interestingasfuck, also quite ingeniously re-labeled themselves as NSFW, allowing extreme cases of adult materials to be posted. Posting NSFW content on Reddit requires age verification on desktop and doesn't even get shown to mobile users who are not logged in with their accounts, and most importantly, prevents Reddit from monetizing the subreddit and its content. Sadly, Reddit very quickly caught wind of the scheme and suspended the responsible moderators. 

At the height of the Great Reddit Blackout, over 8,000 of the largest communities went offline to protest the changes. Exceptionally large communities, like r/funny, r/aww, r/gaming, r/music, and r/science wnet offline, all of which cater to more than 30+ million Reddit users each. 

As Reddit seemingly couldn't handle that much subreddits going dark at the same time, the platform itself suffered international outages, poetically proving the point that Reddit is nothing without its users.

Many subreddits have extended their blackout indefinitely, remaining offline, restricted, or private, with no way of knowing when they will reopen at all. 

On June 26, the mod teams behind a couple of the biggest subreddits out there once again came up with open letters addressed to the powers that be at the helm of Reddit.

What's next for Reddit?

With June 30 fast approaching, it doesn't look like things are going to improve. Reddit seems adamant in the outlined changes, and there's really no light at the end of the tunnel for third-party app developers, who will have to bury the fruits of their labor.

A large vocal group of Reddit users has already declared that it will either completely stop using Reddit from July, or will greatly reduce the time they spend on the platform. 

Others have already expressed their desire to delete their accounts and move on with their lives come July.

Another portion of Reddit users will likely migrate to some of the very few Reddit alternatives out there. Chief among these is Lemmy, a completely free and open-source "selfhosted social link aggregation and discussion platform" that is part of the Fediverse

Unlike Reddit, Lemmy is like email: users can easily host their own Lemmy server, with all these servers being federated and connected to the same universe. No matter which Lemmy server you're registered on, you can subscribe to all communities and interact with Lemmy users on other servers. 

The only problem is that Lemmy is still gaining traction and has a significantly smaller user-base, which could be its biggest weakness. 

Outro and personal take

The seeming lack of dialogue and Reddit's disdain to make any amends or reverse some of its changes send a clear message to the regular Reddit user:

It was never a dialogue; it was always a monologue. There's no democracy in big business, only dictatorship. 

By trying to improve its revenue and boost the usage of its lackluster mobile app, Reddit is shooting itself in the foot, alienating users that have lived through one too many scandals and dramas through the years.

As a Reddit user myself, I can't help bu bemoan the decision to kill of third-party apps. Apollo and Boost have been some of my most used apps in the past couple of years by a long shot, so having to adapt to the new situation will take some getting used to. Who knows, I might switch to Lemmy after all. 

On a final note, I will paste two paragraphs from u/BuckRowdy's open letter that really touched me in the best way possible:

"We understand that Reddit, like any company, must balance its financial obligations. However, we believe that the longevity and success of this platform rest on preserving the rich ecosystem that has developed around it. We urge Reddit's management to reconsider the recent API pricing change, finding a compromise that allows third-party app developers to continue contributing to this platform's success.

We ask for a solution that recognizes the vital role these third-party apps play and takes into consideration the negative impacts this decision might have on both users and moderators. A sustainable pricing model that encourages rather than discourages these apps' growth and innovation will only strengthen the Reddit community."

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