Can Reddit Survive Its API Situation?

Charging for access has thrown Reddit’s developers and moderators into turmoil. What’s the way forward?

Published on Aug. 07, 2023
Can Reddit Survive Its API Situation?
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Reddit, the popular online platform for communities and discussion, made a controversial move when it decided to charge for access to its previously free API (application programming interface). The API was critical for volunteer developers, who created thousands of free tools to support moderators in managing their communities. 

What’s Going On With Reddit and APIs?

Application programming interfaces, or APIs, allow one program to talk to each other by trading information or telling each other to take actions. Reddit’s third-party APIs allowed Reddit users to easily build applications to moderate their communities. In April of 2023, Reddit announced it would start to charge developers for access to its API. Reddit executives say this will combat rising costs and ease possible pressure from investors.

However, Reddit’s decision to charge for API usage has adversely affected the ecosystem of volunteer-developed tools on the platform. Here’s why this policy has affected Reddit’s financial stability, user experience and community dynamics, and how the popular platform might survive the turmoil.

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API Monetization Hinders Innovation

The Reddit API initially enabled developers to build an extensive range of tools that enhanced the experience for moderators. These tools assisted with tasks such as content moderation, user management, analytics and community engagement. Developers, driven by their passion for improving Reddit’s communities, dedicated their time and expertise to create these tools. Their contributions were invaluable in maintaining the platform’s diverse and active user base.

Because it’s been like that for more than seven years, people who make apps on the platform and the people who use those apps consider them almost as open source

Fees limit access to the API, discouraging developers from investing time and effort into creating new tools. This stifles innovation and deprives moderators of the potential advancements that could have greatly improved their ability to manage their communities effectively and now introduces substantial cost to operate. This, in most cases, changes the nature and mindset of the platform as a whole.

 

The Shutdown of Third-Party Apps

The emergence of alternative platforms, such as the popular mobile app Apollo, has presented an additional hurdle for Reddit’s API. Apollo, which launched in the App Store in 2017, attracted approximately 1.3 to 1.5 million monthly active users and about 900,000 daily.  

These are active Reddit users who would rather use a community-built solution than what Reddit can produce. Apollo was created to offer features to Reddit mobile users that did not exist in the native Reddit App. With its user-friendly interface and additional moderation features, it has become a go-to choice for power users and community moderators. 

However, because it is a third-party app, Reddit cannot serve ads and earn revenue with its existence. As a result of the drastic API changes, Apollo’s founder announced its shutdown in a lengthy post. Many other popular third-party apps, like BaconReader and Rif is Fun followed suit. 

 

The Real Controversy: Apollo vs. Reddit

Everything seemed to come to a head after Apollo’s developer, Christian Selig, revealed in a subreddit that it would cost $20 million a year to keep the mobile app running. Turns out this was just the beginning of the API war. 

The one striking aspect of the Apollo vs. Reddit saga was the apparent hostility exhibited by the company toward its most popular third-party developer. The main point of contention was a misunderstanding during a meeting between Selig, and Reddit CEO Steve Huffman; the call was later made public. Despite Huffman acknowledging his initial mistake and apologizing, he reportedly continued to perpetuate a false narrative, potentially harming Selig’s reputation and raising concerns about Huffman’s conduct and potential legal repercussions.

 

The Erosion of Community Trust

Reddit has thrived on its sense of community and transparency. However, the decision to monetize the API without proper consultation or a clear roadmap has eroded trust within the developer and moderator communities. Volunteer developers, who once felt appreciated and valued, now face disappointment and disillusionment. Moderators, who rely on these tools to manage their communities effectively, may feel neglected and unheard. This fracture in trust may have lasting repercussions on the overall vibrancy and cohesion of Reddit’s community-driven ecosystem.

By shifting away from a model that fostered innovation through volunteer development, Reddit risks losing its competitive advantage in the market. The previously available free tools attracted a diverse community of developers, each offering unique perspectives and ideas.

By shifting away from a model that fostered innovation through volunteer development, Reddit risks losing its competitive advantage in the market.

This ecosystem of innovation allowed Reddit to differentiate itself from other platforms. However, the shift towards monetization may deter talented developers from investing their time and skills in the platform, limiting Reddit's ability to evolve and remain at the forefront of community-driven online platforms. 

Many popular Reddit communities are being forced to go dark as a result of the API changes and trust in the platform as a whole. One example is r/TranscribersOfReddit, a community of volunteers that write transcriptions for media for around 100 subreddits.

According to a post from the moderator of Transcribers of Reddit, this transcription community is shutting down due to what it says is a lack of trust the platform. The subreddit also cited the platform lacked basic accessibility features such as alt text and the company’s API changes. And now thousands of subreddits have gone dark in protest of these API changes

 

Discord’s Free API Model Approach

The APIs of Discord and Reddit have taken different paths, reflecting their approaches to community support and monetization. While Reddit’s recent API changes and monetization efforts have faced criticism for hindering innovation and burdening developers and moderators, Discord maintains a free API that fosters a thriving ecosystem of tools and services. 

By prioritizing community support over monetization, Discord encourages inclusivity, innovation and a vibrant user experience. These divergent approaches highlight the importance of striking a balance between monetization and community needs to sustain flourishing online communities. 

Discord has also made some significant changes to their platform, but because they communicated with their communities, moderators and developers, like Joyn, which is our company. While giving them sufficient time to adjust, the platform was able to make a seamless transition.

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Reconsidering Monetization for Sustainability

Reddit’s API challenges encompass a range of issues, from financial costs and ad revenue loss to community impact. This decision adversely affected the ecosystem of volunteer-developed tools and the moderators who rely on them. Addressing these challenges requires balancing investor expectations, infrastructure sustainability and user experience

By introducing fees, Reddit hindered innovation, limited access to tools and imposed financial burdens on moderators. The shift toward commercial solutions diminishes the community-oriented approach that made Reddit unique. 

Inequality and erosion of community trust further exacerbate the negative impact. It is crucial for Reddit to reconsider its approach, engage with the developer and moderator communities and explore alternative strategies that preserve the spirit of volunteer-driven development while ensuring the sustainability of the platform.

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