Micah Loewinger: You're listening to the On the Media midweek podcast, I'm Micah Loewinger. Two weeks ago, I received a very interesting message on Reddit. It was from a volunteer moderator from the On the Media subreddit. That's right. We have a subreddit, reddit.com/r/onthemedia. The MOD told me they were stepping down. They would no longer help run our forum or any other forum on Reddit as part of a massive protest against changes coming to the site. Sure enough within a week or so, it was all over my timeline.
News Clip: Thousands of Reddit forums have gone dark, and one of the largest user-driven protest to hit the platform.
News Clip: Moderators organized a blackout effectively collapsing the website in protest of its new plan to charge third-party platforms.
News Clip: Reddit CEO needs to turn the company to a profit because Reddit wants to offer stock to the public, an IPO, and Reddit does not make a profit.
Micah Loewinger: It's a massive conflict between the giant cohort of volunteer moderators that make Reddit work, and Reddit, the company which hopes to juice its business model and woo investors. Last Monday, moderators from nearly 9,000 subreddits shutdown their forums, including some with over 30 million followers each, subreddits like r/funny, r/gaming, and r/music. Although the blackout began to die down within 48 hours, according to its organizers over 3,000 subreddits are still inactive to this day.
Jason Koebler is the editor-in-chief at Motherboard, Vice's tech section. He joins me to explain the intricacies of the protest and why he dubbed it "a battle for the soul of human internet." By the way, if you're listening with small children or people who just generally don't like swear words, there are a couple in this conversation, just so you know. Jason, welcome to OTM.
Jason Koebler: Hey, thanks for having me.
Micah Loewinger: Let's just take a moment to acknowledge just how huge of a role volunteer moderators play in making Reddit Reddit. A 2020 study from Northwestern found that some 21,000 active moderators on the site perform "at least $3.4 million worth of labor annually." They don't get paid to do this. They do it because they love it. Moderation work is notoriously grueling, so why are people doing it?
Jason Koebler: Largely because they love the topics of the subreddits that they moderate. That same study you just referenced found that there's these big general interest subreddits like r/pics, r/videos, r/funny, which have millions and millions and millions of viewers, but there's also tons of niche subreddits. There's a subreddit for each and every city that you could think of. There's subreddits for surfing, for golf, for specific memes about specific TV shows. Those subreddits are largely moderated by people who are obsessed with those topics. That is actually the vast majority of moderators on Reddit.
Micah Loewinger: Not necessarily power users, but just the guy who runs the fan club basically.
Jason Koebler: Right. They're helping mold the conversations on those subreddits by having highly specific rules and guidelines for like, "This is the type of conversation that we want to have." What those same researchers found is that they've derived quite a lot of joy out of doing this. It's like, "I am obsessed with surfing. I go on the surfing subreddit all the time, and the surfing subreddit has a very specific vibe to it." That vibe is in part because of the ambiance that the moderators have created there.
Micah Loewinger: What have been so memorable experiences in r/surfing that you've encountered?
Jason Koebler: There's this huge debate right now about every time someone says the word volume, which is literally how much a surfboard floats? There's a bot in there that will post a link to this meme about how everyone is obsessed with volume. If you're asking about volume, that's a signal that you're a kook, which means you're a beginner surfer and then everyone makes fun of you. From having red this it's like, "Okay, I'm not going to mention the word volume otherwise, the entire community's going to make fun of me. This bot is going to post this meme." There's all these discussions about like, "Is this joke played out?" There's active discussion about whether this joke should persist or not.
Micah Loewinger: That's awesome. It makes me think about the so-called decline of third places. It was a term coined in the '80s or '90s. The idea is that your home is one place, and your work is a second place, and what's a third place? It could be the mall, it could be the bar on the corner. Slowly we saw a decline of these physical spaces, where you would go and make friendships, have relationships, and have a social life not tethered to work or home. In some ways, I feel like social media was pitched as something akin to that. For me, Reddit is like one of the few websites that might deliver something akin to a third place. Is that fair to say?
Jason Koebler: I think that's a really good analogy. Reddit is where you go to find your niche interest. I check up on the Baltimore Orioles surfing, what's happening in LA viking culture all at once because I subscribed to these very specific communities. It's something where, of course there's still an algorithm at play, but it is not the same as Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter, where it feels like a free for all where you're trying almost exclusively to get picked up by the algorithm, and get retweets, or likes, or shares.
Micah Loewinger: Reddit is more about impressing your immediate community.
Jason Koebler: Reddit really is the spiritual successor to message boards and forums. I grew up going to all these different specific single interest forums. I went to a forum for my favorite band, I went to a forum for a video game I played. Each of these forums had a different vibe, and community, and rules, and inside jokes, and so on, and so forth. These subreddits have that, and the moderators are the ones who facilitate the whole thing. There's a main character on Twitter every day, but the main character on Twitter is often someone who's already very famous.
If you go to a specific subreddit, it's like you might see the same username over and over and over again, but it's just some random guy most of the time. It's not like a famous person who you know their stake, and they're trying to get engagement, and they're trying to rile people up. They're people who over the years of posting and reading every day, you get to know their idiosyncrasies and personalities even if you have no idea who they actually are in real life.
Micah Loewinger: The way I think about Reddit moderators is almost like the term moderator is a bit of a misnomer because when you think about it, you think of a faceless employee who screen posts for say, Facebook or Twitter. A Reddit moderator, take use high school as a metaphor, they're like a hall monitor, a cheer leader of the community they help lead, and also a student government nerd, all in one.
Jason Koebler: We do typically think of content moderators as contractors who sit in a call center more or less, and watch a stream of really terrible stuff show up on their computer, and they're deleting child porn off of Facebook. They're usually minimum-wage or low-wage workers stationed all over the world. They're basically there to make sure that Facebook, and Instagram, and TikTok remain a place that is monetizable by advertisements more or less. Whereas on Reddit, not all moderators are great. There's a lot of power hungry moderators in the same--
Micah Loewinger: Which we'll get to.
Jason Koebler: in the same way like hall monitors. It's like they're out there policing what's going on for sure. They're also being like, "Okay, this type of meme belongs in our community, and this one belongs in this other community. Go post it over there. Leave it out of our space."
Micah Loewinger: [laughs]. It's an energy and a devotion to the internet that I just really admire, but I want to talk about this giant protest. Typically, when we think of a giant protest like this, you'd think of people who are striking for basically higher pay, but Reddit moderators aren't asking for money. What exactly are they after?
Jason Koebler: It's basically about Reddit wanting to charge full access to its application programming interface, which is an API, which is essentially a set of code that allows people to use Reddit data to build applications, to build bots, to basically interact with the site in an automated way. People have used Reddit's API for a really long time to make third-party Reddit apps which are basically unofficial apps that let you post, moderate, comment on, otherwise use Reddit.
Over the years, there's been dozens and dozens of these apps, and some of them are really good. There's this very famous one called Apollo that has something like 1.5 million monthly users. It is leaps and bounds better than the official Reddit app.
Micah Loewinger: Some of these third-party apps also have nice accessibility features that aren't in the vanilla Reddit app. There's a whole culture around using your preferred third- party Reddit app.
Jason Koebler: Exactly. I've used dozens of different Reddit apps because the official Reddit app, I can't stand it. It's very slow in my opinion, but then there's these apps like Apollo that have built-in accessibility features that make it easier for blind users and visually impaired users to use Reddit. Many of these third-party apps have special moderator tools that make it easier for moderators to act on content, whether that's delete it, edit it, message a bunch of users at once that the official Reddit app doesn't have. Long story short, Reddit has announced that it is going to start charging for access to the API, and it's charging quite a lot of money. The third-party Reddit developers have said that the amount of money that Reddit is charging is untenable for them to keep their apps going. All of these very popular third-party apps that are curved disproportionately used by moderators are shutting down at the end of the month.
Micah Loewinger: The developer behind Apollo, for instance, said on Twitter it would cost him $20 million a year to keep the app running based on its current usage of API under this new fee structure, end of an era, basically.
Jason Koebler: More or less we've seen things like this in the past. A few months ago, Elon Musk announced that Twitter would begin charging for its API. It would charge this astronomical fee that puts it out of reach for the single person who is making an application for the community. It's more like corporate/enterprise type pricing, where you're going to be paying tens of thousands of dollars if not millions of dollars a year to use the data.
Micah Loewinger: Lots of companies charge for API access. That's not out of the ordinary in and of itself. Reddit does produce pretty high-quality data and that seems to be the issue here. The company's CEO, one of its co-founders Steve Huffman announced that these new fees for API access are coming because of artificial intelligence companies. Can you explain how they entered the fray, and what their culpability is here?
Jason Koebler: It always comes back to AI. Every drama of 2023 has some AI element to it. Reddit's data is highly organized in part because of how much moderation occurs. You can go to one of these subreddits and you'll have a headline, which is the title of the post, and then you'll have the body of the post, and then you'll have all of these comments ranked by popularity. This is really, really important for companies like OpenAI, which to build tools like GPT-4 and ChatGPT, they basically need to find as large a library of human interaction as is possible to train their AI.
In Reddit, they have human interactions ready to be scraped, and judged, and scored, which can then be fed back into their algorithms, into their machine learning, and can be used to create these highly advanced language tools like ChatGPT that we've seen. The thing about AI and machine learning is it uses a ton of data. It's hitting Reddit servers over and over and over again. Reddit incurs a cost for that. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, as you mentioned announced, "We are not a profitable company. We need to start charging for this because you have billion-dollar companies being built on the backs of this website that we've created."
Micah Loewinger: Your main grievance with Reddit's approach to charging for API access as I understand it, is that the company isn't being super clear or super nuanced in how it will charge the various users of its data, from independent researchers and these beloved third-party apps, and then of course really, really huge companies like Google and AI startups. Reddit has said they're going to charge based on usage, but they haven't really gotten into the finer details.
Jason Koebler: Right. That makes it really difficult for these third-party apps to know how to make ends meet. One of the specific things that the Apollo developer told me when I spoke to him was, "Some of my users use the app for five minutes a month, and that's going to cost me no money to continue to service that person, but then you have these power users who are moderators who might cost me $10 or $15 a month in fees because they're on Reddit all day every day using my app."
Since it's just a flat fee by usage, it's really hard for him to then go, "Okay, I need to charge each user a specific amount of money each month, like a subscription fee to use my app." It's very difficult to know how to make ends meet with this regime.
Micah Loewinger: This has been very upsetting to some of Reddit's loudest, most devoted moderators, and users. Last week they organized this impressive blackout of the site, which lasted between Monday and Wednesday, although thousands of subreddits are still protesting this fee rollout to this day. If I logged on to Reddit during, let's say the height of the protests, how would it have shaped my experience as a user?
Jason Koebler: It was a very interesting day on Reddit. If you just went to Reddit itself, a lot of the top posts were posts about the protest. What I think was really interesting is when a lot of these really popular subreddits shut down, what happened was a lot of niche subreddits that normally wouldn't show up at the top were suddenly showing up at the top. There was a lot of posts from r/shittytattoos, which are photos of shitty tattoos ended up at the top of Reddit.
Micah Loewinger: Basically, the scab subreddits came through. [laughs]
Jason Koebler: I think the scab subreddits came through, and then also, the NBA finals ended during the Reddit blackout. Normally, there would be tons of discussion, and videos, and memes on the NBA subreddit. The NBA subreddit was blacked out though. People were posting to this subreddit called nbacirclejerk, which is a subreddit for just memes, and jokes, and shit posting more or less. During the blackout, this subreddit turned into essentially this scab NBA finals subreddit, where people were having serious conversation about what was going on in that game.
Micah Loewinger: The way you're describing it sounds like the user base of Reddit is this rushing river, and it found a new place to chat its course. Reddit was in a way also fundamentally shut down for a short period of time.
Jason Koebler: You went to Reddit during that time, and it was not a useful place for information. It wasn't a very navigable place, I would say. It's like stuff was rising to the top, but a lot of it was completely inane. One of the most popular subreddits has only allowed photos of John Oliver for some reason.
Micah Loewinger: I have seen this.
Jason Koebler: Which is not why I go to Reddit. It's like it's fun to see here and there, but if I was a regular user just hopping in the Reddit river, as you said, I would be like, "What is going on here? I'm getting out of here."
Micah Loewinger: [laughs] Which big subreddits are still protesting, are still blacked out right now?
Jason Koebler: There are at least 300 subreddits that have said they are going to remain private and blacked out forever until Reddit basically changes its policies entirely. The biggest ones are r/aww, A-W-W which is photos of cute animals, usually r/music, r/videos, and r/futurology. That's about 100 million subscribers to those four subreddits.
Micah Loewinger: Wow. CEO Steve Huffman is ready for all of this to just be over. He would like to take Reddit public. They're approaching for an IPO later this year. This is a blemish on the picture that he would like to present to future investors. His pushback to this protest last Thursday in an interview with NBC News, he called these protesting moderators "landed gentry," and said that he plans to institute new rules that would allow Reddit users to vote out moderators who have participated in the protest.
That term, landed gentry is I think a really uncharitable way to describe volunteer moderators that make your website work, but I think the people who use the website a lot, it also made sense. Can you explain what he's getting at and what that threat really means?
Jason Koebler: I think what Steve Huffman means here is a lot of moderators were the founders of their communities. They planted a flag in their subreddit and then maybe because of their moderation or maybe because they just had a good idea, thousands or millions of people join that subreddit. Regardless of the effectiveness of any given moderator, they still have a huge amount of power over what a community sees. I think that's really important because a lot of moderators are very good at what they do, but a lot of moderators just like the power that comes with being able to decide what a community of millions of people are seeing on any given day.
While I think it's an overbroad generalization, a lot of moderators care very deeply about the work. There are also the stereotypical power-hungry MOD, who does whatever they want and is making a stand because they feel like causing chaos, versus doing what's best for the millions of people who are in their community. I think this entire protest is a big power struggle between Reddit corporate and its unpaid moderators. Fundamentally, it's a question of who controls the website. Is it Reddit, the company, or is it the moderators and its users?
Micah Loewinger: You called it in your piece a battle for the soul of the human internet.
Jason Koebler: That was a little high-soaring rhetoric there.
Micah Loewinger: I love it. Lead in.
Jason Koebler: I truly do believe that though because every other social media platform has these top-down rules that are enforced by employees of the company. Facebook makes rules in Menlo Park at its headquarters, which are then enforced by thousands of people who it pays to enforce these rules. Reddit gets this incredible amount of value from its unpaid moderators, each of whom have their own vision of what the rules should be, not just on their own subreddits, but on the site as a whole. I think that their unpaid status allows them to protest in a way that is different than if you see Facebook moderators revolting.
I think it's not fundamentally like a labor versus capital situation, it's like a user. Moderators are like power users, but they're basically saying, "We don't like what you're doing here. You're making our job harder." I used quotes around job because it's not really a job [chuckles], although it is paid labor at other companies. They sit in this very weird space. I think what Steve Huffman is getting at here is basically like, "We have a company to run. We are not profitable and we are trying to IPO right now.
We need to figure out how to make this company profitable, and the way that we've decided is we're going to charge for this API." Which, as you mentioned earlier, is not that weird of a monetization strategy for a social media network. He's like, "We're basically seizing control of how our site that we run is going to operate in the future." I think that Steve Huffman really wants this to blow over.
Micah Loewinger: Earlier this week, he sent a memo to Reddit's paid staff saying that the protests will "pass" and that they were just "the noisiest we've seen." He is hoping and maybe betting it will pass. Do you think it will?
Jason Koebler: I think that this will pass. Reddit ultimately is holding the cards here. There have been quite a lot of moderators who have said, "We've gotten messages from the administrators of Reddit saying, "You need to open your subreddit back up, or we're going to remove you, and put a moderator in charge who will open the subreddit backup," which has led to different forms of protest on the site. There is a subreddit called r/interestingasfuck, which is a really big subreddit.
It's millions of users, and it's where people post super interesting stuff. They basically said, "Okay, we're opening back up, but we are only going to enforce Reddit's rules like the top-down universal rules for Reddit, which are basically no child porn, no doxing, no harassment." This subreddit, which was previously really interesting science videos has turned into a porn subreddit.
Micah Loewinger: Because porn is allowed as long as it's not child porn, as long as it's not excessive gore, right?
Jason Koebler: Right. Porn is notoriously allowed [chuckles] on Reddit. The working theory there is the moderators are saying, "Well, it's harder for Reddit to monetize porn because a lot of advertisers don't want to be around not safe for work content." They're saying, "If you're going to force us to open back up, we are going to make it very difficult for you to extract money from the community that we built." It's a way of basically ruining the community. That subreddit right now is complete chaos. These moderators are trying to say, "If you don't value our work, we are going to do the bare minimum, and you'll see the value that we bring to your website."
Micah Loewinger: It's fascinating. It seems like an echo of a conversation that's happening on other parts of the web like, for instance, Twitter. There's a mantra I feel like among technologies, which is content moderation is the product. People go to this website, they want to have a good time on that website, and that requires meticulous curation. Just opening the floodgates and saying, "Anything legal goes," isn't going to be a website that you want to hang out on. It seems like the moderators are trying to communicate that to the admins.
Jason Koebler: Under Elon Musk, you've seen Twitter evolve into this anything go space, but all of the available research that we have shows that when you let anything happen, one, it's harder to monetize because advertisers don't want to be around hate content, and porn, and so on, and so forth. You're seeing advertisers leave Twitter, but then you're also seeing actually less speech because the loudest violist, most hateful rhetoric suffocates out the people who want to just be normal on the internet and have normal sorts of conversations.
Micah Loewinger: Interesting as fuck is not interesting as fuck anymore. It's just porn [laughs].
Jason Koebler: Right. That's what it's starting to feel like on some of these subreddits where it's like, "Okay, this is no longer about anything. It's just people posting whatever they want." It's chaotic, and it's not a fun place to hang out.
Micah Loewinger: Steve Huffman wants to make money off of his website. Sure. Good for him as he should. He wants investors to be excited about it. Also great. Is he ruining this website by picking a fight with the people who are helping create its value?
Jason Koebler: There are people who are definitely going to leave Reddit, and they're not going to return. There are moderators who are going to quit for sure, but there may be enough people who are willing to stick around. Maybe Reddit becomes a place that is 10% or 20% less interesting, and loses some of the quirkiness and the specificity of these niche subreddits. In return, Reddit is able to charge millions and millions of dollars to all these different companies, and is able to turn a profit. It seems like that is a bet that Huffman is willing to make here.
Micah Loewinger: Reddit seems to be a taste of the old internet in an age where the internet is really defined by big centralized companies. What does it say about this moment in the internet?
Jason Koebler: I think every social media platform has gone through something like this. With Instagram, they got rid of the reverse chronological feed where you just saw whatever anyone was posting at any time, and went to an algorithmic feed. With that, Instagram and Facebook were able to charge money to advertisers to get better placement in their feeds. In doing so, they made their product worse. I do not think that people enjoy Instagram more now than they did with the reverse chronological feed, but Meta made a lot of money doing this. I think what we're seeing is basically the homogenization of Reddit. It is becoming a lot more like these "corporate social media platforms."
Pretty much all social media functions the same way at this point, except for Reddit, where they have paid content moderators. They all use algorithms, they all charge for advertisements, and then you're able to pay more to get better placement. I think that's what we're seeing with Reddit right now, where it used to feel like the old internet and forums. By used to, I mean two weeks ago, that's how it felt.
I think like moving forward, we're going to start to see this homogenization of Reddit, where it starts to feel like a lot of the other social media platforms. I think that there's a long way to go. What Reddit is doing right now is a step on the path toward this homogenization. I think that the moderators thought, "Now is our time to protest. It's now or never." I don't think that Reddit is going to be fully ruined by this one decision.
Micah Loewinger: Trying is still a net positive, I think. [laughs] The optimist in me.
Jason Koebler: It's like they have informed millions and millions of people about this change that normally would either be swept under the rug, or not noticed, or implemented with no backlash whatsoever. We are now talking about Reddit's business model, who controls Reddit, who benefits from the unpaid labor that all of these moderators are doing for Reddit. I think that in and of itself is a win.
Micah Loewinger: Jason, thank you very much.
Jason Koebler: Thank you so much. This was really fun.
Micah Loewinger: Jason Koebler is the editor-in-chief at Motherboard, Vice's tech section.
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