The Reddit API drama shows no signs of calming, as both sides dig their heels in. And the real bummer about all of this is that it will have a direct impact on content creators.
If you're not familiar with what's going on at Reddit, how John Oliver is involved, or why it might matter to you, stick around. Let's start with a little backstory on how Reddit works.
How Reddit Works
Reddit is one of the oldest and largest online communities in the world. Founded in 2005, the site originally aimed to be "the front page of the Internet" — a catchy slogan that more or less meant if it was interesting or important, you'd see it on Reddit (thanks to users who sourced the content and then up-voted and commented on it).
Reddit has since become a massive collection of communities, dubbed "subreddits," where people can gather and talk about everything from major companies to niche bands and obscure hobbies. The vast majority of Reddit's content is generated by users, and the vast majority of subreddits are moderated and ran by volunteer moderators.
In other words, Reddit relies entirely on unpaid labor to both provide the content and to moderate the content. There's another huge site on the Internet with this same model that you've probably heard of: Wikipedia.
The major difference, though, is that Wikipedia is ran by a non-profit organization. Reddit, on the other hand, started as a Y Combinator company, has accepted more than $1 billion worth of dollars in investment funding, and is currently valued at more than $15 billion. And in December of 2021, the company reportedly filed plans to go public, which means it would issue shares and become traded on the stock market.
The Origin Of The Reddit API Drama: A Quest For Cash
Reddit's quest to make money and boost its value is likely the reason co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman made the controversial decision that launched the Reddit API drama. In April 2023, the company announced that it would start charging other companies money for access to its API.
You don't really need to know how an API works (or even what it stands for) to understand its relative importance. Basically, it's the thing that allows one company's product to get information from another company's product. Most major platforms have them — it's how you can use a content planning service like Later to schedule multiple posts that go out to your platforms at the same time. (And why you often have to log into one service while attempting to connect it to another).
Before April 2023, Reddit's API was mostly free. It allowed a lot of companies to create products that made the Reddit experience better. One of those products is Apollo, an app that is far superior to Reddit's own phone app and built a lot of great features that users and moderators take advantage of daily.
However, the new Reddit API pricing scheme would essentially decimate all but the largest companies.
What The Reddit API Will Cost Now — And Why
Reddit says the API will now cost $.24 per 1,000 "API calls," or $12,000 for 50 million. API calls happen frequently and even apps with only a few thousand users can burn through them at lightning speeds. For reference, the Apollo app mentioned above made 7 billion API calls in May 2023, according to its founder Christian Selig. This rate would cost Selig and Apollo nearly $2 million in fees to Reddit every month, or almost $20 million per year — a number Selig says is astronomically unreasonable.
Because of this, he's shutting down the app on June 30, 2023, one day before API's new pricing plan is scheduled to take place. Based on these prices, it's unlikely any similar app or platform utilizing the Reddit API will exist after July 2023.
Why such a huge price? Well, you can blame ChatGPT, for one. The notorious generative AI platform from OpenAI trains on a lot of different texts, including Reddit. And now that generative AI platforms from companies like OpenAI and Google have become potentially very lucrative, Reddit wants to charge these companies for using the content on its site.
And remember, when OpenAI started, they planned on making ChatGPT a free and open tool. That changed in 2019 when the company switched to a for-profit model.
Redditors Fight Back: How The Community Is Responding
Needless to say, Reddit users and moderators (often called "Redditors") did not take kindly to the news that the Reddit API costs would effectively close down any companies who primarily rely on the API and are not named Microsoft or Google. Many within the community asked if Reddit could create a more reasonable pricing structure, particularly for companies like Apollo who make the Reddit experience better.
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman only heightened tensions when he refused to back down, telling NPR, "We're 18 years old — I think it's time we grow up and behave like an adult company." Huffman also alleged that most users wouldn't care about those costs and that it's a minority of moderators and users who are making noise about the changes.
Many Redditors disagree. Moderators for some of the most popular subreddits closed down the subreddits or made them private in an effort to "go dark" and bring attention to the issue. Many other subreddits began actively engaging in "flame" wars, allowing different types of spam or adult content on their subreddits and — in one particularly delightful trend — encouraging users to post only pictures of comedian and television host John Oliver.
For his part, Oliver approved of the move, even taking new pictures and offering them to the community to "have at it" with the pictures.
And this is essentially where we are: a community of unpaid content creators and moderators at war with a company looking to make a whole lot of cash off the content they create while also potentially destroying a lot of third-party apps designed to make the Reddit experience better. And, of course, an unrelenting CEO who has gone on the offensive, equating the disobedient moderators to "landed gentry" and saying Reddit is not in the business of giving away its content for free (seemingly forgetting that it gets its content for free).
How Any Of This Affects Content Creators
Alright, so how does the Reddit API drama affect content creators? Well, there are a few obvious ones. For any creator who has a strong presence on Reddit and also utilizes third-party apps like Apollo, prepare to make changes and potentially have an inferior experience with the platform.
It also means you might have to expect to pay more for services that utilize any Reddit connections (or just expect those connections to go away).
But one of the bigger concerns here is the precedent it sets. When Elon Musk announced Twitter's own absurd API price increases, it was easy to chalk it up to more erratic behavior from the now-former CEO (that could potentially change at a moment's notice). Plus, as important as Twitter is to a lot of content creators, the platform itself is still "small" compared to other tech giants.
Reddit is expected to have 1.66 billion monthly users in 2023, more than three times as many as Twitter. Which means a company like this making a change as drastic as these new API costs could have a huge ripple effect across tech.
We could start to see all large companies charge for access to their APIs, which would effectively close thousands of different small and medium companies that create products content creators rely on every day. While all of these companies have built massive, impressive products that have helped create entirely new industries, they're nothing without users who create the content that actually provides the value.
So even if you don't personally utilize Reddit as a creator or casual reader, pay close attention to how all this drama plays out. It could have far-reaching implications for content creators.