Over the past 11 years, Bucky has spent time and effort managing and guiding dozens of communities on Reddit, the sprawling Internet message board.
As a “moderator” of approximately 80 different topical forums, Bucky, who calls himself “BuckRowdy” on Reddit and asked that his full name not be used to prevent online harassment, and others like him are essential to growing and maintaining the social networking site, which is one of the Internet’s largest destinations for online discussion.
Until two weeks ago, when Bucky went rogue.
Reddit had just introduced changes that dramatically increased its fees for independent developers building apps using the company’s data. Steve Huffman, Reddit’s chief executive, positioned the move in part as a way to shore up the company’s finances as it heads toward a long-awaited initial public offering.
But the changes made it so expensive for some third-party developers that some of those who create tools for Reddit moderators had to shut down or significantly modify their apps. In protest, Bucky and other moderators shut down hundreds of forums on the site, rendering Reddit unusable for many of its 57 million daily visitors. At one point, the site went offline entirely.
“It’s really demoralizing,” Bucky said. Moderating Reddit and dealing with users is hard enough, he said. “’I take all this abuse for you, and I keep your website clean, and this is how you pay us?’”
Reddit, an 18-year-old site that was part of an early wave of social networking, has been trying to “grow”, Mr. Huffman has said in interviews. What is not clear is if the Reddit community will allow it.
Reddit, which is based in San Francisco, has tried in recent years to grow from a gritty, messy Internet message board to a full-fledged social media business by bringing in executives and strengthening its advertising capabilities. The 2,000-person company, which has been repeatedly mentioned as an IPO candidate, has raised more than $1.3 billion and is valued at more than $10 billion, according to Crunchbase and Reddit’s. public statements.
Other social media companies also made similar changes as they grew. In 2012, Twitter changed its rules about how developers could use your data before it was made public, outraging users and throttling some popular third-party apps. Facebook has also made changes to the platform that have angered developers and sparked backlash.
But this month’s uprising on Reddit stands out because it shows the enormous power of the site’s community. The day after moderators shut down hundreds of Reddit forums, users spent 16 percent less time on the site, according to Dear All from Similarweb, an analytics company.
“Reddit is basically driven by the community as a whole,” said Adrian Horning, a Reddit user and data scientist who built a bot that “scrapes” data from the site in response to rate changes. “The power that regular users have is just inherent in the platform.”
In an interview Wednesday, Huffman said his goal had been to make Reddit better for new and veteran users and build a long-lasting business. He said he was sorry that developers were surprised by the company’s pricing changes and wished he had been more direct about how it would affect them. He added that there was general anxiety about Reddit’s changes as part of a natural “maturation process.”
“We have the same love for Reddit and the same fear of losing Reddit as many of our users,” he said.
Mr. Huffman and Alexis Ohanian founded Reddit in 2005 as a site with a countercultural attitude towards the Internet and its ad-based economy. Reddit stood for free speech at any cost, zero ads, and an insular culture that set the stage for the Web 2.0 meme culture.
Their community has been boisterous for a long time, which has gotten Reddit in trouble many times. In 2013, it was the site where Internet sleuths searched for, and misidentified, a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. A year later, it became a dumping ground for nude photos that were hacked from celebrities’ cell phones.
But as the site grew and venture capitalists poured in, its leaders saw Reddit’s potential to build a business. The company had several CEOs, including former venture capitalist Ellen Pao, before Huffman, who had left the company for six years, returned in 2015.
Huffman eventually embraced the idea that Reddit could make money from advertising, a model he once loathed. He accepted and extended rule changes instituted by Ms. Pao to contain some of the toxic content that people posted on the site. By 2021, he had confidentially submitted documents to make Reddit public.
But when interest rates soared and the stock market wobbled last year, Huffman put Reddit’s IPO plans on hold. Since then, he has worked systematically to improve the site, increase the number of users and strengthen the company’s results.
In April, Mr. Huffman announced that he planned to restrict access to Reddit’s “application programming interface,” known in industry jargon as an API. The API is the main gateway for external people to use company data for different purposes.
In an interview at the time, Mr Huffman said he wanted to charge big companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook for access to Reddit data, which has been used to train the so-called long language models that are at the heart of of artificial intelligence systems. .
But Mr. Huffman did not detail how the price of API access would change and who would be affected. Then, in May, Reddit started telling developers its much higher pricing plans for such access. Earlier this month, a developer of a popular app, Apollo, announced that it was closing the app because Reddit’s changes would cost it more than $20 million in annual fees to operate it.
Many Reddit users were deeply upset that Mr. Huffman had come forward to take down a beloved app in the service of building his business. Veterans were also angry that the heady days of Reddit’s anti-capitalist roots seemed officially over.
Mr. Huffman defended the decision, noting that it costs Reddit millions of dollars to maintain apps like Apollo, which don’t pay the company back and don’t display ads from Reddit’s ad partners.
To express their discontent, dozens of “super mods” soon restricted access to hundreds of the most popular Reddit communities. To eliminate advertising in those communities, which are known as subreddits, moderators posted pornography and other explicit material to force the forums to label themselves as “18+” forums, which are generally not advertiser-friendly. Other forms of protest included a move by a subreddit, r/pics, to allow only photos of John Oliver to be shared on the forum. (Mr Oliver embraced the Reddit protesteventually sharing photos of himself as well).
Huffman said he did not plan to change course. He said that Reddit was enforcing his moderator code of conduct, which prohibits moderators from shutting down their subreddits and posting pornography and depictions of violence on their forums (unless the forums are designated for such discussion topics). Reddit also said it would replace moderators who broke the rules after receiving a warning.
Bucky said the protests, which died down this week, have now turned into more general frustrations that have built up over time.
“Every time we see this type of explosion, there is a simmering rage below the surface that comes back up,” he said.
For now, the subreddits seem to be slowly coming back online, though there are still efforts to resist the changes. Bucky said that he was active in the Subreddit “Save3rdPartyApps”, which was formed to organize protests on the site that are allowed under Reddit’s rules.
Reddit is now further from a public offering than it was last year, Huffman said, but it will continue to build its business. He added that the community revolt was part of what made Reddit Reddit and said that he and his team planned to continue engaging with the top moderators who were upset with the changes.
“For better or worse, this is a unique Reddit moment,” he said. “This could only happen on Reddit.”