The Reddit Blackout: Why Users of One of the Internet’s Biggest Sites Took It Offline

An image showing the Reddit logo against a dark laptop background to illustrate the Reddit blackout.

Reddit bills itself as ‘the front page of the internet’. As of 12 June, that front page is no longer accessible. While the so-called ‘Reddit Blackout’ is only temporary, the users who have implemented it say that the changes they are protesting could spell the end of Reddit as many know it.

The site is one of the largest on the internet, pulling in content from across every other site and platform thanks to its dedicated active users. As of last year, it boasted 50 million of them per day, reaching some 1.66 billion people per month.

However, during a turbulent time for tech and for Reddit specifically, changes to the way user data is shared has caused a major controversy as users accuse the company of profiteering at their expense.

Thousands of topic-based forums known as ‘subreddits’ have currently switched themselves to private mode, blocking access to their content. These include some of the biggest subreddits with more than 40 million subscribed members each.

Already, the impact of the change has been felt. Reddit crashed on Monday American Eastern Time, due to site stability issues, following the blocking of access to many subreddits.

The site has also become the go-to for many people looking for specific information by adding ‘Reddit’ to the end of their Google searches. Now that the site is down, users have been reporting that a large part of its search is basically unusable right now.

Whether or not the protest will have any lasting effect, forcing the company to rethink its data-sharing strategy, remains to be seen.

The Reddit Blackout

So far, nearly 8,000 subreddits have turned private, meaning their content cannot be accessed. Others have been switched to restricted mode, meaning content can be accessed but cannot be added to or commented on.

Thousands of others have automatically added information to each post, detailing the problem that users have with the way Reddit is changing its data-sharing policies.

r/funny is the largest subreddit to go dark, with more than 40 million users. r/aww, r/gaming, r/music, r/pics, and others are also in blackout mode, with more than 30 million users each.

It’s being reported that hundreds of ‘not safe for work’, ie, pornographic subreddits, have gone down as these sections of Reddit are concerned that they will soon be removed.

The blackout started on 12 July and is slated to run for 48 hours until 14 July for most subreddits.

Speaking to Reddit moderators, the BBC has reported that some communities are planning to keep the blackout going for longer than the planned 48 hours, with some, including r/music, potentially going on indefinite strike until Reddit reverses its upcoming policy changes.

Why Is Reddit Going Dark?

The row all stems from Reddit’s planned changes to Application Programming Interface or API, coding allowing access to Reddit data. Access to Reddit’s API has previously been free, allowing third-party developers to build apps that make the site more accessible.

In April, however, Reddit announced that it would start charging for API access. While Reddit has its own app, there are a number of third-party apps used by millions of people that they deem to be a better user experience. These include apps like Reddit Is Fun, Narwhal, and Apollo.

At the end of May, Apollo developer Christian Selig wrote on Reddit that his app would likely shut down thanks to the changes. Reddit plans to charge them $1.7 million for using its API, something the company couldn’t afford even if they made major revisions to their operations.

Users responded by saying that Reddit’s careless treatment of apps that make the platform more user-friendly will force them off the site. For those with disabilities, the changes could be even more keenly felt.

Third-party apps, like Apollo, have a much greater focus on accessibility for people with disabilities, allowing them to access content in a variety of ways to suit their needs. If those apps go, people with disabilities will be pushed off Reddit too.

The moderators of r/blind, which has joined the protest, have said in a statement that Reddit is inaccessible to disabled people.

“If Reddit was a restaurant, third-party apps are franchises,” they write.

“We can get a burger from Reddit directly or from a franchise. The official Reddit location is at the top of a cliff. Disabled people can’t get there. Reddit is charging franchise fees so high nobody else can afford to offer burgers”.

They also joked that the official Reddit app is “so bad” they would need vision in order to turn their subreddit private while using it.

However, Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt told The Verge that API data will remain free as long as it is not used for commercial purposes. Reddit has also previously said in a statement that it would not charge third-party developers who make the site more accessible for people who need it.

An image of r/funny, that has closed during the Reddit API protest.
Image: Reddit

Despite these and similar statements, many users are highly sceptical of the motives and actions of those in charge of their favourite sites.

Reddit, unlike most ‘social media platforms, is highly community-orientated. Extremely specific niche subreddits can be found with their own little group of internet strangers, all discussing and sharing content about their hobbies and interests. As such, its users typically report feeling a greater level of ownership over the site than you might find with a Facebook or an Instagram.

In addition, each of the subreddits are moderated by volunteers who willingly give their time for no reward to make sure the subreddits are kept on-topic and enjoyable for the community.

Part of the reason the backlash to the API changes has been so pronounced is that it’s these people in charge of Reddit communities who will be most heavily affected by the changes, given that moderators typically use third-party apps like Apollo to easily regulate their communities. It’s just the latest in a long saga of distrust between site administrators and moderators.

One user likened the impact the changes will have on moderators to janitors having their brooms taken away and having to continue their work with toothbrushes.

The Reddit API Protest

Reddit is not the only site to overhaul its API access. Twitter did the same in March, causing many apps that use Twitter to shut down.

The move was the latest in a series of changes that Twitter boss Elon Musk has implemented in an effort to make the site more profitable. Many of these changes have had the opposite to their intended effect.

Reddit is reportedly going public later in the year, something the site owners have been tight-lipped about. Many see the fact that they are planning to publically trade the company as the motivation behind making the site and its app as attractive to investors as possible.

Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman took to the site last week to engage users about the changes, saying that the business needed to change the way it operated.

“Reddit needs to be a self-sustaining business, and to do that, we can no longer subsidize commercial entities that require large-scale data use,” he said.

There are also fears that the Reddit algorithm, which is currently heavily user-generated, will begin pushing more ‘engaging’ content designed to provoke a reaction from its users. As other sites have shown, this type of content is typically heavily divisive, aggravating, and results in a more toxic online environment not compatible with the ‘informative, rational’ discussion that the more high-minded sectors or Reddit aspire to.

If the site is made public, many fear that it will become more vulnerable to external pressures from morality activists who have been targeting online pornographic and other content that they deem as inappropriate. Imgur, once the dedicated hosting site for Reddit, removed pornographic content from its platform earlier in the year owing to these pressures.

Famously, Tumblr lost 30% of its users when new owners, Verizon imposed similar restrictions on adult content in 2018.

Last year, OnlyFans nearly removed pornographic content from its site thanks to demands by its payments operator, who, in turn, had been lobbied by ‘family value’ religious morality groups.

Already, there is a dedicated subreddit looking for viable alternatives to Reddit as some users anticipate the collapse – or change beyond recognition – of the site.

Reddit Blackout Tracker

Reddit blackout tracker is keeping live tabs on the progress of the Reddit Blackout.

The site, put together by Reddit user RaiderBDev, tracks the top 1000 most popular subreddits plus the 500 most popular NSFW subs, giving real-time information on their availability.

It also details real-time post and comment figures for the same subreddits, showing that site activity has dropped in the past day.

Reddit Blackout Tracker showing realtime data of the Reddit blackout and subreddits going dark.
Image: Reddit Blackout Tracker

Interestingly, a greater percentage of the most popular safe-for-work subs, 67%, are involved in the blackout than NSFW ones, at 42%. This is despite the fact that NSFW subs are at greater risk from the API changes.

As RaiderBDev has written, “Not all private or restricted subreddits are related to the blackout (but most are).”

You can access the site here to see the blackout live.

Related: The Problem With Reddit’s AITA Format

Related: Aussie Redditors Are Fighting Murdoch for Stealing — Here’s Some (Stolen) Examples

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