For better or for worse, there are few social media platforms whose users are as organised as those on Reddit. The message board site – which has more than 50 million daily visitors – is known for hosting the internet’s biggest special-interest forums (from gardening to gaming to deep sea creatures). These subreddits are ready-built for engaging relevant groups and producing a co-ordinated backlash. In January 2021 users across a handful of finance-related subreddits caused the second biggest day of stock market trading for a single company – for the gaming retailer, GameStop, as a protest against concentrated powers on Wall Street shorting the stock. During the pandemic two user-led protests – one against weak hate speech rules on the site and one targeting lax policies on Covid-19 misinformation – succeeded in getting Reddit to permanently shut down popular forums for harmful content. (Other protests have been less noble, such as the 2015 backlash to Reddit's chief executive at the time banning controversial subreddits, such as one dedicated to “fat people hate”.)
Over the last week, this collective action has turned against Reddit again in a protest over the company’s decision to begin charging app developers to access the wealth of information on the platform – from posts to comments to metadata – via Reddit’s site tools or application programming interface (API). Since the decision was announced, nearly 9,000 subreddits have been taken offline. The blackout, which began on 12 June, was only scheduled to last 48 hours but after Reddit confirmed it would still be going ahead with the charges and Steve Huffman, its chief executive, told staff the protest “will pass”, it is continuing indefinitely. Reddit has said the decision to charge for API access was made in response to the rise of generative AI. Tools like ChatGPT and Google Bard use Reddit’s data to train their responses – Reddit is now saying it should get a cut of the profits. The company is also planning a potential initial public offering this year, which would be buoyed be a sudden influx of cash. For their part, developers behind the apps which will be affected by the charge have said that to keep using Reddit’s API as they currently do could end up costing them $20m a year – a price so high many apps have said they are being forced to shut down.