Reddit protests: an endemic concern or a storm in a teacup?

Reddit protests: an endemic concern or a storm in a teacup?

Today is the last day a number of third-party Reddit apps will exist.

Apple’s iOS app Apollo and Google’s Android app BaconReader, among others, are shutting down amid changes to Reddit’s Application Programming Interface (API) that have made it unaffordable to keep them running.

The changes, as well as the way in which Reddit CEO Steve Huffman has controversially handled communicating with third-party developers and Redditors themselves, have prompted severe backlash among users. Moderators of a number of high-profile communities (known as subreddits) have elected either to begin allowing adult content as a way to demonetise their subreddit, or shut them down down altogether. One popular subreddit, r/pics, has taken to only allowing posts if they contain an image of British comedian John Oliver.

Huffman has explained the changes to its API are necessary given that Reddit currently loses out on significant revenue by allowing third-party developers to use its API for free to create apps that do not serve Reddit’s ads to users. “We’ll continue to be profit driven until profits arrive,” he said tersely in an Ask Me Anything thread addressing the changes earlier this month. He added in another comment that his “continuing efforts to reign in costs to make Reddit self-sustaining put a spotlight on the tens of millions of dollars it costs us annually to support the [third party] apps.”

Apollo developer Christian Selig conceded he would be willing to pay a reasonable price for access to Reddit’s API, but the current pricing is far too high for his app to continue operating, and he says he was not given adequate time to attempt to adjust his own business model to the new policy.

It is unclear how much the protests have hurt Reddit’s bottom line. User traffic dipped earlier this month, but has since returned to near-normal levels, though subreddit moderators appear ready to renew protest efforts despite threats from Reddit administrators to force open certain subreddits. Many users have threatened to leave the site for good once third-party apps officially go down today.

Advertisers, meanwhile, are cautiously looking on to see how the changes could impact their digital media strategies. Reddit does not publicly report revenue figures, but estimates compiled by Statista showed significant growth from 2020-2021, which reportedly slowed down in 2022, preceding the API crisis.

‘Reddit believes this will blow over’

Reddit has been something of a bastion of the old, mid-’00s internet era. While the site has attempted to modernise its offering over the years, the ‘Old’ version of Reddit can still be accessed at old.reddit.com, which serves noticeably fewer advertisements, and while unwieldy-looking, offers a web experience much more akin to old school forums.

But Reddit is set on becoming a serious advertising platform as it eyes an IPO in the back half of this year. The company has never turned a profit, much to the concern of executives and investors, but it wants to “grow up”, according to Eb Adeyeri, VP paid social at digital marketing company Jellyfish.

‘New’ Reddit (top) and ‘Old’ Reddit (bottom) are different in style and ad inventory.

Adeyeri, who spoke to Reddit executives at the company’s large activation next to the Palais at the Cannes Lions Festival, told The Media Leader the company appears to be handwaving the API-related concerns away, with the ongoing protests considered something the site will have to work through as it matures into a more serious ad platform.

“They are prepared to go through the pain of annoying a small number of users if it means there’s a more seamless experience for advertisers and a wider pool of users,” said Adeyeri, who compared Reddit unfavourably to other social media platforms by saying it is “not number one on the media plan”. He puts it behind even Twitter, which has also never been a major pull for advertisers, in terms of current importance.

Reddit ranks as the 11th most-visited site in the world and the sixth most-visited in the US. More advertisers have become attuned to the site over time, especially those seeking to target Reddit’s predominantly young, male audience or niche communities of sub-cultures, according to Adeyeri, but advertising on Reddit still lags behind other social sites in terms of priority.

Until recently, Reddit had not developed out much of a significant ad offering at all. As was overheard at Cannes, “Reddit is on version two while Twitter is on version 15.”

Turning that sentiment around appears to be the number one priority for Reddit leadership, protests from its most loyal users be damned. As Adeyeri asks: “Will this become an ongoing endemic thing, or is it a storm in a teacup? My sense is Reddit believes this will blow over.”

A unique platform for advertisers?

According to Jon Molina, VP paid social at digital marketing agency Brainlabs, Reddit is nevertheless a “fascinating” platform from an advertiser perspective because it has untapped potential for reaching certain audiences.

“Finding the balance in maintaining user buy-in in what essentially is the last truly ‘democratic’ platform and unlocking revenue is a key development that Brainlabs has been keeping an eye on,” he told The Media Leader. “With the community protests slowly tapering off, with some of the larger subreddits engaging in r/maliciouscompliance in order to maintain a semblance of defiance, we believe confidence in the platform’s advertising solutions will be contingent on platform leadership pledging to provide more transparency and insight into traffic and engagement within subreddits, and how they comprise available targeting parameters.”

Why Reddit’s Disruptors director reckons ad market is ‘finally evolving’

Unlike Adeyeri, who sees Reddit as not offering a uniquely important ad experience for most brands, Molina believes that Reddit has a true USP.

“While we are seeing a standardisation of experience across the social space—TikTokification, features being copied, a forward push into video, etc.—Reddit in our eyes is still considered its own unique environment for advertisers as a whole. Reddit is the only platform that has a life outside of the immediate confines of app/site through the virtue of becoming a standardised add-on for Google Search terms.”

The irony, of course, is that by seeking to drive more ad revenue, Reddit may fall victim to the very standardisation of digital platforms alluded to be Molina. He admits: “It is yet to be seen whether the consolidation of experiences into one company-owned app is the first step in creating a walled garden experience that limits the halo effect of brand strategies and organic/paid campaigns.”

In other words, Reddit’s changes to its API may not just upset its own users, but could backfire for the very advertisers it’s seeking to court.

‘A far cry from the original ethos’

This is true especially in relation to content moderation, which has been a sticking point for advertisers more than the protest itself, according to Adeyeri.

“The issue Reddit has will be with the moderators, and whether they can ensure that those sites are brand safe,” he said. Unlike other social media platforms, Reddit allows its various subreddits to be almost exclusively moderated by unpaid community members, with relatively broad flexibility to dictate the rules of their own communities. That also creates uncertainty around brand safety, which has been exacerbated by the aforementioned protest efforts.

Such concerns mirror Twitter’s strife since billionaire Elon Musk purchased the company. Twitter has been widely criticised for failing to offer a brand-safe platform after gutting its Trust and Safety division last year. But Reddit appears to have taken lessons from Twitter’s monopolistic survivability, as Molina explains:

“Despite there being alternatives in the space such as Tildes and Lemmy, we have seen that the presence of the primary social platforms such as Reddit and Twitter (among others) is substantial enough where it has become an institution in the digital space where people will continue to flock despite changes in how content is sourced, centralised and viewed for the general consumer.”

Huffman is making a similar bet that Musk did: that users will have a high tolerance for unpopular changes in the name of revenue generation due to a lack of legitimate alternatives. But, as Molina says, the more centralised and standardised Reddit becomes, the farther it moves away from its original ethos as the “front page of the internet.”

Analysis: a microcosm for the state of the web?

The uncertainty around Reddit’s ability to thread the needle between appeasing advertiser interests without driving away too many users has made waves across the broader digital ecosystem.

As Molina described, savvy online natives have in recent months taken to adding “reddit” to Google searches, such as those seeking product recommendations or DIY tips, to avoid the clutter of ads and SEO-driven sites with low quality content prioritised by the search engine. With numerous subreddits shutdown this month, Google executives admitted users were “not quite happy” with the current search experience.

Google has sought to address the issue by unveiling a new Search feature called Perspectives, a tab that attempts to filter out content other than written posts, images, and videos from people that have shared on discussion boards, Q&A sites and social media platforms. It is not yet clear whether users will consider the extra hoop an improvement over what has become an oft-maligned Search experience.

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As Web 2.0 has developed, major tech companies and social platforms, most of which are now publicly traded, have sought to squeeze potential revenue out of its userbases.

The ongoing protests at Reddit are just the latest in a long line of users expressing dismay at the current state of the digital ecosystem. Other backlashes, like the “enshittification” of TikTok or the TikTokification of Instagram, have lead some users to flee to new platforms like BeReal, which lack advertising, or otherwise leave social media altogether.

The interlinking troubles faced by Reddit, Google, and others stem from the same issue: sacrificing user experience for the sake of advertiser interests.

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