The Reddit Revolt – A “Strike” by Unpaid Workers

Image of Reddit logo.

Image by Brett Jordan.

The world of social media is entering a new period. Existing fiefdoms are being broken up, but unsettled is the question of who (or what) will dominate whatever comes next.

As this unfolds, in the middle of last month, a bunch of respected moderators at Reddit (with the strong support of the Reddit communities that they worked hard for years to build) organized a “strike” of sorts that casts a sharp light on what is at stake.

They withheld their labor in a coordinated manner.

For two days (between June 12 and June 14) between a third and a half of Reddit “went dark” and became invisible to advertisers. This meant that the Reddit corporation (for each of these days) lost advertising revenue on more than half a billion posts and 7 billion comments. This can look bad when a corporation is getting ready for its IPO.

I will skip over the technical details (ie: how the Reddit corporation started this war when they cynically imposed predatory API pricing in order to extinguish the entire evolving ecosystem of independent (ie: “3rd party”) Reddit apps by disconnecting them from its centralized database).

Reddit wiped out, essentially overnight, this entire evolving ecosystem of independent software apps that had been growing in popularity as an improved and more efficient way for people to interact with Reddit’s communities.

If you have ever had to click so many things to navigate around a social media site that by the time you got where you were going you forgot why you wanted to get there–then you may have suspected, for a moment, that the site was deliberately wasting your time. If you suspected this, you were probably right: social media algorithms are designed to keep you online as long as possible because your attention is a commodity sold to advertisers.

Once user attention minutes becomes a commodity–then the algorithms will seek to maximize them–whether by “engagement” (ie: enraging you with toxic garbage) or by making it hard for you to find what you want.

Independent third party apps that can connect to the central database, on the other hand, offer a way to bypass toxic algorithms and give users the ability to choose algorithms that better serve their needs–and there is no end to where this would eventually lead. And this is why Reddit pulled the plug on all these independent apps.

Reddit was founded in 2005 by a couple of college roommates as a simple, bulletin board-based system where users could create individual spaces known as “subreddits” to share their hobbies and interests. Millions of people built communities (and invested their life energy into learning about, influencing and growing these communities) in these subreddits on the basis of their belief that these communities could not be suddenly seized and thrown into the “monetization” woodchipper.

By cutting off the access of 3rd party apps (and their independent algorithms) from Reddit’s central database–the Reddit corporation essentially *expropriated* the thousands of communities that they are hosting. They removed from community members the right to use algorithms of their choice to access the years of conversation threads that they themselves had created.

In economic terminology, Reddit wants to extract “monopoly rent” on access to the dense web of social connections and specialized knowledge created by community founders and moderators who had spent years building their communities organically by sorting our disputes and guiding things forward. Now Reddit has begun to “fire” (ie: remove from their positions) these founders and moderators and appoint people who will toe Reddit’s line now and in the future.

On one side of this strike are thousands of moderators–and the thousands of communities they have devoted their lives to build.

On the other side, backing up the Reddit Corporation, is the world ruled by money.

This was bound to happen, sooner or later. The more valuable a social media platform is to people who need the honest, sincere, knowledgeable and *reliable* information it promises — then the greater will be the incentive to monetize it (and thereafter feed shit to the captive community).

The strike appears to have been defeated–for now at least. Most of the moderators went back to work after the agreed two days out–and most of the remainder have been cowed back to work over fear of losing their moderator positions. Some founder/moderators have lost their positions: were fired from a position which they *created* and which never paid them a single penny.

The strike did manage to bring extremely widespread attention to the principle that humanity needs public social media spaces that *cannot* be expropriated and tossed in the woodchipper by a few big corporate owners and stockholders who see these communities as little more than a way to make a big pile of money.

There has been discussion of possible alternatives to Reddit.

There is good news and bad news on that front.

The good news is that a new generation of “federated” platforms are on the horizon and these platforms will be vastly more powerful in their ability to withstand the forces of commoditization.

The bad news is that this generation of platforms (ie: such as Mastadon, Lemmy, Peertube, etc) remains in early stages and will need years of development before they are better organized and ready to challenge and defeat the existing giants such as Reddit, Elon Musk’s twitter, or Zuckerberg’s facebook, instagram, whatsapp or threads.

We should keep in mind however, that sooner or later a universal and democratic social media platform will emerge. When this happens, watch out. It will change everything.

Ben Seattle writes about the future of social media in the century of information war, as well as other topics.  More essays by Ben are posted at: