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Reddit's Blackout and a Theory of User Power
Why can Reddit's userbase protest so much more effectively than other sites?
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Social media companies are always tweaking their algorithms, adding new features, or changing the graphic design or layout of their sites. And like clockwork, almost every time this happens users are furious. Users hated when Facebook introduced the timeline.1 Redesigns are uniformly panned - according to users Twitter’s redesign sucks, Instagram’s updates are awful, New Reddit is worse than Old Reddit.2
Users are a finicky bunch, and they’re frequently angry at the sites they inhabit. YouTube creators have a seemingly never-ending series of complaints about how YouTube treats them poorly. Twitter users have always reveled in hating Twitter3 even as they’re addicted to it - even before Elon Musk took over the site. Complaints about the ethics of Facebook or TikTok can be found all over Facebook and TikTok. Users hate change, and social media has always been a fast changing world. And if a site does something users find morally questionable, the people most likely to notice are the people who spend all their time making things go viral.
Why protests against social sites fail
To a first degree, this anger never actually matters. There’s one famous instance where a redesign killed a site (the famous Digg exodus), but aside from Digg user protests basically always fizzle out. It doesn’t matter how angry YouTube creators get - there’s no real alternative. Facebook’s timeline ended up being the core of the site, even as users initially hated it. Redesigns are always panned but never cause user exodus to any real degree. Even Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter hasn’t caused much of an exodus - despite his clear desire to make the site more right wing and despite large coordinated campaigns to promote alternatives, the site remains as active as ever.
Why? Because network effects are massive, and because it’s fundamentally very hard to coordinate people to switch to another site. Inertia is one of the most powerful forces in human behavior. Unless they’re given a very, very strong nudge people are mostly going to keep doing what they’re already doing. It’s true in the abstract that that ‘users make the site’ for basically every social media company. They produce the content and make up the network, and the site profits from that content and network. In theory all the users could simply leave, but that’s too hard to coordinate. Let’s say that someone like Instagram pisses off their users. It’s a big enough deal that a huge campaign happens, and two million people switch from Instagram to Newstagram4, a new competitor.
Congratulations, you’ve moved 0.1% of Instagram’s monthly users. I don’t care if they’re the two million most famous and active accounts on the site - they don’t matter compared to the 99.9%. The vast majority of people keep using the site, barely noticing anything has changed. And after a few months, most of the two million come back - the competitor simply doesn’t have the scale. For influencers, they need to be where the crowd is. For normal folks, they just want to be where their friends and most other people are. Even if it’s true that power users make the site go, it’s virtually impossible for those power users to take large enough coordinated actions that will change the behavior of non-power users.
Unless a site’s functionality for normal users is impacted, most people are going to carry on.5 Remember the 90-9-1 rule. Most people on the social web are passive lurkers by default, and even most ‘posters’ are not tightly wound up in the psychodrama of the site itself. Unless you can break through to those more disengaged and passive users somehow, your protest is doomed to fail. And it’s nearly impossible to reach them precisely because they’re disengaged. If you’re imagining a campaign by social media users that would actually scare a social media company, that’s the hurdle you have to overcome. You need some way for the highly engaged power users of a site to forcibly harm the user experience for everyone else. And crucially, it can’t be just by spamming up the site. They need to ruin the user experience for normal users while making themselves look like the good guys and the social site like the villain. On most sites, this just isn’t possible to any real degree.
Reddit alienates power users
Reddit has long had a number of unofficial apps like Apollo or Reddit is Fun that are simply better than the official Reddit app. Reddit, likely under pressure to cut costs and raise revenue ahead of an IPO, is set to begin charging those apps a huge amount of money to access the Reddit databases via API. The rates are so high that it would effectively kill most of the major third party apps. Apollo, Reddit is Fun, Sync and others have all announced they’ll be forced to shut down.
This is a niche issue because not that many people use third party apps. But it’s also a very sensitive issue because power users of the site use those apps in huge numbers. It certainly didn’t help that Reddit refuses to admit they just want to kill those apps, or that the PR has been handled in the most ham-fisted way possible. Power users and moderators have spent the last few weeks organizing. The protest has frankly become far larger than I anticipated it would become, and it may be the largest user protest in the site’s history.
Today more than 6,500 subreddits have shut down in protest of reddit’s API changes, either going private or restricting new submissions for 48 hours. The total may be higher after publication. This isn’t just small subreddits either. Seven of the top ten subreddits, each of whom have more than 30 million subscribers, have gone dark. The front page that still exists is dominated by protests.6 By virtually any metric you can think of, the outright majority of large subreddits and by extension a majority of the site is down. The moderators of the 20 million strong subreddit /r/videos has announced they are permanently closing their subreddit unless Reddit walks back the API changes, and they’re not the only ones threatening that.
I’m still unsure if this will make a difference. But if there was any chance of a user revolt ever making a difference on a social media site, this is how it would look. It’s a coordinated campaign with a mostly righteous cause that actually harms the user experience for regular people, while making the site’s management look like assholes. I want to be clear - the odds are still against them. The odds are always long when you’re fighting network effects on the order of hundreds of million of users. But because of how Reddit is structured, power users may actually have a chance here.
It’s the structure, stupid
As mentioned above, every site is theoretically dependent on its users. But in practice, that doesn’t mean much. Reddit is an exception. Reddit is largely unique among social media sites in that power users have an enormous amount of control in how the site works.
A quick Reddit primer: Reddit has a ‘front page’, but the core of the site is in subreddits. There are subreddits for general stuff like /r/news, /r/videos, /r/jokes, and more. There are subreddits for interests like /r/baseball, /r/HarryPotter, /r/quilting and more. There are subreddits for truly niche and bizarre stuff like /r/birdswitharms, /r/fridgedetective and /r/WtWFotMJaJtRAtCaB (When the Water Flows over the Milk Jug at Just the Right Angle to Create a Bubble). There is a subreddit for every possible thing you can think of. And if there isn’t, just create it yourself!
Subreddits are created by users, and they’re controlled by users. Each subreddit has a volunteer moderator team that does not work for Reddit, and these mod teams have total and complete power over how their subreddits are run (aside from site-wide rules like no illegal content). The moderators determine what’s allowed and what’s not. They set rules, ban users, and clean up comment sections. They design the layout of subreddit with custom user flairs, images, color schemes and more. For large subreddits they often program bots and help users in a variety of ways. Most moderator teams are active and have offsite communications via Discord or Slack. They maintain and grow their communities, hold special events, etc. Rather than try to create and control subreddit activity centrally, Reddit has given these volunteer moderators an enormous amount of power.
Giving users the power to create their own communities has worked incredibly well, and it’s the reason there are so many wonderful niche communities on the site. It’s made Reddit one of the ten most visited sites on the internet. But giving moderators that degree of power also means those moderators have the power to close their own communities. It would only require coordination among a few thousand key moderators to actually shut down the site to a pretty significant degree. You can’t coordinate the 30 million members of /r/videos to stop using it. That’s impossible. But the moderation team of /r/videos can forcibly stop everyone from using it with a snap of their fingers, instantly and permanently. And that’s what’s happening right now, because Reddit moderators have actual power.
What comes next for Reddit
It’s unclear exactly how Reddit will deal with this. The scenario they’re likely hoping for is to simply take the PR hit for a couple of days, after which point all the subreddits come back and everyone moves on. People’s attention spans on the internet are very short, and there will be a different, new thing to be outraged about soon. This could work. It might even be the most likely outcome. Inertia is a really, really powerful force.
But there’s a chance it won’t work. It’s not impossible for a few thousand moderators to coordinate further action. What if they decide to do this every month, and there’s a continuous series of PR disasters ahead of Reddit’s IPO? What if /r/videos sticks to their threat to permanently shut down, and an increasing number of large subreddits join them? Losing large subreddits is a genuine blow to the site. If those things happen, Reddit has a few options, but all have significant downsides.
They could attempt to run large subreddits like /r/videos with Reddit employees (normally called ‘admins’). That’s an idea, but it doesn’t work at scale. Reddit could manage this if it was just /r/videos - remove the moderator team, install your own employees as the moderators, and reopen the subreddit. The issue is that subreddit moderation is an enormous amount of work, and reddit has grown completely dependent on the volunteer labor they get from mods. There’s no way they could afford to install their own centrally-controlled team as moderators for any significant number of subreddits.
They could remove the /r/videos moderators and install other volunteer moderators - but ones who appear friendly and want to reopen the subreddit. Scabs, essentially. This would be more scalable, but would still carry risks. The scab moderator team for any subreddit like this would be intensely unpopular with users, potentially killing the subreddit in a different way. It might depress new subreddit creation if users know that their subreddits can be taken from them if they protest the site. And there’s nothing to stop a new scab moderation team from eventually turning against Reddit like the original moderators did.
They could do nothing and bet that the anger will die out and Reddit largely survives intact. But that route could mean permanently killing several of the largest communities on their site. They’d also have a stressful period where the site experience for normal users was genuinely degraded in a way that they couldn’t control.
Reddit’s power users are notably well networked with one another on platforms outside of Reddit. Those moderators have the power to completely shut down their communities and make the site worse for normal users in obvious ways. I’m not aware of any other major site that gives as much power and responsibility to power users as Reddit does, and is therefore as vulnerable to this sort of tactic. Reddit seems unique. User protests on social media are always a longshot. But if they’re ever going to work, Reddit seems like the perfect test case.
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Younger folks - did you know Facebook used to be just a collection of people’s profiles? For years! If you wanted to see what was up with your friends you had to manually go to their profile pages one by one. It seems like a million years ago, but the idea of a ‘feed’ was something that actually took social media a long time to develop.
This one is true though.
“The hellsite” is a common nickname for Twitter, on Twitter
I’m not good at naming things, sorry.
This is why Digg’s redesign was different - the redesign destroyed Digg’s core functionality, and the experience of using the site changed drastically overnight. That’s why users fled en masse.