The Reddit blackout is already forcing unexpected changes

With some subreddits protesting indefinitely, Reddit could shake up its policy for moderators.

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It’s now clear that the Reddit blackout will have a significant impact on the platform, but perhaps not in the way its organizers intended. Rather than walk back the API policy changes that will force third-party apps like Apollo to shut down, the company’s leadership has repeatedly doubled down on its position.

"I think it's time we grow up and behave like an adult company,” CEO Steve Huffman told NPR. “These people who are mad, they’re mad because they used to get something for free, and now it’s going to be not free,” he said in an interview with The Verge. Reddit also used the media blitz to downplay the impact of the blackout, which at its peak saw more than 8,000 subreddits go dark in a move that was so destabilizing it temporarily took down the whole platform.

While the initial 48-hour blackout period has passed, the protest is far from over. Thousands of subreddits remain private or restricted. These include the massively popular r/funny, which has more than 40 million subscribers, as well as r/aww, r/Music and others with tens of millions of subscribers. Many of these subreddits’ moderators say they plan to continue their protests indefinitely.

In the short term, massive Reddit communities going dark doesn’t just affect Redditors. It also has an outsize impact on search results because so many people rely on the collective advice, conversations and shared knowledge of the discussions that are central to the platform. As many have pointed out, one of the biggest immediate impacts of the blackout was not a vastly different front page, but search results that lead to dead ends rather than answers.

But there are other, longer term effects we’re only just beginning to get a hint of. For one, the blackout could lead to significant changes in Reddit’s own policies and its dealings with moderators. In an interview with NBC News, Huffman suggested he was considering changing the site’s rules to make it easier to remove moderators.

From NBC:

Huffman, also a Reddit co-founder, said he plans to pursue changes to Reddit’s moderator removal policy to allow ordinary users to vote moderators out more easily if their decisions aren’t popular. He said the new system would be more democratic and allow a wider set of people to hold moderators accountable.

One change that is “really important,” he said, “is making sure that, for example, the protests, now or in the future, are actually representative of their communities. And I think that may have been the case for many at the beginning of this week, but that’s less and less the case as time goes on.

A post from Reddit admins also alluded to such a change. In response to a question on r/ModSupport, a company representative raised a similar point. “Active communities are relied upon by thousands or even millions of users, and we have a duty to keep these spaces active,” the unnamed employee wrote. “If a moderator team unanimously decides to stop moderating, we will invite new, active moderators to keep these spaces open and accessible to users. If there is no consensus, but at least one mod who wants to keep the community going, we will respect their decisions and remove those who no longer want to moderate from the mod team.”

While the post cited Reddit’s existing policies for moderators, the comment has been interpreted by some longtime moderators as a direct threat. A Reddit spokesperson said the company isn't removing moderators who protest or "taking over" participating subreddits, but reiterated that its existing rules allow it to replace moderators when a community has been "abandoned." He said Huffman's comments to NBC were "hypothetical," but left open the possibility that the company's policy could change. "In the future, we could look at developing a way for community members to vote out a mod if they disagree with decisions being made that impact the entire community," he said.

For now, it’s unclear exactly how Reddit’s policies may change for its legions of volunteer moderators. At the very least, it seems that Reddit is at least interested in shifting the power dynamics that have historically given its unpaid moderators an outsize influence over the platform

Meanwhile, the blackout has affected Reddit in other important ways. There’s been a small, but growing push among some power users to federated Reddit alternatives like Lemmy and kbin. These decentralized platforms are still niche, and have many of the same challenges as Mastodon and other Twitter alternatives. Yet there seems to be growing interest from some corners of Reddit in recent weeks. Other large communities are simply moving to a more familiar platform: Discord.

And, as much as Reddit’s leadership tries to downplay the impact of the blackout, advertisers have noticed. According to AdWeek, some ad buyers have at least temporarily paused advertising while they wait for the blackout to play out. And while Huffman has suggested that the company’s ad revenue hasn’t taken a significant hit from the protest, that could change if it drags on indefinitely in communities advertisers are particularly interested in reaching. “[Advertisers] didn’t want to become the subject of users’ opinions about Reddit’s decisions,” one unnamed ad buyer told the publication.

All of this could ultimately leave Reddit in a much different place than it was before the blackout. As Rory Mir, the associate director of community organizing for digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently wrote, Reddit seems to be following a familiar pattern. “What we see time and time again, though, is that when a platform turns its back on the community, it doesn’t end well,” Mir said. “They’ll revolt and they’ll flee, and the platform will be left trying to squeeze dwindling profits from a colossal wreck.”

Update, June 16th, 2023, 9:00 AM PT: This story has been updated with comments from a Reddit spokesperson about the company's moderator removal policy.