Social media researchers at the Network Contagion Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, was shaken early last month. They were awakened by 6:30 a.m. calls from a colleague warning that Reddit had begun blocking the institute’s Pushshift service from updating the ongoing archive of every post on the discussion platform.
That’s been a problem for more than just NCRI, because some of Reddit’s 50,000 volunteer moderators rely on Pushshift to quickly investigate problem users, and many academics rely on the service. If it got old, mods, as Reddit calls moderators, would have to work overtime or allow more garbage to pile up. Researchers studying online communities should put projects and dissertations on hold.
The Pushshift blockade and its consequences are only part of the collateral damage of an aggressive push by Reddit’s leaders to shut down free, large-scale access to the platform’s content by outside software. The policy change has sparked two months of unrest, including massive protests from Redditors and a mod rebellion that has seen 2,400 of the platform’s more than 100,000 communities shut down. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman likened mods to “landed gentry” wielding undemocratic power while trying to describe tensions within Reddit’s community.
The saga is expected to peak on July 1, when Reddit’s new data access rates go into effect. A few popular independent apps for accessing the platform have said they will be shutting down, saying the costs and new terms are too onerous. But Reddit leaders say changes are needed to bring stability to a company that has struggled to find solid financial footing despite 57 million daily users and has delayed going public. They hope to monetize outfits ranging from small services like Pushshift to wealthy tech companies like ChatGPT maker OpenAI, which uses online conversations to train chatbots.
The drama has led to speculation that Reddit has stashed away the fuel of its success, shedding a generation of power users who have curated a uniquely helpful, creative, and profanely silly corner of the internet. Some mods have resigned, including one using the handle desGroles, who has been one of the four leaders of Reddit’s sourdough community, or subreddit, in recent years. This week he blocked access to Reddit on his home router in Cape Town, South Africa. “You don’t want to put in hours for someone who treats you so abusively — to me it’s irreparable,” says desGroles, who declined to be named, fearing online harassment. “It’s soured,” he adds — and not in a savory way.
But while mods have been lost and the company’s reputation with users has been bruised, there are signs that Reddit is already recovering.
NCRI CEO Adam Sohn says Pushshift’s shock shutdown was the result of a miscommunication and that Reddit has restored its team’s ability to download new posts for free, under a non-commercial project exemption. “This was a real concern because we didn’t know who is using their data and for what reasons,” says Sohn. Over the past week, NCRI and Reddit vetted Pushshift users and restored access to several hundred moderators. Then they will do the same for academic users. “Everything is moving in the right direction,” says Sohn.
Reddit is also working to include more accessibility and moderation features in its own apps and other systems to reduce users’ reliance on independent apps that can’t afford upcoming data charges. Spokesman Tim Rathschmidt says the company is continuing discussions with apps “that are willing to work with us and follow our terms.” (Disclosure: WIRED is a publication of Condé Nast, whose parent company, Advance Publications, owns a majority stake in Reddit.)