Reddit Gave Its Moderators Freedom—And Power

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For more than a week now, Reddit moderators have been using the site’s tools to protest proposed business changes. The stalemate reveals how much power the site’s users have accumulated over the years—and just how much the site depends on its moderators’ free labor.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Not a Worker, Not a Customer

If you’re looking for pictures of John Oliver, for some reason, I have a recommendation for you: The Reddit group r/pics. For the past several days, the r/pics forum, normally populated with food pictures and nature shots, has featured a steady drumbeat of photos of the comedian: John Oliver with his wife. John Oliver’s face Photoshopped onto Spider-Man’s body. John Oliver at a desk. John Oliver on his show. Indeed, the group’s moderators have forbidden users from posting anything besides John Oliver photos.

This is more than just a fun stunt (though it is pretty fun for observers). It is one of the various creative ways that Reddit moderators have used their authority in recent days to register discontent with proposed changes to Reddit’s business.

For the past 10 days, moderators of thousands of Reddit forums have been protesting the company’s plans to charge third parties to run apps on the site. Last week, nearly 9,000 forums went dark for 48 hours. Some forums remain shut down this week, and others are continuing to disrupt the normal flow of posts through the pipelines of the platform.

The trouble began after, earlier this spring, Reddit said it would start charging some other companies for Application Programming Interface (or API) access. In April, the company framed upcoming changes as an effort to ensure that it would be compensated when AI companies scraped the site’s reams of user-generated content. More recently, changes have meant that some beloved apps that make the site easier to use will be forced to shut down because of prohibitive expenses.

Reddit moderators can be forgiven for resenting changes that might make their lives harder. After all, they do a significant amount of work for free. Reddit’s users, especially power users such as moderators, contribute in a big way to the quality and growth of the platform. They lead and nurture (and police) communities that gather around various interests, such as relationships, parenting, plumbing, or weighing in on whether, in a given situation, a poster is the asshole. The relationship between Reddit and its users is unique. The company places outsize responsibility on its volunteer moderators, but as a result, they also have outsize power—which means that their coordinated actions can cause much disruption on the platform.

Moderators are not paid employees of the site. But they are not always customers, either—though Reddit has a premium tier, many users don’t pay to use the platform. Reddit, like many tech companies that provide free products, runs ads (cue the adage “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product”). Now, with its new rules, the company is attempting to monetize the content that users—and particularly moderators—have been generating for free.

By protesting the changes, moderators are reminding Reddit just how much the site needs them—and how much the moderators need third-party tools. “Many Reddit moderators rely on third-party apps in order to do their jobs,” my colleague Kaitlyn Tiffany, who reports on internet culture for The Atlantic and recently wrote a great book about online communities and fandom, reminded me this morning. “Without them, they’re rightfully concerned that their forums will be flooded with garbage.”

The API debate has exposed broader fault lines on the site, Fraser Raeburn, a historian and Reddit moderator, told me. He said that Reddit should better acknowledge “the role volunteers play within it, in terms of curating content and keeping Reddit a relatively safe and functional part of the internet.” The moderators of his forum, r/AskHistorians, have restricted posts on their forum as part of the protest. Raeburn said he hopes to see Reddit’s leaders engage constructively with questions and clarify how they will handle the disruptions that come from losing some add-ons.

So far, things have been fractious. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman told NBC last week that moderators were like “landed gentry,” and suggested that he might make changes that would allow users to vote moderators out. (When I asked Reddit for comment on the recent protests, I was directed to a blog post from last week on the API updates.) For now, moderators remain powerful.

Moderated communities are what have made Reddit distinctive as a platform, and as a result, helped it last. As Kaitlyn pointed out, “Reddit’s model of empowering moderators has given the site a much longer shelf life than I think many would have thought possible 10 years ago.”

It’s not easy for a tech company to make a lot of money and make all of its users happy—especially on a platform that has an open-source ethos. For all the talk among VCs and techies about the power of community, Reddit is demonstrating how fraught the community-based model can be. Especially as Reddit eyes a potential IPO, its corporate interests and user needs may clash.

Raeburn told me he wants this resolved so that he can get back to the reason he’s on the site: talking about history. But for now, he marvels at the way that the site’s structure and culture made this type of action possible. “Reddit had to give us a degree of control over the site because they wanted us to do that work for them,” Raeburn said. “Reddit, probably inadvertently, has created the structure for protest to succeed.”


Today’s News

  1. A ProPublica report revealed that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito had failed to disclose a 2008 luxury fishing trip with a wealthy conservative donor. Alito wrote an op-ed defending himself in The Wall Street Journal.
  2. President Joe Biden referred to Xi Jinping as a dictator at a campaign event in California.
  3. The Federal Reserve is likely to raise interest rates in the coming months, despite holding them steady last week.


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More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Read.The Night Before I Leave Home,” a new poem by Elisa Gonzalez.

“my brother gets out of bed at three, having lain down / only a few hours before, and pulls on his jeans, and stubs his toe / on the bed frame”

Watch. I Think You Should Leave (streaming on Netflix) is a comedy series that reveals the absurdity of office culture.

Play. Try out Caleb’s Inferno, our new print-edition puzzle. It starts easy but gets devilishly hard as you descend into its depths.

Or play our daily crossword.


If you haven’t already read it, I recommend checking out Kaitlyn’s book Everything I Need I Get From You, which is about the boy band One Direction but also about how fans reshaped the internet. Come for Kaitlyn visiting the spot at the side of the road where Harry Styles threw up; stay for her analysis about how users influenced and created value for major corporations. Also, I now see Beatles fans in a new light.

— Lora

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.