Can Reddit Survive Its Own IPO? | WIRED

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Mar 14, 2024 11:30 PM
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Alyssa Videlock was 11 years old when she started searching for people like her on the internet. What she found, back in the early 2000s, was not at all what she’d hoped for. “Being trans online was not really a thing,” she says. “There was fetish stuff for it, and there were stories about transformation. But it was either porn or … porn.”
So Videlock was especially grateful, about a decade later, when she started exploring Reddit. She was still closeted to her family and friends, and finding a place where she could speak with other trans people kept her sane, she says. On Reddit, trans people had strength in numbers and power against the aggravation of trolls. Through an elaborate system of volunteer moderators, Reddit allows its communities—called subreddits or subs—to cultivate their own rules, cultures, and protections. The subs that Videlock frequented, such as r/asktransgender and r/MtF, were particularly good at fencing out harassment. “It felt like I could make myself known there,” she says.
For Videlock, lurking on Reddit became a prelude to posting every now and then—which ultimately became a prelude to making herself known in the real world, and in 2017 she started to transition. A couple of years later, she tuned in to a video of a trans woman playing piano on Reddit’s livestreaming service, r/pan, and was moved to watch as moderators shot down one vicious comment after another. The spectacle inspired her to become a moderator herself.
The 33-year-old software developer, who lives in New York, went on to volunteer about five hours a day, seven days a week—exorcising spam, breaking up fights, and removing hateful slurs on a handful of subreddits, including r/lgbt, one of Reddit’s larger subs. She joined the ranks of more than 60,000 mods who manage subreddits ranging from the creative (r/nosleep, a community of people who write first-person horror fiction) and the supportive (r/REDDITORSINRECOVERY) to the predictably crass (r/ratemypoo) and the unpredictably disgusting (r/FiftyFifty, a 2.2 million–member community for sharing blind links, where about half lead to something stomach-turning).
For good and for ill, Reddit has long been an island of authenticity in an increasingly artificial world: a place where real people, hiding behind the privacy of fake names, share their rabid enthusiasms, expertise, and morbid thoughts; where viral memes and movements bubble up from a primordial soup of upvotes and chatter; where a million users each donate $1 to a stranger just to make a millionaire for the fun of it; and where people with drinking problems, parenting crises, crushing debt loads, or gender confusion can find one another and compare notes on the struggle. (Reddit, by the estimate of an adult industry expert, also has more porn than PornHub—an assertion Reddit disputes.)
After years as a relatively quiet user, Videlock gained a whole new appreciation for Reddit as a volunteer. She had also moderated on Discord, but there was no comparison: Reddit mods shared tools and tricks that empowered them to be far more preemptive and strategic. Sometimes, for example, trolls post vicious comments and then quickly delete their account or the comment itself—a drive-by tactic that helps them evade detection and penalties. As a Reddit mod, Videlock had a free third-party app at her disposal that allowed her to hunt down those deleted comments retroactively.
Whenever Reddit staff asked for feedback from mods, Alyssa Videlock stepped up.
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Being a Reddit mod also, Videlock realized, gave her the ear of a major social media company. For a website with 73 million daily users and more than 100,000 subreddits, Reddit’s paid staff is remarkably small—about 2,000 employees and a few hundred contractors in San Francisco, New York, and a handful of cities outside the US. Whenever staff asked moderators for feedback, Videlock stepped up: She got on phone calls, took surveys, answered repeated questions about her experience. What keeps you here? How do you identify bad apples? When Reddit rolled out new features, Videlock always offered to give them a try.
And so it was that in early June 2023, a staffer on Reddit’s community management team—the part of the company that deals most directly with moderators—asked Videlock and a few other volunteer leaders to join a video call with Reddit cofounder and CEO Steve Huffman. The executive wanted to smooth over fast-spreading concerns about a recently announced policy change. For the first time, the company would charge for access to its application programming interface, or API, the system by which software developers from outside the company had been pulling content from Reddit for nearly 15 years.
On the call, Huffman told Videlock and the other moderators that Reddit had no choice but to charge for access; he later said it was losing tens of millions of dollars to support companies big and small that were dipping into its 17 billion forum posts and comments for free. Reddit wanted to start extracting fees from entities like OpenAI and Google, which had scraped the site’s data to train large language models that power generative AI programs like ChatGPT and Gemini.
In a sense, Huffman’s plan got at the crux of Reddit’s value to the internet. Alexis Ohanian, who founded Reddit with Huffman in the mid-2000s but severed ties with the company years ago, argues that Reddit’s status as an island of wild authenticity will only become more precious and sought after as ChatGPT and Dall-E flood the world with machine-made content. Now here was Huffman with an idea that would harness some of that value—and in his view, secure Reddit’s survival—by charging admission to the machines.
Videlock and the other mods didn’t see it that way. In fact, Huffman’s call lit the fuse on a rebellion that would rage across Reddit for weeks.
To the mods, it was fine if Reddit wanted to prevent itself from being cannibalized by the likes of OpenAI. But API fees were also bound to cannibalize Reddit’s own community. Thousands of apps had evolved over the years to serve the needs of millions of users and mods, often built by solo developers to compensate for what they felt were inadequacies of Reddit’s own systems. Reddit’s new policy, mods worried, could lay that ecosystem to waste. Within five days, moderators in charge of thousands of subreddits launched a protest, blocking access to their forums for days, confusing oblivious users, endangering millions in ad revenue, and igniting a PR crisis big enough to light the sky.
Ohanian calls the 2023 rebellion “bigger and longer” than any conflict the platform had seen before. And its timing was disastrous. Reddit was—and still is—on the brink of an initial public offering, now expected next week. The imposition of API fees was meant to demonstrate that Reddit could establish a substantial new revenue stream. It also showed something else: that the risk of future mod uprisings was an enduring threat to Reddit’s ads business, which drove 98 percent of the company’s $804 million in revenue last year. “That’s why the rancor for the past year has been a big deal,” says Jeremy Goldman, who analyzes social media for the market research firm Emarketer. Reddit’s “whole strategy,” he says, is dependent on the loyalty of mods.
In the months since the rebellion, WIRED has spoken with more than 60 people—moderators and Reddit employees or contractors, both current and former, across engineering, sales, policy, security, partnerships, product, recruiting, and data science—most of whom requested anonymity to protect job prospects and reveal confidential information. While many of them respect Huffman and love Reddit, these sources question the company’s capacity to satisfy the lofty expectations for sales and user growth that Wall Street has imposed on recent tech IPOs.
Documents released on the eve of Reddit’s IPO add some shading to the picture: The company’s revenue growth slowed in the past two years, and average daily users worldwide fell in three of the past 12 quarters. Several years ago, the company projected it would top $1 billion in ad revenue by 2023, but it fell short by roughly 20 percent. The company also lost about $91 million last year. But the same documents also make the case for Reddit’s deeper value. In a recent letter to potential investors, Huffman cast Reddit’s efforts to generate revenue as being in the early stages, and highlighted ongoing efforts to make the platform faster and easier to use, including with the help of AI. The 40-year-old said he is particularly proud of the way Reddit comes to the aid of users in difficult moments, when they may not be comfortable turning to anyone else but a crowd of strangers. More than four years ago, he said, he himself turned to r/stopdrinking for help.
The question, in other words, isn’t just whether Reddit can meet the expectations of investors. It’s whether a vast and beloved institution can survive to guide the next Alyssa Videlock—or Steve Huffman—to the other side of a crisis.
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One day in the spring of 2005, Huffman and Ohanian—then a pair of college housemates at the University of Virginia—traveled to Boston to attend a lecture by tech investor Paul Graham. They were hoping Graham would autograph a copy of his book and—pressing their luck—that they’d be able to pitch him over coffee. When Graham agreed to hear them out, the two fourth-years told him their big idea: a mobile platform that would allow customers of places like Sheetz, the mid-Atlantic convenience store chain, to order sub sandwiches from their phones while, say, pumping gas.
Graham was about to launch a startup incubator called Y Combinator, and he was impressed by the young undergrads. But to secure a spot in Y Combinator’s first class of startups, Graham told them, they needed a new idea. He even crystallized it for them: They should create a “front page of the internet,” a real-time forum for links to satisfy the curious and the bored. To seal the deal, YC gave them $12,000 in seed funding and a preposterously short timeline.
Huffman, who had been programming since he was 8, coded the platform over three weeks late that spring. Ohanian came up with the name Reddit—as in “I read it.” Every day, he sketched versions of what he described as a “genderless” alien mascot named Snoo—as in “what’s new.” When it launched, Reddit let users vote on whether an item was “interesting” or “boring,” and those votes determined the order in which the items appeared. To attract users by making the site appear lively, Huffman and Ohanian created “sock puppet,” or fake, accounts. Sam Altman, who was working on his own YC startup, became one of Reddit’s first real users. Chris Slowe and the late hacker-activist Aaron Swartz put aside their YC projects to help Huffman with engineering. Within a year, Reddit began allowing comments and opening forums for topics like sports, politics, and programming—and one called NSFW, or not safe for work. On all these subreddits, people whose posts garnered significant upvotes built up “karma,” a publicly visible but secretly calculated measure of someone’s contribution to Reddit, inspired by scoring systems in video games.
On Halloween 2006, just 16 months after they founded the company, Huffman and Ohanian sold Reddit to Condé Nast in a deal worth $10 million and agreed to stay on as leaders for at least three years. (Condé Nast, which is owned by Advance Magazine Publishers, is the publisher of WIRED). Condé viewed Reddit as a place to experiment and where the magazine company could build out new ideas online.
But by 2009, according to users, Reddit’s website was as bare-bones as before the sale. Ohanian and another person familiar with the corporate politics say the site’s growth was stymied by Condé Nast’s uncertain desires for the property and Ohanian’s self-acknowledged mismanagement. Reddit was awash in half-baked pursuits—including a short-lived iPhone app, iReddit—and a path to sustainable revenue wasn’t yet evident. After the cofounders’ three-year contracts expired on Halloween 2009, Huffman and Ohanian left for new pursuits.
Slowe and the handful of other staffers left behind at Reddit—now contending with the fallout from a global recession—stumbled through experiments with selling ads and subscriptions. Neither Condé execs nor users were pleased. But they managed to keep the website alive. Anyone could now open a subreddit, and by January 2011, Reddit had 57,000 of them. That year the company began operating as a subsidiary of Condé Nast’s parent, Advance, which let it function more like a startup. (Advance still owns a roughly 30 percent stake.) Amid the changes, Ohanian came back via a seat on Reddit’s board.
Unfortunately, in what would become a recurring theme, Reddit’s small staff had trouble keeping up with the explosion of new, toxic subreddit communities. In September 2011, CNN’s Anderson Cooper aired a segment about a subreddit called r/jailbait that was associated with unconscionable images of children. Reddit soon banned the community.
r/jailbait didn’t stand alone. Media outlets, civil rights groups, and some users called out communities that trafficked in misogynist conspiracy theories, intimate images stolen off celebrities’ emails and iCloud accounts, and actual AR-15s that had Snoo emblazoned on them with Reddit’s permission. Racist, bigoted comments often spilled out from these toxic hotbeds into other subreddits. For the mods, the work of keeping their spaces welcoming, not hateful, grew exhausting.
In what would be their first big show of power, pissed-off volunteers essentially shuttered hundreds of communities dedicated to the likes of cats, movies, and Metallica.
Mods and users were also frustrated at times with buggy experiences on Reddit’s mobile website (its own in-house app was years away from relaunching). So several developers created surrogate mobile apps, which pulled content via the free API. One of them, made by a developer named Andrew Shu, was an Android app called RIF (for Reddit is fun) that packaged up Reddit content and drew millions of downloads. Reddit even licensed its name to RIF for a few years, for a fee. The independent apps kept users engaged but left Reddit proper with fewer eyeballs to sell to advertisers.
Investors didn’t seem to mind the bleeding at the margins. In 2014, Altman, rich from selling his Y Combinator startup Loopt, led a $50 million infusion of funding for Reddit, along with contributions from celebrities including Snoop Dogg and Jared Leto. Two months later, Reddit’s CEO, Yishan Wong, quit—worn out, citing “significantly detrimental effects” the job had on his personal life. Altman and the board promoted Ellen Pao, then the head of strategic partnerships, to interim CEO, making her Reddit’s fifth leader in five years. She instantly became an ally to users and mods who had railed against the horrid subreddits, and an instant enemy to those who wanted to troll.
Pao banned porn sharing that didn’t have subjects’ consent and closed several subreddits that targeted Black, trans, and larger-bodied people. Unsurprisingly, one flank of Reddit’s user and moderator base loved this. The other decried the actions as censorship.
Soon after that decision, Pao lost the support of both flanks. It happened, many volunteers say, when Reddit let go of a beloved communications employee named Victoria Taylor who was a liaison to many mods. In what would be their first big show of power, pissed-off volunteers essentially shuttered hundreds of communities dedicated to the likes of cats, movies, and Metallica.
The protest cowed Reddit’s bosses. Ohanian, who had recently become Reddit’s executive chair, conceded to the mods in a public post: “Your message was received loud and clear. The communication between Reddit and the moderators needs to improve dramatically.” It had become evident that volunteers, who were providing what would become millions of dollars in free labor to Reddit annually, truly shared control of the service.
Huffman, who had gone on to cofound a travel startup called Hipmunk, watched these events and fumed. He had had an experience on psychedelic mushrooms, he later revealed in a podcast, that opened his eyes to the diversity of humankind. Now, he didn’t want protesters, trolls, anyone destroying the structure that Reddit provided to legitimate countercultures, and he felt he could corral the miscreants. Huffman also feared that without him, Reddit would overreact and then fail, just like its one-time rival Digg, which had never fully recovered after a redesign stripped users’ voting power and drove them away.
Reddit’s board had their own concerns. The website now had upwards of 200 million regular visitors but had begun stagnating. “The saying was,” a former senior executive put it, “‘You’re growing slower than the internet.’” Reddit needed direction. Huffman felt compelled—and supported by board members Ohanian, Altman, and Bob Sauerberg, then the president of Condé Nast—to run toward fire. “I’ve gotten the increasingly strong feeling that Reddit needs me more than ever,” Huffman told The New York Times. “We have an opportunity to be this massive force of good in the world.” By July 10, 2015, Pao was out, Huffman was back—and now he was facing an audacious goal that had been set by the board, one that would open advertisers’ wallets: Get to 1 billion users.
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Reddit’s moderators each come to the task differently. Power can be a big draw; u/N8theGr8 grew his flock until he was moderating subreddits that had, all told, 301 million members, making him the most prolific mod ever. Some want to share their expertise, like the team of history-buff moderators at r/AskHistorians, or the scientific illustrator u/TinyLongwing who helps amateur birders on r/whatsthisbird. Others are super-users who’ve spent enough time on Reddit to get wise to its faults. u/RamsesThePigeon started out by posting absurdist fiction (about, say, honey badgers or Ouija boards) to the comedy subreddit r/funny. As he read the room, he noticed groups of users that commented only on each other’s posts, often using similar or verbatim language. He had discovered “spambot rings,” a persistent scam on Reddit. “The more I posted, I started recognizing patterns in the way the site worked,” he says.
After reporting spambot rings to mods for months, they suggested he switch to acting on them. He began moderating huge communities, including r/funny, which, at 57 million members, is now Reddit’s biggest.
Volunteer moderators don’t just enforce the rules. Apart from eight sitewide principles set by Reddit—“Everyone has a right to use Reddit free of harassment,” “Do not cheat or engage in content manipulation”—the mods make the rules in their subreddits. They’ve turned the platform into one of the world’s most inventive laboratories for online content moderation, with approaches as diverse as the troublemakers they counter. For example, on r/TwoXIndia, Reddit’s community for Indian women, men are allowed to comment on Wednesdays only, and just in one section of content. The r/trans subreddit, where Videlock is a moderator, lists 14 detailed rules, from the simple (no hate speech) to the community-specific (no sharing hate speech posted by others, even in mockery). “We spent a lot of time making sure as much of our community can ask a question without fear of rejection,” Videlock says.
From Reddit’s earliest days, there have also been moderators who build tools to make the work easier, like u/creesch, who saw, early in his tenure as a mod, that Reddit’s mod tools were woefully underdeveloped. The site, for example, had simple buttons to remove posts or ban users, but it couldn’t track rule breakers or efficiently notify people whose posts had been pulled. creesch launched what he called Mod Tools Enhanced in early 2013. Then, with help from other coders, he upgraded anew. Mod Toolbox, as they called it, swelled in popularity, becoming the premier add-on suite for mods.
Most mods channel their zealotry into keeping Reddit friendly. Some do the opposite. In one subreddit that Ellen Pao banned in 2015, r/fatpeoplehate, mods had posted a step-by-step guide on commenting anonymously. One tip was to write comments from burner usernames because “using your main account … can leave hams with a trail of cookie crumbs that they eat up and find out who you are.”
Such was the ornery, dedicated landscape of moderators that Huffman inherited upon his return. He assigned a handful of community managers to work on pacifying the company’s relationships with mods. He went on a hiring spree, bringing the size of the staff from 80 people to about 350. In doing so, he hired about 20 employees from his former startup (Reddit staff called them the “Hipmunk bros”) to oversee technology, product, marketing, and what he labeled “anti-evil operations,” or the corporate enforcement of Reddit-wide rules.
Almost as soon as Huffman took the reins, a huge moderation challenge tested his playbook. Founded in 2015, r/The_Donald, or T_D, flouted Reddit’s policies and norms around hate and accuracy and became a now infamous hub of avid Trump supporters. For months, T_D mods used their expertise in Reddit’s voting system to flood Reddit’s homepage with posts favorable to Trump and conservative views of the time, frustrating other users. Mods demanded Huffman take drastic action. Many employees also wanted the subreddit banned.
Huffman, though, had warned upon his return that cracking down on one community threatened frank exchange in all of them. He’d say in a later interview that censorship needs to be approached cautiously. “A lot of bad ideas are not necessarily bad ideas. Or they might just be undecided ideas,” he said. “The ability to argue and have differences of opinion and debates, even if it’s not perfectly friendly and professional at all times, is really important.”
Huffman preferred to assert control over T_D through a stunt reminiscent of Reddit’s early days, when he used his superadmin access to alter posts that used a gay slur to say “fog” instead. This time, when T_D users invoked his Reddit username, “spez,” in insults, Huffman edited their comments to cut out his username and replace it with the names of T_D mods, making it look like they were mocking themselves.
The CEO’s surprise intervention enraged T_D’s mods and users, not to mention staff, who were left doing damage control over the 2016 Thanksgiving holiday in the US. Employees called the incident “Spezgiving,” and not fondly. Soon after, Huffman wrote an apology that started, “tl;dr: I fucked up.” Of course, his self-described prankster side had benefits. He could be warm, approachable, and informal, employees say; he once let a community manager launch a pie in his face to celebrate the team clearing a support-ticket backlog. When there were complaints about colleagues arriving late and leaving early, Huffman sent out an email saying no one should be criticized as long as they completed their work. In some ways, Huffman’s return was a reminder of what had enabled the free-spirited vibe that drew users to Reddit in the first place.
Reddit cofounder and CEO Steve Huffman once let a community manager launch a pie into his face.
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As the weight of reaching a billion users pressed down on him, many staffers believe, Huffman began to lose some of that free spirit. There’s no way to grow by a factor of five, of course, without alienating some loyal diehards. But Reddit kept falling into patterns that aggravated core users without netting many gains: playing catch-up with trends, vacillating over priorities, and struggling over when to follow the guidance of people in the company who knew the mods best.
Early on, for instance, Huffman launched a new app for Reddit to draw in users directly. But because some users had become attached to variants such as RIF, he rejected his lieutenants’ advice to cut off the user-made apps, even though they cost the company advertising revenue. He also set out to modernize what he jokingly called Reddit’s “dystopian Craigslist” user interface, and the company’s head designer drew inspiration from Twitter for a new homepage look. But when millions of users and mods turned out to prefer dystopia, Huffman ended up committing to maintaining the old interface alongside the new one—stretching thin his engineers.
Later, Reddit turned its envious eyes to Twitch, imitating it with the livestreaming platform r/pan, or “public access network.” More than a dozen engineers were originally dedicated to the project. The dream was that users would stream their own videos, and major events like tennis championships and Apple product debuts would come to r/pan. With a core user base accustomed to hiding behind pseudonyms, employees never quite understood how to encourage people to go live. Plus, sources say tools for moderators lagged. (Reddit disputes this.) Sometimes offensive comments remained temporarily visible even after they’d been removed. Even the most senior technical staff struggled to fix the bugs, which were buried within hundreds of thousands of lines of hastily written code, one of those top programmers says. The new service did foster a legion of amateur musicians and comedians with decent audiences. But big-name partnerships never materialized. Huffman pulled the plug on r/pan just over three years after it launched. (Some Reddit engineers say they celebrated as the long and fast-built r/pan code disappeared.)
Then, about a year into the pandemic, to get in on the popularity of the live audio app Clubhouse, the company launched Reddit Talk. Dozens of staffers joined the project. “You could hear a collective groan,” a manager of another team says of the internal reaction. Reddit’s community managers tried to sound the alarm as yet another new feature went live without what they believed were adequate moderation capabilities, one such staffer says. If a host of a talk was allowing people to break the rules, only a mod could stop it. In a memorable incident during a Talk session on r/australia, a user began to rant about killing Indigenous Australians. A mod was there, a person who followed the situation says, and acted swiftly, but if they hadn’t been in the room, the hate speech could have continued. Advertisers demanded more oversight for the product. Reddit Talk attracted speakers like director Guillermo del Toro and reached 15 million users, but it was shut down after two years.
In 2020, Reddit acquired Dubsmash, an early TikTok rival, with an eye toward absorbing its creative tools to encourage users to post more videos. This worked for a while; Reddit saw a nearly 70 percent increase in hours watched in just under a year. Dubsmash engineers delivered editing tools that felt appropriate for Reddit, including a filter that made users look like Snoo. But according to an analysis by Emerge Tools, a service for mobile developers, the size of Reddit’s iOS app grew by about a third. Reddit executives believed the download bloat jeopardized user growth in emerging markets where there were high data fees, those familiar with the discussions say. Leadership also worried about videos sucking people away from engaging with comments, even though the new products were having a positive impact on sales. Eventually the filters and some advanced editing tools that Dubsmash had helped engineer got the boot, and Huffman announced plans to shutter Dubsmash’s own app.
Reddit also built a program called Collectible Avatars that would let artists sell digital characters—and launched it into a market that was already collapsing, spectacularly. (Employees say Huffman insisted that they never use the term NFT.) Reddit put an estimated 20 staffers from the company’s secretive R&D division on the Avatars project and promoted it on a massive billboard in New York’s Times Square. Sources say it has been lucrative for artists. The company describes sales to date as “immaterial.”
These scattered pursuits, some employees note, siphoned resources away from core teams like the engineers who made the site reliable. For years, Reddit suffered so many outages that users made a sport of drawing on bananas while the site was down and posting the masterpieces on r/downtimebananas when it returned online. Similarly, Reddit’s ad-buying system was so onerous that staff handled the grunt work of uploading ads to the site, so as to shield advertisers from the system’s shortcomings. One ad account manager lost a Thanksgiving weekend struggling to upload a series of 15-second video ads for a major client, because inexplicably, the tool kept rebooting, over and over. Though significantly improved, the ads system today is still riddled with outdated, erroneous, and limited options.
Aside from new products, Huffman also grew increasingly focused on another frontier for growth: overseas expansion. Starting in 2021 Reddit brought on local community managers, translators, and salespeople to win over the world. Meta and Google each generate more than half of their revenue outside the US. Reddit was nowhere close to that—in part because 90 percent of new content is still in English. But the familiar tendency to take the quick route afflicted Reddit’s global push. To gin up activity in France and Germany, Reddit staffers quietly scraped popular English-language submissions and translated them. Some users and mods thought a spambot ring had infected their communities. (Reddit declined to comment on this episode.)
Reddit prioritized growing in India but struggled to overcome tax and legal issues to hire staff there. That disappointed volunteer mods in the country, who begged the company for reinforcements as Islamophobia, casteism, and other bigotry ran rampant in big local communities. They were concerned about the US-centric staff’s inability to understand the cultural nuances of content that was being escalated to them—a feeling shared by some mods across Asia and the Pacific. “They pooh-pooh us,” says one of the Indian mods, u/neoronin. Only recently have the veteran Indian mods felt heard. Today some top Indian subreddits have exponentially more members than they did four years ago, and some have more than a million members, but the goal of further expansion in the region falls to a vice president of international growth based in Singapore who, as of last year, didn’t have any staff directly reporting to him.
About half of Reddit’s overall daily users are from outside the US—the same as three years ago—and just 19 percent of ad sales last year were from foreign advertisers. Over the past year, the company has shelved some plans to expand in Latin America and canceled even some of its successful marketing campaigns elsewhere, narrowing priorities to the UK, France, Spain, and a few others.
All of these starts and stops, mild successes, and costly disappointments took a toll on the volunteer workforce. By many accounts Huffman truly does care about moderators. He has said that it’s his “literal dream” to find some genuine way to reward them: He supported a project, which ultimately didn’t work out, to let mods sell merchandise in their communities, and extended an unusual offer to let users buy shares in the IPO. According to some sources who work closely with mods, though, Huffman and other execs had simply paid too little attention to moderators’ needs recently, and in so doing inadvertently fanned the embers that would ignite a fire.
The company had amassed, says one former employee, “an embarrassing number” of survey results showing mods repeatedly asking for guardrails to safely launch new products. Feeling ignored, key volunteers started calling it quits. While six developers worked in earnest on Mod Toolbox over the years, only two—u/creesch, the founder, and a newcomer, Erin, a college student—were left by 2021. That number went up after colleagues found out how much work the two were tackling; even so, creesch was winding down. His interest “didn’t just suddenly fall off a cliff,” Erin says. “The direction the site has been going has had an impact on us.”
The sheer volume of vitriol and crap kept beating mods down too. During the pandemic, one mod, u/N8theGr8, the guy in charge of those 301 million subscribers, grew furious with r/NoNewNormal, a prominent antivax page. Its users would spill what he considered disinformation into other subreddits he worked on, including the cute animal community r/aww. Reddit stopped promoting NoNewNormal to users who weren’t members but didn’t shutter it. Frustrated by the limited action, N8 took a new approach: He banned NoNewNormal users from most communities he controlled. He and other mods also asked Reddit staff to ban communities that spread disinformation. N8 also created a new page where volunteers could coordinate to expand the cordon against NoNewNormal, r/ModCoord. If Reddit wouldn’t ban the users outright, volunteers would do it piecemeal.
In a further escalation, N8 rallied his coalition of mod allies to lock the more than 125 subreddits they managed, functionally taking sections of Reddit offline, just as mods had done during the Ellen Pao protests years before. Protesting mods wrote to users that the “volume of blatant misinformation is problematic and dangerous.” The company maintained that a NoNewNormal ban would stifle contrasting viewpoints—but it eventually took the page down following media reports of the protest. Reddit cited the subreddit’s continued interference in other communities as the reason. Left in the wake of that event was an infrastructure for mass collective action and a playbook for how to wield it. It wouldn’t be long before the mods would use both again.
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In May 2022, as the pandemic started to loosen its grip, Reddit spent millions to host more than 1,000 of its employees in New York City for two days of hot dogs, pizza, drinking, concerts, and karaoke. They gathered on the rooftop of a building on a pier along the East River and in Queens at a former door factory turned party space. DJs spun from a platform that held a giant neon sign reading “Front Stage of the Internet.” There were subreddit-themed areas: One, a church set up for r/onetruegod —dedicated to Nicolas Cage—was full of pillows featuring the actor’s face. The Snoo Summit was the company’s first big gathering since Covid; the celebration was, in part, meant to coincide with Reddit’s plans to go public. But amid the war in Ukraine and a tumbling stock market, Reddit decided to hold off on the IPO—which lent the event the quality of a garish head fake, some staffers say. In the end, the event turned out to be not only a money-suck but also a Covid super-spreader.
Despite the IPO delays, Huffman repeatedly assured workers that Reddit was in good financial shape—with over $1 billion available in cash—and he led them to believe no jobs would be cut. But in the fall of 2022, events at another tech giant appeared to alter Reddit’s personality. Watching Elon Musk take over Twitter, according to some former Reddit employees, appeared to fuel a grim change in Huffman. Some staffers began to call their CEO Stelon Husk.
Huffman embarked on something the company called a “talent density review”—by which employees understood people were about to lose their jobs.
Around the time Musk laid off roughly half of Twitter’s employees and demanded that his remaining staffers be “extremely hard core,” Huffman began to outline a plan that would cut perks for Reddit employees. Benefits that had once been valued at around $9,000 a year—work-from-home and professional development allowances and a health and wellness fund known as “up to snoo”—would shrink in value and eligibility. On a company Slack channel, some workers alleged that the cutbacks would disproportionately hit groups such as overseas workers and those with disabilities. Former employees recall that in a meeting and subsequent memo, Huffman described his detractors’ behavior as entitled and ungrateful, and told them to come to him privately with criticism. Many viewed this approach as an affront to the company’s value of “default open.” (The company later made adjustments to perks.)
Around that same time, Huffman embarked on something the company called a “talent density review”—by which employees understood people were about to lose their jobs. They gaped at the bizarre euphemism, to say nothing of Huffman’s reversal after months of assurances, as Reddit set about letting go of what would eventually total 10 percent of its workforce. Sources say Huffman has since expressed regret over how the job losses were handled.
Huffman’s next big move would, again, be Muskian. In February 2023, the Twitter CEO posted a bombshell. “Free API is being abused badly right now,” Musk tweeted. “Just ~$100/month for API access with ID verification will clean things up greatly.” Weeks later, word of an impending change to Reddit’s own API fees started to trickle out from Huffman’s office.
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Reddit’s community management team warned executives that a change to their API policy might set off another uprising. Leadership, sources say, took few steps to prepare. When Huffman got on that June conference call with Videlock and other moderators and tried to sell the fees as a way to defend Reddit’s value against the rampant parasitism of AI companies, the mods were aghast. They had no idea how Huffman could justify charging for the data that was needed for the tools they used every day. Toolbox developer Erin was incensed: “You’re going to start making some of us pay for the privilege of untangling this mess into something useful to our users?”
Videlock and other volunteers relayed their worries to Huffman, but by the very next morning, their fears started turning into reality. Third-party apps that mods used for their work were suddenly in jeopardy. BotDefense, a tracking program that found spambots and banned them across multiple subreddits, needed API access to process account data. If BotDefense went down, spammers could run rampant. Another tool at risk was Unddit, a comment archive that needed API access to troves of deleted comments so mods could see, for example, if users were hiding rule-breaking posts. Even smaller tools like r/audiophile’s tech support and purchase advice bot, Transducer Bot, could be broken without API access.
What’s more, apps that were simply popular among users and mods started falling. In early June, Andrew Shu, the developer of RIF—the Android app that millions of users preferred to the company’s official one—announced he would be shutting down because the new terms barred him from making money off ads and displaying porn from Reddit. To survive, he would have to charge users and offer less. “I didn’t want to fuck over my entire user base,” Shu says. That same day, Christian Selig, a software engineer who ran a similar Reddit-clone mobile app for iOS called Apollo, which earned him a handsome living through subscription fees, also announced that he was closing up shop.
According to call transcripts that Selig shared with us, Reddit platform and business development staff had promised him in January to “expect no change” and then in April that the company had no plans to “blow anyone out of the water.” And yet here was Apollo in June, in Selig’s view, blown out of the water. (Reddit declined to comment on these calls.)
In a Q and A on Reddit the following day, Huffman walked back the new API policy a few inches: Some tools wouldn’t have to pay as long as they didn’t earn money, which spared open source apps like RedReader, which helps low-vision users, and several mod tools from collapse. But apps like Apollo and RIF would still have to pay up, starting that July. “Reddit needs to be a self-sustaining business,” Huffman wrote.
Moderators weren’t appeased. “Those working on r/lgbt were pretty much like, ‘What the fuck?’” Videlock says. In five days, the gears were set in motion to re-create and surpass the protests of 2015 and 2021. N8 had stepped back from moderating by then, but he pointed volunteers to the subreddit he’d built to deal with NoNewNormal, r/ModCoord. “They flocked to it,” he says. u/yellowspaces, a moderator of r/pokemon, a 4.4 million–strong hub for fans of the TV and game series, says his colleagues had long resisted participating in previous Reddit-wide protests. This time, after debate, they were in: The mods agreed to block visitors to r/pokemon from June 12 to June 14. Anyone visiting would be redirected to a message about the ongoing protest. Secret peer-to-peer discussions exploded as the most angered mods worked to rally more support.
On the morning of June 12, thousands of subreddits went dark.
That afternoon, in an internal memo to staff, Huffman offered zero conciliation. “Like all blowups on Reddit, this one will pass,” he wrote. But by June 14, the day many subreddits had agreed to reopen, the number of unreachable communities had swollen to more than 8,000. The protest was a media fiasco too. In an interview for NBC News four days into the blockade, Huffman praised Musk for showing, through his acquisition of Twitter and subsequent mass layoffs, how a business could survive bold changes. He also insulted Reddit’s volunteers, comparing them to “landed gentry” unaccountable to their users, squatting on land they hadn’t earned. The troll in him should have known mods would love the phrase. They made it into a rallying cry. (Medieval-themed jokes about the landed gentry grabbing power littered the r/memes subreddit, as did posts in which moderators invited other users to join the gentry’s ranks.) A few advertisers temporarily suspended their ad buys, and for weeks ad salespeople found potential clients more hesitant than ever to purchase ad space, according to people involved in the discussions.
Earlier that year, inside the company, a product leader floated the argument that Reddit should simply replace protesting mods. Sources say they thought such a nuclear option was never really up for consideration. But on June 16, Reddit staff sent a message to the mods of shuttered pages, which the mods took to mean: Open up, or risk losing your positions. A pseudonymous message went out to multiple volunteers from the corporate account u/ModCodeOfConduct saying, “If there are mods here who are willing to work towards reopening this community, we are willing to work with you.” It also said the company would “handle” any “retaliation attempts” by protesters against cooperative mods.
That strike-breaking tactic ignited frantic discussion among volunteers. If even one volunteer on any subreddit gave in, the company could take control of the community and force out all others. On r/pokemon, u/yellowspaces described the atmosphere as emotional—and tense. “We all had to play a balancing game between keeping admin happy and doing what we felt was morally right,” he said, adding, “I also felt frustrated. We wouldn’t be in this position at all had staff not made the decisions they did.” r/pokemon volunteers were still in the middle of debating when one mod—since resigned—broke ranks, messaging the company that they would reopen the subreddit. When other volunteers saw the message, they rushed to reopen and preempt their own removal.
On the 23 million–member photo-sharing community r/mildlyinteresting, a poll drawing more than 40,000 votes called for a partial reopening with modified rules. Moderators followed through by reopening and mislabeling the subreddit as NSFW, which prevented Reddit from showing ads and potentially generating revenue off the community. The company didn’t appreciate the tactic. It started suspending mods one by one. “I was eating dinner and suddenly I saw the message that I had been removed,” moderator u/TheHammer34 says. Soon, the entire team got the axe. Confusingly, u/TheHammer34 says Reddit returned all the r/mildlyinteresting mods to power the next day.
On r/pics (30 million members), u/RamsesThePigeon and other volunteers looked for a strategy to reopen the page while still garnering media and user sympathy. “We wanted to highlight the absurdity” of the API changes, he said. “We wanted a way to entertain people while also informing them.” He came up with the idea to allow members to submit only photos of John Oliver, the comedian and host of Last Week Tonight. Bemused users were directed in droves to a post written by Ramses about the API protests. When Oliver’s TV series resumed in fall last year, his first segment included a sympathetic spotlight on the mods. “It was a pretty inspiring act of malicious compliance,” Oliver said, showing user-made images from the protests onscreen.
But, as June wore on, the mods were losing steam. More subreddits reopened, often at the behest of users wanting their community support systems or entertainment outlets back. Meanwhile, Reddit staffers restored access to more pages, often by force. Huffman and Reddit’s response also shifted. The company said it understood the motivation for the protests but defended the fees. Reddit’s community vice president assured mods that they would maintain a voice in decisionmaking. “There will be cases when our decisions don’t fully align,” she wrote. “But we won’t stop seeking out your input. It does matter, it does change things, and we do respect and value it.”
Reddit also restored API access to some developers who produced mod-made tools, and Huffman vowed to accelerate work on other long-desired moderator features. He promised moderators that he would work in their shoes as a mod for the popular subreddit r/AmItheAsshole—which he did for a couple of months. As the fight drew to a close, volunteers’ options were all but exhausted, and they were tired. By the time the API fee became effective on July 1, Huffman had ultimately been right; the protest had effectively died out.
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Although the mods are burned out, and even a little jaded, all of those we spoke to—from N8 to Ramses to Videlock—say they aren’t ready to give up on Reddit. They still want what they’ve asked for all along: the ability to help more. “The people who care need to be empowered,” Ramses says.
Videlock is determined as ever to work with Reddit staff. “It’s easy for some people to see those mods as loud dissenting voices,” she said not long ago. “I see them as building the communities people come for.”
When July rolled around, a lot of third-party apps started charging fees or subscriptions and lost significant numbers of users. Millions of users also began shifting, however grudgingly, to the company’s native app. The mod tool BotDefense is gone for good. So is Unddit. Smaller tools like Transducer Bot are still working because they still have access to the API for free. As painful as all this has been, though, unifying users on one platform will make it simpler for Reddit to grow the business.
In the IPO pitch, Huffman outlined a trio of trillion-dollar markets in his sights—ads, data licensing, and ecommerce. For advertisers, Reddit has always been a tough sell. To really succeed on the platform, ads have to speak in the voice of the Reddit community they are targeting; like anyone, they must abide by the “vibes of the tribe” to gain traction, as one digital ad executive puts it. The company has warned that ad sales growth is expected to keep slowing this year. In January, 100 contractors working for Reddit lost their jobs, which had been focused on diversifying the platform’s advertiser base.
In its initiative to make a buck off the AI boom through API fees, Reddit says it counts a “small number” of wins—including one big deal to license data to Google—which collectively should bring in roughly $67 million annually through 2026. But three other major developers of AI systems say they can probably do without Reddit data and aren’t interested in paying for it, according to sources involved in the discussions.
Huffman’s plan to grow an ecommerce platform is even more nascent. The idea is that subreddits could become marketplaces where users buy and sell all manner of stuff. This already happens to a degree: Users have sold about 20,000 watches on r/Watchexchange and commissioned more than 60,000 images on r/PhotoshopRequest. With a little more infrastructure, the thinking goes, Reddit might be able to convene more sales and take a cut of the action.
All those plans leave out another big potential source of revenue for Reddit. A thousand popular NSFW subreddits drew about 14 million unique visitors in the US alone in February, according to digital intelligence platform Similarweb. “Nsfw” was the most-searched term on Reddit last year by a wide margin, according to research firm Datos. Yet since 2019, Reddit hasn’t run ads against NSFW content.
In some ways, it’s as if Wikipedia had an IPO. Nobody can imagine what their favorite hangout will become.
Reddit made no mention of the revenue potential of NSFW content in its IPO filing. But sources say that over the past few years, staffers have studied the subscription service OnlyFans. To distance this potential economy for the comfort of some users and advertisers, Reddit has considered moving NSFW communities to a different nomenclature (say, x/porn instead of r/porn). Reddit disputes this characterization.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that this attempt to imitate a rival platform will ever be pursued or that it wouldn’t drum up another round of protest and new headaches for mods. But it’s in everyone’s interest for Reddit to find some way to make profits that preserves its character.
There’s also no getting around that IPOs force technology companies to change. And the coming shifts could be particularly wrenching for a volunteer-powered, community-centered platform like Reddit. Huffman, for all his faults, has heretofore been staunch about protecting users’ data privacy and has, in his way, been loyal to the “vibes of the tribe.” Soon his first loyalty will be to shareholders. So it’s no surprise that users and mods are worried that this beautiful, messy, maddening thicket of humanity is going to disappear in one way or another—whether by becoming monocultural and lame and boringly profitable or by turning into a capitalist scammer hellscape that eats through communities like battery acid. In some ways, it’s as if Wikipedia had an IPO. Nobody can imagine what their favorite hangout will become.
In recent weeks, volunteers have been wondering whether to buy into the IPO (“Aside from the fact I could potentially turn a quick buck, I don’t want any of it,” says Videlock), and employees have pondered whether to dump their shares. In the end, a number of our sources have come to the same conclusion: Too many people are passionate about Reddit for it not to hold significant value. “The best businesses to invest in are the ones everyone seems to hate, but they keep using,” says Noor Al, a mod for the stock tips forum r/wallstreetbets—the subreddit of self-described “degenerates” that famously brought Wall Street titans to their knees by driving up the share price of retailer GameStop in 2021. He adds that he plans to scoop up as many IPO shares as he can.
Photo sources: Courtesy of Alyssa Videlock; Getty Images
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