The Reddit blackout has finished its first phase, and subreddits are starting to come back online—but the site is not back to normal. Many communities have reopened in read-only mode, and some may stay fully dark for longer.

Over 7,000 communities shut down on June 12 and 13, as part of a protest against planned changes to Reddit’s API. Those changes would kill several of the third-party apps that Redditors use to browse (at least two already announced they will close permanently) and could make it impossible to use the site with screen readers and other accessibility tools. The changes would also likely affect tools that moderators (who are volunteers, not Reddit employees) use to detect and remove spam and hate speech.

Effects of the Reddit blackout so far

Well, Reddit crashed on the first day, for one thing. A spokesperson told the Verge that so many subs going private at once “caused some expected stability issues.” The site was intermittently unavailable for most of Monday morning.

The thousands of locked-down subs definitely brought attention to the issue; “Reddit Blackout” was trending on Twitter as people who hadn’t been aware of the issue started asking about it. There was a flurry of media coverage, including ours.

Reddit’s CEO, Steve Huffman, told employees that the protest is “among the noisiest we’ve seen” but he expected that “like all blowups on Reddit, this one will pass as well.” (He seems to think that the planned two-day length of the main blackout means that everybody will forget about it after two days; that seems unlikely to me, for reasons I’ll explain below.)

In the same memo, he warned employees against wearing Reddit swag in public, because “some folks are really upset.”

Even though the CEO said Reddit has not “seen significant revenue impact,” Digiday reports that several advertisers chose to spend their advertising budgets elsewhere, at least for the length of the blackout. Both Reddit and the advertisers have said they hope the blackout will be a temporary issue and things will be back to normal soon. But, Ad Week reports, advertisers are watching the situation closely.

It’s unclear whether that is actually the case, though. More on that in a moment, but first: Here are some changes to the API policy that user and moderator pushback, including the threat of the blackout, already accomplished.

Reddit has made some concessions on accessibility, but not enough

“We absolutely must ship what we said we would,” Huffman said in that memo, apparently referring to the planned API changes that would charge developers for access.

One of the major issues at stake is accessibility for people who use tools like screen readers. Reddit’s official app is not accessible enough for many users who are visually impaired, and these users depend on third-party apps.

In one early concession, occurring as subs pressured the CEO and prepared for the blackout, Reddit decided that “accessibility-focused apps” will be exempted from the new policy. On June 7, Reddit reached out to the developer of one such app, Dystopia, to offer them free access as long as they promised not to monetize the app. RedReader reports that they were granted an exemption as well.

Both developers see the exemption as a short-term Band-Aid to allow their apps to keep running. The requirement not to monetize the apps means that developers can’t be compensated through ad revenue or subscriptions (although they are allowed to accept donations).

The new API terms will also prohibit these apps from accessing NSFW content, which includes porn—news flash: blind people enjoy porn, too—as well as other content that is flagged that way, such as many discussions of medical issues or sexual trauma. So even with the exemptions, blind readers will not get the full site experience.

Besides those issues, there is also the concern that Reddit is cherry-picking specific apps to grant exemptions to, leaving the question of what counts as an “accessibility-focused app” up to the company.

Reddit has made concessions on moderator tools, but not enough

One of the reasons Reddit is as readable and useful as it is (besides eventually, belatedly banning its hate-speech-centered subreddits) is that the communities are moderated by their own members and not by algorithms or underpaid, traumatized workers.

As many Lifehacker readers know, Reddit is the place to go for information that you want to get from knowledgeable people. When I wanted to pick out a filter and other equipment for a small aquarium, I didn’t rely on Google—the search results are garbage and mostly ads. I went to r/bettafish, r/plantedtank, and r/shrimptank to read discussion and recommendations.

Reddit is one of the few places where content is publicly readable and curated by enthusiasts. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect and correct, but it’s a far cry from the way the rest of the internet works these days.

And that usefulness is due to the work of volunteer moderators, who credit much of their ability to do their job to third-party tools and bots that were also created by enthusiasts. Reddit’s own moderation tools have always been inadequate to cover the wide variety of tasks that moderators do. Reddit’s CEO announced that the company is working on new moderation features, which have not yet been rolled out.

But Reddit has been promising better moderation tools for years. Instead of waiting for them to show up, hobbyists have made their own. r/AskHistorians has the receipts on Reddit’s broken promises about moderation tools and features.

To address the moderation issue, since its new and existing moderation tools will not be able to fill the gap, Reddit announced the same day as the policy change that they would exempt certain tools used by “verified moderators” from the new API policy. (This was announced on May 31, with some aspects clarified or perhaps changed on June 7th, and will go into effect at “a date soon to be determined.”) This policy requires moderators to create new accounts on Pushshift, be granted case-by-case approval from Reddit, and for the access to apply to “moderation use cases only.”

In other words, it’s still up to Reddit to decide which users deserve access, and which tools count as moderation tools.

Why the protest isn’t over, even if the blackout appears to have ended

Critics of the blackout wondered how a two-day protest is going to solve anything. My friends, let me speak to you for a moment from my perspective as a person who has more than a little familiarity with taking collective action to get out-of-touch CEOs to do the right thing.

While a strike or a blackout may be the most visible action in a campaign, it’s never the only one. Leading up to both our 2022 strike, and our 2019 seemingly uneventful signing of a fair contract, we lived and breathed by something called an escalation chart (same idea as the one illustrated here). You start with small actions, and build on them, with a clear plan for how you’ll continue if your demands are not met. A strike is almost always preceded by dozens of smaller actions.

Fixed-length walkouts and strikes are one possible step on the chart. The idea is to send a message: This many of us are this committed. After that, you don’t stop. You keep escalating. Even on an open-ended strike, the idea is to become more and more of a problem to the company over time. You get more and more media attention; the company suffers more and more from lost business. Collective actions are effective because they are part of a larger escalation.

So why come back after two days? In Reddit’s case, going dark is a powerful action, but the site itself is also Redditors’ most visible way to communicate publicly—another powerful tool they have for escalation.

There’s another reason many subs have come back online (and why some declined to join the protest): They exist not to provide profits for Reddit the company, but to serve their users. r/Assistance helps people with financial and emotional support, so they stayed up during the blackout but asked people to only post urgent and important requests, like requests for food or rent money.

For another example, r/AskHistorians exists as an educational resource for Reddit users and the general public alike. The blackout made all their past content inaccessible, so they returned in restricted mode, which allows people to read the archives but not post new questions or answers. Their moderators write:

we believe that reopening in ‘Restricted’ mode … still puts pressure on the Admins by signaling our position, but also allows us to reach a much bigger audience by having this and our previous statements more easily accessible, amplifying the message to more users. … We do all this because we believe fervently in the wider societal good of making historical knowledge accessible and reliable, and have sought a solution that allows that wider mission to continue while cutting down on the kind of active engagement that matters from a corporate perspective.

What’s next

The moderators and users of over 7,000 subs have already shown that they are committed to standing together against the API changes, and most plan to build on that strong statement. The sub organizing the protests, r/ModCoord, has posted a message about next steps.

More than 300 subs have pledged to stay dark until demands are met. These include r/aww, r/funny, and r/videos. Many other subs are polling their membership (either on the sub itself, or in backchannels like Discord communities where regulars hang out) to decide whether to join the extended protest.

For subs that cannot close down indefinitely—the post referenced r/StopDrinking and r/Ukraine as examples—they are suggesting a weekly blackout called “Touch grass Tuesdays.”

Meanwhile, over 6,000 subreddits appear to still be restricted; this Twitch stream offers a current count if you’d like to watch how this plays out.

#Reddit #Blackout #Protest #Isnt

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