The Last Page Of The Internet
6:05 PM EDT on June 11, 2023
Gradually over the last decade, Reddit went from merely embarrassing but occasionally amusing, to actively harmful, to—mainly by accident—essential. As the platform that swallowed niche message boards, it became home to numerous small communities of surprisingly helpful enthusiasts, and grew into a repository of arcane knowledge about, and instantly available first-hand expertise on, a staggering number of topics, from the demographically predictable to the somewhat more surprising. And now that is all set to come to an ignominious, self-inflicted end.
Several of Reddit’s largest communities are planning to go dark this coming week—most for 48 hours, but some “indefinitely”—in protest of the platform’s plans to charge for API access, which developers of third-party Reddit applications require to operate, and which they formerly got for free. These third-party apps are very popular among Reddit’s most engaged members, including many of the moderators of its largest Subreddits, in large part because Reddit’s official app reportedly sucks, and lacks key features of the third-party apps, most of which were created years before Reddit had an official app at all.
Some of the most popular apps, like Apollo and RIF, have already announced that, due to the high price set by Reddit for API access, they will be shutting down. (You can read Apollo’s sole developer’s lengthy writeup of the situation here.) What was painted by Reddit management, initially, as an attempt to force the deep-pocketed developers of large language model AI programs to pay for access to a massive trove of precious natural language now looks more like a grubby attempt to kill off third-party apps, and force all Reddit users into official, and more easily monetizable, channels.
Now why, after many years of a status quo that was seemingly working fine for everyone, would Reddit suddenly make this change? Asked, in a disastrous public question-and-answer session, if Reddit was becoming too profit-driven, CEO Steve Huffman responded bluntly: “We’ll continue to be profit-driven until profits arrive. Unlike some of the 3P apps, we are not profitable.”
Here, it should be noted that Reddit filed for an initial public offering in late 2021. It is now 2023, and the IPO is apparently still going to happen, though under much less favorable economic conditions for internet companies that, like Reddit, rely primarily on advertising for revenue. In other words, Reddit’s need is less to come up with some plan for long-term stability than it is to quickly boost its perceived value so that its investors, including (former majority stakeholder) Advance Publications, Tencent, and various venture capitalists, can cash out this year, having already missed their chance for a much greater payout at the height of the Reddit-driven meme stock craze. (“In April,” The Register reports, “finance firm Fidelity, lead investor in the company's August 2021 funding round, revised the value of its $28.2 million stake to $16.6 million, a 41 percent decline.”)
Under those conditions, harming the value of Reddit by, say, making its most popular and valuable communities private, is probably the most powerful leverage its users have, but it is still unlikely to cause Reddit to reverse course, because what Reddit is chasing is a credible promise that its opinionated userbase will not be a hindrance to explosive growth. That Reddit turned out to be useful at all was, as I said, an accident, and not a profitable one. If a numerically small number Reddit's most dedicated users decamp for other, smaller, possibly private venues rather than adopt Reddit's official app, the end result is still a larger portion of Reddit's massive userbase using their official app, which will do a better job than any third-party alternative of serving whatever abysmal new forms of advertising they plan to pioneer.
When, at the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to assemble my own PC, I wouldn’t have known where to begin without Reddit. When I had an arcane home networking issue (about setting up MoCA, or internet-over-coax, to get high-speed internet in every room of our apartment without feeding ethernet cables through the walls), I got a precise and helpful answer from Reddit within an hour of posting. I just posed the exact same question to A.I.-enabled Bing, and got an algorithmic rewrite of a tech support site article that didn’t address my specific issue.
The internet’s best resources are almost universally volunteer run and donation based, like Wikipedia and The Internet Archive. Every time a great resource is accidentally created by a for-profit company, it is eventually destroyed, like Flickr and Google Reader. Reddit could be what Usenet was supposed to be, a hub of internet-wide discussion on every topic imaginable, if it wasn’t also a private company forced to come up with a credible plan to make hosting discussions sound in any way like a profitable venture.
We are living through the end of the useful internet. The future is informed discussion behind locked doors, in Discords and private fora, with the public-facing web increasingly filled with detritus generated by LLMs, bearing only a stylistic resemblance to useful information. Finding unbiased and independent product reviews, expert tech support, and all manner of helpful advice will now resemble the process by which one now searches for illegal sports streams or pirated journal articles. The decades of real human conversation hosted at places like Reddit will prove useful training material for the mindless bots and deceptive marketers that replace it.