Reddit has decided to follow in the footsteps of Twitter by charging absurd sums for access to its API for third-party developers, effectively killing off third-party apps that provided a better Reddit experience. The situation is coming to a head after Reddit revealed to the developer of the popular app Apollo that they would charge $12,000 per 50 million requests — which given the roughly 5 million users that Apollo has on iOS would amount to $20 million per year in access fees. For comparison, popular media-hosting service Imgur charges Apollo $166 for 50 million API calls, and it's worth noting that Imgur is serving much heavier content in photos and videos than the generic Reddit request which may just be a bunch of text. At the same time, Reddit is also limiting the API by removing NSFW content from it, and whether Reddit likes it or not the NSFW content is a big driver of their traffic.
Apollo isn't the only app to be impacted. Reddit Is Fun, the most popular alternative Reddit app for Android, would also see massive bills. Many smaller developers would be facing large charges for access as well, including those that have created some of the popular bots that make some of the process of using Reddit more fun. These high charges stand in stark contrast to Reddit's pledge to make the API more comprehensive by providing developers with more tools to match what can be done on Reddit.
Reddit's proposed astronomical API fees would kill third-party apps and resulted in outrage from Reddit's power users and volunteer moderators
This has led to outrage from many Reddit users. While the vast majority of Reddit traffic comes through search and never touches an app, regular Reddit users are most likely to use the Reddit app itself and it's only power users that are most likely to turn to third-party apps. The reasons to use third-party apps are many, ranging from better user interfaces to tools that improve the overall Reddit experience. For example, Apollo offers mute filters for users and keywords to help keep your Reddit experience sane and a more "native" user interface on my iPhone. Outside developers have also built a number of tools to help assist the volunteer moderators in managing their communities.
Personally, I use both Apollo and the official Reddit app for iPhone. I would rather use Apollo for everything, but Reddit never offered an API for their chat feature so if I want to use that on my phone then I need to have the Reddit app installed. But otherwise, all of my browsing and posting happens in Apollo. Like many Reddit users I started off using the Reddit app but after it turned out to be buggy or didn't play well with certain media or I searched Google for a feature that it turns out just didn't exist (in my case, mute filters) I turned to Apollo. And it's been great. And to be frank, the Reddit app is an often-buggy mess even without the other great features Apollo adds to the experience.
All of this would effectively end with the introduction of these astronomically high API fees. As an example, Apollo is available for free for those that just want to read Reddit posts, with a minimum $5 charge to unlock almost every other feature offered (push notifications cost more to pay for the separate server infrastructure that Selig has to maintain for that feature).
Some of the biggest Reddit communities plan to shut down for 48 hours or longer in protest of the fees
The outrage from core Reddit users has spread across many subreddits, with promises to "go dark" for at least 48 hours in protest starting June 12. This is Reddit's corps of volunteer moderators at work and the one lever they have to pull. Some of the largest Reddit communities, like r/pics, r/gaming, r/sports, and r/music have committed to the shutdown protest, hoping to deprive Reddit of a significant share of traffic in protest.
No reasonable person in this debate has faulted Reddit for wanting to charge for API access. After all, they are able to serve ads to users on the Reddit website and in the Reddit app, but not through the API (well, technically they could through the API, but since they can't collect user data to target those ads so they wouldn't be as effective), so it's acceptable to want to recoup some of the lost revenue there — especially since users of apps like Apollo and Reddit is Fun are heavy users that are pulling and pushing a lot of data and thus costing more money. Nobody disputes this.
On the other hand, all of the users of Apollo and Reddit Is Fun and even the official Reddit apps and websites are all contributing their content to Reddit for free. The moderator team that generally keeps most subreddits in check is doing their work for free. Reddit serves as the locus of that content and conversation, but Reddit itself generates precisely zero of the content on its platform.
To be clear, the power users and moderators are a small portion of Reddit user base. That's true of every social network, forum, and chat service — there's a small but dedicated and active core of users, some that are modestly active, and most just check in every now and then and never comment or vote or post. The loss of third-party apps wouldn't hurt Reddit that much; sure, Apollo may have millions of users and they're all core constituency, but Reddit overall has hundreds of millions of active users.
And that numbers game really gets to where Reddit is going with this API pricing scheme, and it's exactly the game that Twitter played not that long ago: first try to appear like you're being reasonable in wanting to charge a nominal fee for third-party access, and then make that fee so outrageously high that all of the third-party apps shut down. That's the end goal: Reddit decided they no longer want to support third-party apps and this is their way of forcing them out. They had no intention of offering a reasonable fee or turning the API into a revenue stream — they want to shut it down and force everybody on to their official apps.
And honestly, that last bit is an acceptable thing to want to do. Reddit and Twitter were under no obligation to offer outside parties access to their platform's data, and as both platforms grew it would become more difficult and more expensive to do so without providing a clear benefit for the company.
The way this has played out has followed a clear pattern of immature behavior by Reddit's leadership, from a failure to take violent hate speech and far-right extremism seriously until it was too late to the boosting of cryptocurrency scams and manipulation of the stock market. Not to mention past episodes like Reddit users trying to track down the Boston Marathon bomber and focusing on the wrong people and basically ruining the lives of a grieving family. If Reddit had simply said that they believed it was not cost effective for them to offer API access over X requests per month and that would regrettably mean the end of third-party app support, people would be upset but they wouldn't be outraged over having been led on to think there was a chance.
Honesty is always the best policy and the way Reddit played their hand has needlessly shot themselves in the foot with their most ardent users. And it's leading to the end of a cottage industry of the best versions of Reddit. Both Apollo and Reddit Is Fun announced that they intend to shut down their apps on June 30th when the API pricing kicks in. And Reddit's attempting some damage control with an "Ask Me Anything" Q&A on Friday about the API pricing — but specifically about the carve-outs they're making for mod tools and accessibility-focused apps. Reddit will weather this storm of their own making, but in doing so they're hurting some of what makes Reddit actually good.
Update 9 June 2023: During the AMA on Reddit, CEO Steven Huffman's stance on the API pricing did not change. He also further disparaged Selig, claiming that he was "saying one thing to us while saying something completely different externally" after Selig released recordings of his calls with Reddit staff about the changes. Additional apps have joined Apollo and RIF in closing up shop, including Sync and ReddPlanet, with many more to come.