The Guardian view on the Reddit rebellion: a historic standoff – The Guardian

An attempt to erect a paywall on the social media platform raises big questions about the ownership of data and the future of the web
To those who have never got round to cultivating a Reddit habit, reports that swathes of the news aggregation, content and discussion platform have been plunged into darkness may merit nothing more than a shrug. But as one of the most visited websites in the world, its fate is significant.
The blackout is the result of a standoff between the company’s co-founder and CEO, Steve Huffman, and the volunteers who moderate much of its content via bespoke apps, which were given free access to the site in recognition that they made it easier to use. Mr Huffman recently decided that it was time to start charging for this access. But the moderators cried foul, and demonstrated their muscle by calling a 48-hour protest.
Of nearly 9,000 subreddits – or message boards – that went dark from 12 June in response to the call to arms, thousands remain restricted or private. That these include three with more than 20 million subscribers apiece demonstrates just what Mr Huffman is up against. It is unlikely that he failed to anticipate this scenario, having returned to rescue the site in 2015 after an earlier moderator insurrection.
The Reddit rumpus follows an increasingly familiar pattern of technocrats attempting to cash in on empires built on user engagement – and so far financed substantially on a wish and a promise. The most prominent of them is Elon Musk, whose bull-in-a-china-shop decisions as the new owner of Twitter, including moderator layoffs and charging for its once prized blue ticks, sparked outrage among users and caused the company’s value to plummet by almost two-thirds in the seven months after Mr Musk’s takeover in October last year.
Social media outlets are not the only battleground. Earlier this year, the owners of the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game threw their community into uproar by proposing changes to the licence that allowed fans to use elements of D&D in their own spinoff games. Like Mr Huffman, Wizards of the Coast argued rightly that the status quo enabled outsiders to profit, while wrongly underestimating their devotees’ sense of ownership. Within days, the company had started to back down, and just a fortnight later it issued a grovelling online apology.
Reddit has signalled its intention to go public later this year. The gamble Mr Huffman is taking today, as he faces down its moderators, is whether the platform is too big and various to fail, and can survive the migration of its mutineers and their devotees to other sites. He may win, but the short history of the web is littered with the corpses of predecessors who alienated their fanbases.
Mr Huffman’s argument that the move is to prevent AI developers, among others, from profiteering from the company’s data, is a red herring, in the sense that the company did not create the data in the first place.
However, there is no small irony in the fact that new generations of gamers and online chatterboxes are fighting to uphold a principle that the American artist Richard Serra rubbished back in 1973 with the much-quoted line, “if something is free, you’re the product”. At the same time, the technocrats are attempting to capitalise on the tradition of open access by enforcing a new era of enclosure – effectively making their users pay for their own exploitation. Reddit’s power play is a reckoning for us all.

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