On Reddit's API Rug Pull

The lack of respect for developers by large corporations is extremely worrying

June 12, 2023 (1y ago) • 7 minute read

Note: Contains opinions. Opinions are always extremely personal—read, ponder, and form your own.

I don’t want to sound rude, but I think this is a joke.

Recently Reddit announced its decision to revise the API pricing and make a few changes to the API it offers to the developers. This could change the platform forever in ways people do not want. These changes have left the developers of third-party clients with no choice but to shut their handcrafted apps with some even facing slandering and defamation.

What’s Happening?

Reddit announced changes to its API a few months ago, that included charging for the previously free API. It all reads good unless you come to know that the proposed pricing could charge the app developers millions annually. These changes would essentially kill many third-party applications and has thus led to backlash from developers and users alike.

The developers of several third-party Reddit apps have said the future of their services has been threatened by the company’s new pricing. For example, Christian Selig, the developer behind Apollo, said that at its current rate of making 7 billion requests per month, it would need to pay $20 million a year.

This is similar to what happened with Twitter a few months back, where the company started charging for API access, which led to the quietly intended effect—shutting down dozens of third-party clients for the service. It’s mildly amusing to note that Reddit claimed “they were not looking to be like Twitter" but somehow ended up pricing their own API extremely close to the outrageously priced “Twitter 2.0” API

Motivation Behind The Changes

Reading the blog post by Reddit, it appears that the major driving force behind this move is the recent explosion in AI tools and LLMs that feed on the publicly available data for training and profits but I find that very hard to digest. They also wish to restrict NSFW content to their own apps stating “to provide guardrails to how sexually explicit content [is] discovered and viewed”. These sound like legitimate reasons unless you take a closer look.

While the reason for such drastic decision to manufacture an obvious cash-grab might seem obvious for twitter, one might think—why is Reddit doing this? Initial Public Offering. It is a crucial milestone for any company, hence, when it’s time for an IPO, the MBAs of said companies are instructed to plan a clean up of the company’s image for Wall Street suits and build a positive sentiment, more often than not, causing collateral damage.

For Reddit, these steps have been jeopardising the company’s relationship with the community that made it worth going public in the first place. It looks like the classic case of investors pushing for infinite growth, which is simply not possible if the user base is not growing.

Jacking up prices of the API just enough to be out of reach of indie developers ensures that the only client people use is their own offering. This in turn ensures that they can show as much ads as possible to their user-base and rake in the dollars to make the numbers look pretty and big for investors.

“User” Generated Content

Companies like Reddit need to understand that the selling point of their products is not the app, website or the APIs that they offer. It’s the content and community they have that make their products worth using. The selling point of these services is the user generated content. Initially these services attract users due to features that are uniquely theirs.

For Twitter it is the limited character limit and Reddit has arguably the best sorting system thanks to the upvotes/downvotes voting options. These features entice users to the platforms but eventually, when the platforms mature, the system becomes self-sustained on user generated content.

Take away the content and all that remains is an empty shell that offers no value to the user trying these apps for the first time. Apollo makes Reddit fun to use and reduces friction for users on iOS. It makes generating content easier and the content drives more users towards Reddit.

Twitter toy-apps (like year progress bar, yassify bot etc.) made Twitter a fun place to be. People also made tons of useful apps to help other users and adding quality-of-life improvements to the service. Heck, even I made an app for helping people during COVID. Most of them have been killed by their API pricing. Killing the essence of a social media platforms for a short-sighted cash grab is definitely not the way to go.

Reddit and Twitter are companies that serve as platform for people’s voices, opinions, and are a important cultural phenomenon. All of the data on these websites is by the users and therefore it’s the users that provide value to the platform. Additionally, there are moderators who curate the information for free. Mods and developers have added phenomenal value to the platform. It is absurd to rug pull all the people that made Reddit what it is today and shut it off. Apollo might be the best third party client for a platform ever made if not just for iOS.

The trend of social media platforms charging for API access threatens how the modern internet works for normal everyday users. These services are supposed to be the center of dissent, debate and serve as the fabric of communication online. Restricting access and forcing users to use the native app not only reduces choices for users, but also drives a chunk of people away who otherwise would have stayed and contributed to the site.

Developers? Who?

To be very clear, by no means am I implying that Reddit, or any company for that matter, is entitled to offer APIs for their data free or paid. Building an easy-to-use API costs money, effort, and time. For some companies this might not be justified and that’s completely acceptable. However, offering the API initially only to maliciously charge it beyond the reach of most indie developer sure looks unfair.

Apollo is an app that brings much traffic to the Reddit app and most likely would have continued to do so for a long time. However, it does so in a harmless way by not becoming a threat to Reddit’s own offering according to reported market share. Christian, the developer of Apollo, has stated multiple times that he does not expect the API to remain free as in the past and is more than willing for a paid option. However, the current pricing and lack of critical features for third-party apps makes it infeasible for Apollo to continue.

Reddit vs Apollo Marketshare from Jan-22 to Apr-23, by appfigures

Even if we assume that somehow the apps figure out the money-making angle in a sustainable manner along with paying Reddit, one cannot hope to achieve the implementation, testing, fixing bugs for a new subscription model in less than a month. This is highlighted in one of Christian’s requests to Reddit: To be given ample time, at least 90 days, to fully comply with the API (see: interview with Quinn Nelson).

Overall, these changes appear to be done to erase all third party clients, consolidate users to their app for ads and tracking, clean up their image for the IPO, and have a tighter grip over their platform. These changes along with the attempts by the CEO, Steve Huffman, to defame Christian and pit the community against him make it clear that the changes are here to stay and the company and the management do not care in the slightest bit about the developers affected. The complete and utter disrespect by the management in-charge towards developers is pretty evident.

It Is What It Is

The bottom line is, whenever you use platforms, APIs, frameworks offered by large corporations, they have unreal control over your product. Imagine waking up and realising the SaaS offering you built was burned to the ground because AWS permanently suspended your account. Getting your app suspended from the App Store or as a Youtuber getting yourself banned from the platform without any warnings. These corporations know their power and Reddit being one of them is simply exercising their control to obliterate any competition on the mobile platform.

Reddit has been a crucial part of our culture and Apollo is, in my opinion, one of the most well-crafted pieces of software I have used.

If you want to support Christian, you can download his other cutesy app called PixelPals.

Additionally, the subreddits have been going private to protest for indefinite period of time and if you would like to participate, please do not use Reddit till the blackout is called off/changes are back-tracked. There’s also a website where you can track the blackout and see subreddits go dark in realtime.

Meanwhile, way to go Reddit, hopefully now you'll stop forcing people to download your shitty app since you killed all the good ones.


Mayur Bhoi @ mayurbhoi.com