We Aren’t The Makers: Thoughts on Reddit

Yes, this is another article about Reddit that includes a brief history of how it got from the bulletin board wannabe that it was in 2005 to the cultural battleground it is in 2023, but I have a point to make so bear with it.

“The Front Page of the Internet”

Neither of the co-founders of Reddit – Tennis husband Alexis Ohanian and flip-flopping-CEO Steve Huffman – came up with this sort-of-clever-but-not-really tag line. Nor did they come up with Reddit as a concept. Both of these were neatly delivered to them by Y Combinator co-founder and all-round techerati Paul Graham. They even wrote it in Paul’s favourite programming language, LISP. (Suck ups.)

Presumably Paul didn’t like their other ideas (ordering take out food on your phone? it’ll never work!), so they were instead handed an idea to gestate and birth and nurture.

The idea? Let people make their own HackerNews clones on different topics. (Really pushing the boundaries there Paul).

The goal of this gift? To create a hugely successful and profitable tech company.

Except they didn’t. Not the “profitable” bit anyway.

The best they could do was ‘huge business’. Much as they (and the many others who have passed through Reddit HQ’s revolving doors over the years) tried, eventually landing on a combination of a giftable ‘gold’ premium feature set, and, well, ads. (It’s always ads eventually, isn’t it?)

But they still couldn’t make a profit. And there was one big, big reason for that: Third. Party. Apps.

Just kidding! Mr Huffman would love for us all to believe this untruth; in fact, he’s still lingering in the press as I write this, spinning yarn about ‘necessary business decisions’ and his painted villains, the evil, naughty, doubleplusbad app developers. Particularly the Apollo app developer, but we’ll get to that.

The real big, big reason is this: Reddit don’t understand their own product.


Reddit hasn’t really changed much. If we go back as far as 2005 – the year it launched – we can see a similar milieux of content as we might find today. (Most conspicuously, an inflammatory article written by Boris Johnson, a man who is still dominating British headlines on the day that I’m writing this).

The front page of web 1.0

The front page of web 1.0

The formula hasn’t changed either. Here’s how Reddit “makes” “its” “content”.

  1. Users turn up and peruse the front page, see some things that interest them. They read the articles, titter at the cat pics, and so on.
  2. Some of those users go on to read the Reddit comments section on the article or cat pic of interest.
  3. Some of those users sign up to post more comments.
  4. Some of those users go on to post their own articles and / or cat pics.
  5. Repeat.

Now, my facetious use of not-quite-air-quotes should make some sense – Reddit’s contribution to the success of the platform is hosting. Specifically, hosting urls and long threads of comments.

Nor does it curate any of “its” “content”. That is also left to users, though, they did invent (and do host the data for) “votes”. Upvotes and downvotes are the magic sauce that make sure things that most people find interesting make their way to other people who find similar things interesting, and bury things that are not interesting to anyone other than the OP (“Original poster”, for the uninitiated, i.e. the user who posted that particular link).

The other thing Reddit provides is the structure by which we ensure that the truly uninteresting things that a specific user doesn’t want to see will never make it into their periphery to begin with, at least not after a couple of visits: Subreddits.

It’s a stretch to say they invented these. Cribbed from HackerNews with a dash of newsgroups and the bulletin boards of yore, subreddits are simply forums (or “communities” as they prefer) where moderators (reddit content police) can ensure that anything posted there reaches some predefined and roughly agreed criteria. For example, if you go and post your cat pics in r/dogs, it’ll likely be removed, and you’ll promptly receive an automated message explaining that you might want to head over to r/cats because your cat is, in fact, not a dog.


This formula worked and, brimming with early success and ready to take the platform to new heights, Alexis and Steve pulled the trigger and … immediately sold Reddit to media mega-conglomerate Conde Nast for tens of millions of dollars. While an unpopular decision amongst users, both of them remained at the helm and the site appeared largely unadulterated by CN’s influence (or lack thereof).


And so things continued for a time. But once a corporate flower begins to bloom, it must eventually shed its petals and bear tasty, rewarding fruit. The kind of fruit that fills the bellies of venture capitalists and other respectable folks in respectable suits.

Money. I’m talking about money. If that wasn’t clear …

So they launched an ad platform in 2009. Which isn’t very interesting because that’s what everyone does. So let’s just gloss over this and move on.

In 2010, Reddit introduced “Reddit gold”, a top-up-able monthly subscription service that gave a subscribing user perks such as, um, well, not a lot. It gives some pretty banal additional features to use but, to quote this ELI5 thread from around the time of release:

It’s mainly just a way for people to support Reddit.

So, in short, Reddit was shooting from both hips with its two new shiny revolvers:

  • unavoidable, high frequency, low return ads
  • avoidable, low frequency, high return “gold”

Oh, also Steve and Alexis left. About a year before. I think before the ads thing happened.


For a time, internally, Reddit went through an identity crisis, trying on various CEOs that didn’t quite fit as expected until they landed on the perfect candidate for the role. Steve Huffman. (Presumably they started and ended their search by typing “Reddit founders” in to Google.)

During the interims and the early days of Steve’s tenure, acquisitions were made, new features were rolled out – some uninspiring and forgotten (Upvoted, we hardly knew ye; now relegated to a company blog), some more sustained in usage but equally uninspiring (coins, medals, Snoos, etc.) – and Reddit continued on pretty much the same upward growth trajectory as it had always been on. A trajectory fueled by users and content.

You know, those things that aren’t the things that Reddit actually contributes …

In 2017, the platform was valued at a whopping $1.8B. The signs were very clear: it was time for Reddit to go public.

And so, it did … n’t.


Reddit isn’t profitable. And hasn’t been profitable for a long time (for context, that comment is from one of those interim CEOs I mentioned earlier). And still isn’t profitable now. (that one is from the current CEO. Yikes.)

But public companies are expected to be profitable. And VC funded companies are expected to go public so that they can pay back to their increasingly impatient pipers the collosal sums of money yeeted at them when word first reached them that you might be able to turn a dime, one day, maybe.

And so the inevitable happened: enshittification began. The linked article describes the observable cycle much more succinctly and cleverly than I ever could, so I would suggest stopping reading this article just to read that one. And then come back. Or don’t, it’s really that good that I suspect only disappointment lies ahead.

If you did return, then let’s continue.


Mods are the unsung anti-heroes of Reddit. By which I mean they’re a bunch of awful, power-grubbing basement dwellers who have made Reddit their personal autocracy. By which I mean they are the only thing that stands between the well attended flower gardens of content we have now and the weed-laden cess-pits of ads and facebook-forwards that lie in wait.

Mods are necessary evil and, honestly, they’re not even that bad. As stated earlier, they try and hold some vague bar for the quality of content in the subs they’re responsible for. And they do it for free.

For. Free.

Like the users who post the content. For. Free.

And the ones who leave comments and spark debate. For. Free.

There’s an imbalance in perceptions here. But we’ll come back to it shortly. First let’s talk about apps.


The Apollo app is disgustingly good. It’s the Michaelangelo of Reddit apps, possibly of apps in general. And Reddit has chosen to douse it in petrol and set it alight.

Why? Because it makes a lot of money. And Reddit doesn’t get any of that money. Remember those impatient pipers? Apollo is the kind of thing that makes them do this face:

Apollo makes its money through app store sales. Sales to users, those content makers. And those moderators, who moderate the app for free.

It takes free user content, moderated for free, and delivers it to users using Reddit’s free APIs.

Except now they’re not free, because that API is the one part of the beautiful river of content in which they can build their dam. And now they would like third-party reddit app makers, like the Apollo developer(s), to pay to get the same water from the dam that they were previously getting for free.

And we aren’t talking pennies here.

The price they gave was $0.24 for 1,000 API calls. I quickly inputted this in my app, and saw that it was not far off Twitter’s outstandingly high API prices, at $12,000, and with my current usage would cost almost $2 million dollars per month, or over $20 million per year. That is not an exaggeration.


What is it that Reddit does again? Maybe I should summarise the roles of our various heroes, villains, anti-heroes, and so on.

  • Users post content in the form of links, images, etc.
  • Users post comments that form discussions on content
  • Moderators ensure content and comments meet reasonable standards
  • Reddit hosts the data

Okay, so I’m going to be slightly reductive here but only so much as to make the point I’m trying to make: Reddit is essentially a landlord.

Someone has to make sure that there is storage for all this content, that links redirect to the right places, that users can log in and comment and post and blah blah blah.

They do this in much the same way as every other social network does, using huge cloud platforms and an army of developers to make sure the whole thing keeps ticking along.

As mentioned previously they make some money through ads and gold. But not enough, as evidenced by not being profitable.

Reddit is responsible for the building. It built it, and it maintains it, and it makes sure all the tenants – our users and mods and such – can do the things they need to do to make the site have the slightest iota of appeal to the next potential user who arrives.

But they don’t contribute any content. They don’t even curate it. And they don’t pay the people who do.

That’s the mods again – let’s come back to them as I promised earlier.


Mods are pissed. Because a lot of those third party apps that just kicked the bucket provide much, much, better tools for moderating than reddit does via their first party app and website.

An employee might curse and grumble but then grin and bear the consequences of such a change. But mods aren’t employed. If they work for anyone, it’s their communities and fellow moderators, not Reddit.

Content-contributing users are equally pissed for similar reasons.

Which leads me back to my central thesis.


Reddit don’t understand their own product.

If they did they would understand a few key things about the community that they didn’t build and the content that they don’t provide.

Landlords, in my increasingly strained analogy, don’t write software. They don’t innovate or create. So if they turned up to your weekly planning session demanding payment for every word you typed on your keyboard, you might have a thing or two to say about it. Things like, “thank you for your time” and “here’s the date you can expect us to vacate the premises”.

And so it is with Reddit users and moderators. The bubble has burst; the penny has dropped. Reddit doesn’t provide anything of creative value to the experience of its own product any more than Worthy Farm write and perform the music sung on their grounds every year.

In fact, their first-party user experiences are so … not bad, just … uninteresting and uninspired (to use that phrase again), that most users prefer a third party offering made by a couple of engineers in their downtime to the ones produced by their own vast teams of “top-tier” “creatives”.

So much so that they still can’t quite shake off their 2005 website design without angering the horde.


Twitter famously killed off their third party apps with little if any repercussions. Although, much like its users when discussing politics, it’s flip-flopped several times based on the last strong opinion that had echoed around the chamber.

And so you might ask, “But why is that any different from Twitter?”


Thank you for reading this article, I hope you enjoyed it. Because that’s it. That’s the only difference that matters.

The thing is, the vast majority of Reddit users aren’t anybody. They aren’t a famous scientist, or a tech blogger or a minor celebrity, and they aren’t lingering around the edges of those quasi-famous individuals trying to get their attention by any means necessary. (Okay, okay, I’ll lay off Twitter users. Jeez.). In short, they aren’t brands, or a sales pitch dressed up as a conversation, or a customer support unit pretending to be your chummy flat mate.

They’re just tags; Anonymous and frequently meaningless names like r/BobTheBurger or r/Poem_For_Your_Sprog or r/PM_ME_YOUR_BARE_BALLS. They’re non-people only tangible by the streams of posts and comments accessible via their profile page (and the occasional ‘Snoo’ if you’re in to that. Did I forget to mention that in the bit about uninspiring features?)

That anonymity belies a drastic difference between Reddit and Twitter. Twitter creates connections between real individuals who are thereby linked to other real individuals. These form greater networks of individuals who discuss related topics and those bonds, well, they’re stronger than diamond.

Have you ever tried to get your family and friends to switch to a different messaging app? If you’ve tried, then you almost certainly failed, and were left with enough stragglers (enough being ‘one’) to have to keep both the old messaging app and the new messaging app. Depending on your level of influence within your cultural units, you may even have been forced back to the former. (I got most of them off of WhatsApp and on to Signal. It’s always the seniors grrrrrr)

Reddit doesn’t have this problem because no-one gives a fuck about or makes friends with someone called r/PM_ME_YOUR_TINY_TITS. They may enjoy their comments or posts or jokes, but these aren’t lasting friendships


The sad reality is that Reddit will probably survive this. Wounded, but otherwise unharmed; image forever changed, but blissfully unawares or indifferent of it.

There are a few reasons for this: primarily, users of any platform are an apathetic bunch and it takes a lot for them to make inconvenient changes to convenient factors in their lives. Another reason is how relatively inaccessible other platforms feel.

But it’ll never be the same and that’s why I’m not going back. Reddit is slowly picking off moderators with its corporate sniper rifle and many of the subs it’s touched are turning into virtual ghost towns.

It’s even gone as far as to remove chief moderators from subs about that moderator. As in, the sub is about that specific person, and that person no longer has control of it because they wouldn’t toe the line of the company(-that-they-don’t-work-for).

I deleted my third party app of choice several weeks ago and made my way over to sister platforms (that will remain nameless because I’m not tied to a specific one) and guess what? It’s the same. Pretty much exactly the same. The bar for interesting Reddit content was never very high and anons chatting with other anons about cat pics is, unastonishingly, not a hard experience recreate.

I only hope to see the numbers increase and communities bloom even further. I also hope that no other platform wins out and that we might even see some healthy competition in this space.

So that’s me after over a decade of chasing upvotes, arguing with wrong people and sharing pictures of hobbies with strangers.

I’m not sure how to sign off so let’s go with this: I never liked you Steve. None of us did.

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