For the past 11 years, Bucky has put time and effort into stewarding and guiding dozens of communities on Reddit, the sprawling internet message board.
As a “moderator” of roughly 80 different topic-based forums, Bucky — who goes by “BuckRowdy” on Reddit and who asked that his full name not be used to prevent online harassment — and others like him are essential to growing and maintaining the social media site, which is one of the internet’s biggest destinations for online discussion.
Until two weeks ago, when Bucky revolted.
Reddit had just introduced changes that sharply increased its fees for independent developers who build apps using the company’s data. Steve Huffman, Reddit’s chief executive, positioned the move partly as a way to shore up the company’s finances as it heads toward a long-awaited initial public offering.
But the changes made it so expensive for some third-party developers that a handful who build tools for Reddit’s moderators had to shut down or significantly alter their apps. In protest, Bucky and other moderators closed down hundreds of forums on the site, effectively making Reddit unusable for many of its 57 million daily visitors. At one point, the site went offline entirely.
“It is really demoralizing,” Bucky said. Being a Reddit moderator and dealing with users is already difficult, he said. “‘I take all this abuse for you, and keep your website clean, and this is how you repay us?’”
Reddit, an 18-year-old site that was part of an early wave of social networking, has been trying to “grow up,” Mr. Huffman has said in interviews. What is unclear is whether Reddit’s community will let it.
Reddit, which is based in San Francisco, has in recent years tried to turn from a rough-and-tumble internet message board into a full-fledged social media business by adding executives and strengthening its advertising capabilities. The 2,000-person company — which has repeatedly been mentioned as an I.P.O. candidate — has raised more than $1.3 billion and is valued at more than $10 billion, according to Crunchbase and Reddit’s public statements.
Other social media companies also made similar changes as they grew up. In 2012, Twitter tweaked its rules for how developers could use its data before it went public, outraging users and strangling some popular third-party apps. Facebook has similarly made platform changes that have irked developers and caused backlashes.
But this month’s uprising at Reddit stands out because it shows the outsize power of the site’s community. The day after moderators closed down hundreds of Reddit forums, users spent 16 percent less time on the site, according to estimates from Similarweb, an analytics company.
“Reddit is basically entirely community led,” said Adrian Horning, a Reddit user and data scientist who built a bot that “scrapes” the site’s data as a response to the fee changes. “The power regular users have is just inherent in the platform.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Huffman said his goal had been to make Reddit better for newcomers and veteran users and to build a lasting business. He said he regretted that developers were surprised by the company’s pricing changes and wished he had been more upfront about how the changes would affect them. He added that there was general anxiety over Reddit’s changes as part of a natural “maturation process.”
“We have the same love for Reddit, and the same fear of losing Reddit, that many of our users do,” he said.
Mr. Huffman and Alexis Ohanian founded Reddit in 2005 as a site with a countercultural attitude toward the internet and its advertising-based economy. Reddit espoused free speech at any cost, zero ads and an insular culture that laid a foundation for Web 2.0’s meme culture.
Its community has long been rambunctious, getting Reddit into hot water many times. In 2013, it was the site where internet sleuths searched for — and misidentified — the Boston Marathon bombing suspect. A year later, it became a dumping ground for nude photos that were hacked from celebrities’ cellphones.
But as the site grew and venture investment poured in, its leaders saw the potential for Reddit to build a business. The company had several chief executives, including the former venture capitalist Ellen Pao, before Mr. Huffman — who had left the company for six years — was brought back in 2015.
Mr. Huffman eventually embraced the idea that Reddit could make money from advertising, a model he once loathed. He accepted and expanded upon rule changes instituted by Ms. Pao to contain some of the toxic content that people posted to the site. By 2021, he had confidentially filed paperwork to take Reddit public.
But when interest rates soared and the stock market wobbled last year, Mr. Huffman put Reddit’s I.P.O. plans on hiatus. Since then, he has systematically worked to improve the site, grow the number of users and bolster the company’s bottom line.
In April, Mr. Huffman announced that he planned to restrict access to Reddit’s “application programming interface,” which is known in industry parlance as A.P.I. The A.P.I. is the main gateway for outsiders to use the company’s data for different purposes.
In an interview at the time, Mr. Huffman said he wanted to charge big companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook for access to Reddit data, which has been used to train so-called large language models that are at the heart of artificially intelligent systems.
But Mr. Huffman did not detail how the pricing for the A.P.I. access would change and who would be affected. Then in May, Reddit began telling developers its much higher pricing plans for such access. Early this month, one developer of a popular app, Apollo, announced that he was closing down the app because Reddit’s changes would cost him more than $20 million in annual fees to operate it.
Many Redditors were deeply upset that Mr. Huffman had appeared to kill off a beloved app in service of building its business. Old-timers were also angry that the heady days of Reddit’s anticapitalist roots seemed to be officially over.
Mr. Huffman defended the decision, noting that it costs Reddit millions of dollars to support apps like Apollo, which send no money back to the company and do not display ads from Reddit’s advertising partners.
To express their unhappiness, dozens of “super mods” soon restricted access to hundreds of Reddit’s most popular communities. To kill advertising across those communities, which are known as subreddits, moderators posted pornography and other explicit material to force the forums to be labeled “18+” forums, which are generally not advertiser friendly. Other forms of protest included a move by one subreddit, r/pics, to allow only photos of John Oliver to be shared in the forum. (Mr. Oliver embraced the Reddit protest, eventually sharing photos of himself as well.)
Mr. Huffman said he did not plan to change course. He said Reddit was enforcing its code of moderator conduct, which prohibits moderators from closing their subreddits and posting pornography and depictions of violence in their forums (unless the forums are designated for such topics of discussion). Reddit also said it would replace moderators who did not abide by the rules after being warned.
Bucky said the protests, which have simmered down this week, have now evolved into more general frustrations that have built up over time.
“Any time we see this kind of blowup, there’s a simmering rage underneath the surface that comes back up,” he said.
For now, subreddits seem to be returning online slowly, though there are still efforts to resist the changes. Bucky said he was active in the “Save3rdPartyApps” subreddit, which was formed to organize protests on the site that are allowed under Reddit’s rules.
Reddit is now further away from a public offering than it was last year, Mr. Huffman said, but will continue building its business. He added that the community revolt was a part of what made Reddit Reddit and said he and his team planned to continue engaging with top moderators who were upset with the changes.
“For better or for worse, this is a very uniquely Reddit moment,” he said. “This could only happen on Reddit.”
Audio produced by Adrienne Hurst.