I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Reddit is imploding right now.

I originally considered writing this as the first of a three-part series, but instead I think I’ll make it two. In this installment, I’ll briefly discuss what my thoughts on Reddit and their current direction are and follow that up with my own plans for my future online. Spoilers: I think that’s Lemmy for me, but there are other potential options too. Lemmy hasn’t been smooth sailing for me so far.

For the next post I plan to talk a bit more on what I think an online discussion board should look like, and how it would look if I were to develop one. I don’t plan to right now, though. I don’t think any that I’ve seen get it quite right so far, but I’m not egotistical enough to think my own solution is perfect either. That’s for the next post though.

Oh, and fair warning: I learned how footnotes work.

Read it on Reddit

There have been a great many good articles, blog posts, tweets, toots, videos, and probably even telegraphs on the situation with Reddit right now. Personally, I’ve been following Jay Peters’s write-up on The Verge most closely. I’m not going to rehash everything that’s happened, I’d recommend reading up on any of the excellent sources out there for that.

Instead, here’s my sorta-warm take now that the deadline has hit, in three parts:

The Boring Business Side

Reddit should never have been a “company.” I’m not the first to claim this, and I doubt I will be the last. Reddit was designed as a link aggregator with the ability to comment on links without having to worry too much about whatever site you’re commenting on messing with your comments. From there, it grew—subreddits became a thing, self-posts were created, you could post images and videos, and so much more (I’m willfully ignoring some of the more recent changes, such as the NFT Profiles and the chat feature, as those are…well, poorly thought out, at least).

I wrote multiple paragraphs on what I believe Reddit should have been, but I deleted them because none of that matters now. What matters is that Reddit became a company.

Reddit as a private company sought out ways to keep the lights on, and eventually ended up with VC investors. This was where the problems really started. VCs always want a return on investment, which makes sense. Folks get annoyed when they back a project on Kickstarter and never get a promised backer reward, right? It’s the same idea, but in this case the “backer reward” is more money out than a VC puts in, called a return on investment or ROI. Just like on Kickstarter, some investments don’t pan out, and just like on Kickstarter, the product stops existing when that happens. There’s just a bit of difference in how.

The next problem was advertisers, which is a consequence of the first problem. VCs need to be shown there’s money coming in to cover their investment and make a profit, and the next logical step for a web service with no physical product or digital download, is ads.

As everyone knows, advertisers track you everywhere online. When they track you, they track you—on many sites they track where your cursor is on the page, what links you click, how long you hover on links, how fast you scroll, where you stop scrolling, etc. They track every little detail of your interaction on that site. That includes Reddit. Leaving aside whether you, the reader, are okay with this or not, a lot of people are not for their own various reasons. And no, paying for the site is usually not enough to disable the tracking, it only disables the ads. Your data is usually still kept somewhere and sold off to advertisers.

This is important. Early Reddit did not have the level of tracking that current Reddit does. In order to appease advertisers, and thus appease VCs, and thus continue to get money that allows them to exist, Reddit had to build more and more tracking into the site. This snowballed over time, eventually giving us New Reddit and the app1.

That leaves us with this approximate, highly simplified, and likely only somewhat accurate series of events after filling in some blanks:

  1. Reddit needs money to keep hosting the site, fix bugs, and build features.
  2. Reddit tries getting users to pay for Reddit Gold (which one day becomes Reddit Premium), but cannot get enough people paying to maintain the site and pay employees.
  3. Reddit seeks out alternative forms of funding, and manages to pitch the site to some VCs.
  4. Reddit needs more money, and so starts taking out some advertising. Users are upset, but generally understanding.
  5. Time passes, and the VCs are looking to cash in on their investment, which requires Reddit to (a) be profitable and (b) be salable. Enshittification begins around here, though most don’t notice it yet.
  6. Reddit starts adjusting site features to be able to take out more advertising, and introduces New Reddit. They make plans for an IPO.
  7. VCs are starting to get more insistent, Reddit tries new ways to be profitable that mostly flop.
  8. Reddit discovers OpenAI has been using content on Reddit to train ChatGPT.2
  9. VCs start devaluing Reddit, are starting to reconsider their investment. Reddit starts responding aggressively by charging ludicrous fees for API access.

Some events may be a bit out of order, and there are probably some assumptions made that aren’t totally accurate. Regardless, the general picture is there.

Let’s be clear here: the API was never going to be priced for third party apps to survive. While a couple are going to survive for now, I fully expect Reddit to kill them off entirely within 1-3 years. I also expect what Reddit is calling the “accessibility” apps to be killed off in 3-5 once Reddit makes their app more “accessible,” to their own metrics of accessibility.3

Pricing the API so high serves two purposes from a profitability perspective:

  1. Third party apps that can survive will now be forced to give nearly all the money they make to build the app straight to Reddit—basically, “we get extra devs to work on alternative interfaces for free.” Apps that can’t survive will have their users jump ship to the main Reddit app, where they can harvest every single time you tap or scroll, and then some, for their advertisers.
  2. Companies who want to use their users’ data are free to do so, as long as they pay Reddit a lot of money for the privilege.

Neither of these were mistakes. Yes, there are ways they could have done this without pissing off basically their entire user base, but that leads us to the:

Executive Execution

Which…well, was not great. We’ve now seen with empirical evidence that Steve Huffman, the Reddit CEO, will lie and libel without really thinking much of it. We’ve also seen Reddit’s PR team defending these actions instead of trying to run damage control, basically doubling down. That’s…not a good look for the company, and says a lot about how things are going right now.

I’m going to hold back from the drama itself however—I strongly encourage you to check any tech news source for that debacle—and instead focus on what this execution speaks to.

For the VCs, this is a problem. Let’s assume the role of a Reddit investor for a minute. Remember, we don’t really use the site, nor do we really understand how communities work there—we just want our ROI. Even ignoring Huffman’s comments on Musk, we now have a CEO that has done three things which could easily wipe our investment:

  1. He’s libeled a somewhat prominent person as an agent of Reddit, which opens up a huge legal risk when we don’t have a lot of spare cashflow. His responses when caught show that he doesn’t care and isn’t remorseful, which makes it highly likely he’ll do it again.
  2. He’s announced publicly that Reddit is not profitable, which will kill the IPO valuation even more than it already is.
  3. He’s fighting against a community providing a lot of free labor and content, the thing that we sell to advertisers.

With those three strikes in mind, as an investor I would be looking to get out now unless Reddit makes major shakeups at the executive level. If I were on the board of directors, I would be moving to get Huffman out ASAP, he’s now a liability.

Fortunately for the directors, they only really need to cut Steve out to calm down the community and reduce legal liability even if the directors themselves are the ones pushing for the change. Coming up with some way to smooth over investors for the IPO is not too challenging for a seasoned professional, and you only need to do it long enough for early investors to get out fast and get their money.

As an investor, I don’t actually care if the site survives as long as I get my ROI. That leads us into:

Community Concerns

Man, that was one hell of a protest, wasn’t it? Blackouts, subreddits going NSFW, John Oliver everywhere, mods getting removed, it was a mess. It’s all stuff Reddit has been through before though, even if not quite at this scale.

The protest was done in solidarity with devs that would have to shut down, and Steve’s now infamous AMA cemented that decision. Blacking out for 48 hours was…an interesting choice, I shall say—typically you don’t really put an end date on a protest. This meant it was easy for them to just wait it out. From Reddit’s point of view, if the protest continues beyond the promised 48 hours it won’t matter. People will get bored and get back to moderating, or new subreddits will pop up instead. This is all stuff we’ve seen before.

Again, I’ll leave the protest drama for the Verge post linked above, but suffice to say, the protest only sorta worked. The content on Reddit is not what it used to be, and it never will be.4 Reddit has likely lost a small, but vocal, portion of its user base forever. Even so, most of Reddit’s users are still there for now, and the third party apps that started this whole thing did shut down. If Reddit did discover a huge problem and invited them back, I doubt any of them would come back—the trust just isn’t there.

This leads us into a great opportunity to talk about the 90-9-1 rule though5. It’s a rule of social media:

  • 90% of your users never post or comment. They’re “lurkers,” folks who consume the media but do not contribute to it. 6
  • 9% of your users are, I shall say, “fair-weather” users. They comment with some regularity, and might post occasionally, but that’s about it.7
  • 1% of your users are users who post frequently and comment a lot. People we might crudely call “terminally online,” they built their social life on the Internet. The more generally accepted term these days is “content creator,” but that group of people is actually much larger than and a bit different to the 1% referred to here.

Reddit has a special class of people, the 0.1%—Power users and power-mods. These are users who are either moderating multiple subreddits or are providing content to multiple subreddits near-constantly.

Why does this matter now? Well, estimates are that Reddit has lost somewhere around 10% of its user base. The issue is the 10% Reddit has lost likely coincides rather closely to the 9% and 1% of the 90-9-1 rule. If a social media network loses its 9% and 1%, it loses its content. Once the content goes, there’s no reason for the 90% to stay—and those folks will be generally happy no matter where they end up, they just want interesting content to scroll.

All in all, it feels like everyone is a loser here. It’s practically a Pyrrhic victory for Reddit, moderators are less willing (and less able) to moderate, and users are caught in the crossfire as the content on the site slowly degrades. Not to mention the developers have lost what, for many, is years of their work. No one comes out a winner.

The Narwhal Bacons at Midnight, or Something

If you have no idea what the header here means, you should both consider yourself lucky, and understand that you probably haven’t seen much of Reddit’s evolution.8

So, does this mean I think Reddit is doomed? Well, no. Not at all, actually. Here’s what I expect will happen, perhaps with a bit of hope thrown in:

  • The IPO might be, once again, postponed for “better market conditions” or something similar. This one I’m uncertain about.
  • The board of directors will oust Steve Huffman, or at least sequester him somewhere he is less likely to do damage.
  • Reddit’s content will slowly drop off over the next 6 months to a year.9
  • Once Reddit eventually hits its IPO, it’ll come in at a lowish value, and won’t really be able to increase.

I don’t think Reddit is gonna Digg its own grave, or at least not quite as fast. I do think this debacle was a turning point for Reddit though—while enshittification started much earlier, this was the point where they made it clear that was what was happening to all of their users. In general, the users don’t really like it.

From an Alien to a Mouse. Or Maybe to an Atom.

So yeah, Reddit is imploding. Personally, I don’t find the official app to be particularly good. My desktop Reddit experience has been limited down to just “what I find in a Google search” for the past several years now (and even then, I use Old Reddit). That meant I had to ask myself, “what is my post-Reddit plan?”

I scrolled Reddit for years, and I have noticed that there are a few things that I really look for when I’m scrolling:

  • World, US, and Local News
  • Tech News
  • Occasional funny stories, memes, short videos
  • Insightful (and sometimes silly) conversation
  • Drama

Yeah, that last one isn’t particularly admirable or healthy, but like many people, I get easily sucked into it. My goal is to cut that one out entirely and replace it with fiction and, to a lesser extent, local news.

Still, that leaves everything else, and I found a few options. I’ve browsed Hacker News for several years now as well, dropping over into it (using the Octal app) whenever I got bored with Reddit. I’m not actually a big fan of HN though, the community there is very startup-y and in my opinion rather unwelcoming, so I only ever lurk and don’t have an account. It’s at least a useful place to find some of the more esoteric tech news.

Tildes and Squabbles are both other centralized options. I don’t really like the Squabbles UI, and I can’t really follow what’s going on there very well; I just find the multi-column layout weird and hard to read. Tildes is pretty good, it reminds me of the early days of the internet where content was king. They’re rather reluctant to allow new users though, and I haven’t managed an invitation yet. Even if I do, I’m a little concerned that it’s a little too similar to Reddit, and will end up where Reddit is now.

I found two options, both of which have drawbacks for me that I’m trying to work through: Lemmy and RSS.

The Mouse in the Room

I’m on Mastodon, so why not look into Fediverse options, right? So there are a few, the two big ones right now are Lemmy and Kbin. I went with Lemmy, so let’s talk about it.

First, why Lemmy instead of Kbin? To be honest, mobile apps. I know that most of my usage is going to be on mobile, and I’m only going to comment once in a while. I need to choose the option that is going to have the best mobile experience, and while Kbin has a decent mobile web interface, I need to use a native app. The reason is kinda silly, but pretty simple: I use iOS, and I don’t put apps on my home screen. My home screen is a series of widgets, including a Siri Suggestions widget which presents me with the most useful apps at a given time and place instead of a static set of apps. I find it pretty useful most of the time. When you “add to home screen” with a web app, the one thing you do not get is that app added to your App Library, the main way I find apps on my phone.

For that one admittedly silly reason, I need to use a native app.10

Lemmy is also the current popular option. Of all the fediverse link aggregators (the “Threadiverse”) that have popped up lately, the majority are running on Lemmy. I am aware there are concerns with some views of the developers of Lemmy, and that could affect the way development goes in the future. However, the key thing to note is that despite those concerns, Lemmy is popular and, most notably, other instances won’t immediately defederate with you for running a Lemmy server. At least, not that I’ve yet found. This is not the case with Pleroma/Akkoma in the case of the microblogging side of the fediverse, but I digress.

Federating Shouldn’t Be Hard, Right?

I won’t run through my whole setup process like I did in my Mastodon Post. The distribution and setup of Lemmy is…a little funky, but relatively straightforward and significantly easier than Mastodon was. Obviously I’m going to spin up my own instance since I’m capable of doing so, it leaves me in control of my data (sorta), means I’m less affected by the whims of admins on various instances, and helps to distribute the fediverse server space somewhat.

Getting Lemmy turned on was the easy part, though.

My current struggles are with federation, which is half-working. I haven’t tried commenting yet, but communities I try to subscribe to will often, but not always, get stuck in a “Subscription Pending” state, and there’s no real indication in the logs as to what is happening here. Communities that I’m subscribed to (with or without the “pending” disclaimer) do not seem to have all of their posts available to me. If I look at the community on my own instance, and then look at it on its home instance, there are often posts on the home instance that are hours old which I do not have on my instance. Finally, even when the posts do sync, the comment counts are way off and there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. I can read 3-4 comments on a post from my own server, but get dozens of them on the home server. Originating server seems to have nothing to do with it, and my activity queue is pretty low, which isn’t too surprising as this is a single-user server.

It’s 2:30 AM and I’m too lazy to grab screenshots right now, but you can take This post from [email protected] with 46 comments at the time of this writing, and compare it to the Ramble Lemmy’s view of that same post which has a mere 14.

I’ve tried bumping to 0.18.1-rc4 to see if any changes there improve things, and while the UI seems more stable, the federation has not improved. If I can’t find anything with ActivityPub debug turned on like it is now, my next attempt is going to be dropping the database and reinstalling from scratch with the hopes that it was something funky in my first-time setup. As I continue to work on this through the weekend and into next week, we’ll see if I just get burnt out on Lemmy before I even really begin using it, which would be a shame, as it seems like it has potential.

But if I do get burnt out here, maybe there’s another option?

Really Simple (news) Slurping

Remember Google Reader? I do, quite fondly. Before the enshittification of Google, or more like before we knew it was really happening, Google Reader was one of those projects that showed Google had a lot of care for its users and a desire to keep the Internet diverse and fun. At least, that’s what the optimist in me would say.

The real thing to remember though, is that Google Reader worked primarily on Syndication feeds. RSS11 and Atom are the big ones, but many, if not most, internet services work on some sort of feed. Podcasts use RSS, for example, but even Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Search, etc. are all using some form of feed internally. Heck, even this blog has an RSS feed! Google Reader could read in well-known feed types and present them to you in a single easy to use interface.

While Reader may have been killed by the failure that was Google+, the concept of RSS readers has not. Between Feedly, NetNewsWire, Reeder, News Explorer, inoreader, and more, RSS Feed readers are alive and well. Heck, even Slack has a built-in RSS reader that you can drop into a channel.

Looking into my list from earlier, an RSS reader would get me most of the way there. I’m pretty sure most major news sites still have RSS feeds, even if they don’t advertise them as much as they used to12. There’s no shortage of projects that can generate RSS feeds for sites that don’t, as well. I know Ars Technica and The Verge both still have RSS feeds, so there’s my tech news. YouTube Channels generate RSS feeds as well, and Mastodon generates them automatically too. What does that leave out? Threaded, insightful discussion.

Some of these sources will have good discussion and comments, threaded or not: Mastodon, Ars Technica, sometimes The Verge. Plenty more will not, though: every single news site that exists. This is a problem for me, because seeing the reaction of non-journalists and having those people often provide additional insight or overlooked facts is just as important to me as the article itself. Being left with just the article, the author of the article is able to guide you into their biases.13 With a biased enough source, you could be getting subtly manipulated without you even realizing it. Everyone believes they are capable of avoiding being manipulated, but the truth is that almost all humans have very similar thought processes. It’s very easy to guide folks to think whatever way you want them to think. Insightful, well-moderated discussion helps to alleviate a little of that problem, though it can never truly go away online. Still, having numerous people sharing opinions helps to dull the bias, a little bit14.

Getting the fire hose of RSS feeds also means there won’t be any community filtering showing me just what’s important or prioritizing news for me. There are no Knights of New in RSS. There are no upvotes, no downvotes, no report button. It’s just an endless stream of headlines, which I have to filter through myself, and which means I may miss the actual big stories of the day.

Despite these two really glaring flaws, RSS might have a place in my life again after all these years. I’ve tried to use Apple News, and while I occasionally get some good out of it, it’s too hard to keep curated to what I actually want. The human editors for Apple News also present their own bias15. Google News was far worse back when I was using Android, and so didn’t even get the time of day. The algorithmic curation was terrible, and something that a younger Reddit very nicely avoided. Having a limited set of sources with a highly filtered and curated list might just be what keeps me this time. We’ll see.

So Nothing Is Good and Everything is Terrible Forever Then?

Well, no. This was a bit of a downer of a blog post, admittedly, but the truth is this is all very optimistic. We’re seeing the niche that Reddit filled, recognizing it needs a replacement, and working toward a good solution. We’re also getting back to some early, powerful, and useful parts of the Internet and learning we need to foster and care for them. None of this is bad, it’s actually quite good. It means we’re learning, and as long as we don’t make the same mistakes again, we have the potential to correct things for a better future.

Here’s my plan: I’m gonna keep trying with Lemmy for at least another week or two. If I can’t get it to work reliably, I’ll give up for now, but probably sign up for an account on one of the big instances for a while. Lemmy is super new, only a couple of years old, and we’re distinctly still in Alpha. There’s lots of room to grow, and I’m excited to see where it goes. Same for Kbin.

I’m trying to decide between Reeder and News Explorer for my RSS Reader. I religiously followed dozens of RSS feeds around a decade ago, and I’m willing to give it another go. If I can’t keep up, then that’s fine too—it just means that RSS is not for me anymore, or that I need to find another way of ingesting RSS content. Perhaps AI-based curation could help here, though I’m admittedly skeptical with what we’ve seen so far. Keep it local, though, and a lot of the incentives of providing a crappy feed go away, so there’s potential here.

But even if both of these end up falling out of use for me, that isn’t a bad thing. I wasted hours on Reddit, and in the past few years it was far less useful than it used to be. Constantly being turned into the news and the buzz on the Internet isn’t healthy, so maybe spinning down some of that in my life isn’t a bad thing at all.

A Postscript

As you can probably tell by now, I am not a frequent blogger. Writing regularly is good for you and your mental health, but I just can’t really seem to get into it. That said, if you read these super long essays of blog posts of mine, Please let me know on Mastodon. Let me know what you like, what you don’t, and how I can improve. Maybe that would be the encouragement I need to write more. This blog is a static site and I don’t plan to implement commenting, so Mastodon is the place for discussion for now. And who knows? Maybe it’ll be Lemmy in the future.

In any case, thanks for reading, and I hope to come back with part 2 sooner than 6 months from now.


1 July 2023 22:59: It looks like federation with Lemmy might be working now. I didn’t do anything, but I did see some larger instances bumped to 0.18.1-rc4. When I wrote the post, it hadn’t looked like that had worked, but now I’m thinking their servers were going through and pushing out a backlog of updates (Surprise! ActivityPub is push-based, not pull-based). Mine finally caught up, and while it’s looking like some old posts may not get synced, the newer posts are. I’m also able to comment and post, and it looks like remote servers are receiving them when I view the communities on those servers directly. I haven’t checked upvotes and downvotes specifically, but I have no reason to believe those aren’t working.

Kbin.social is still not federating, but I believe they have been having issues with federation for a while, so I suspect that’s still a problem. Some of the communities I follow popped up over there, so I hope they can work out federation issues soon.

Overall though, this is good news for me. It means I can stop hacking away at Lemmy itself and instead focus on building back up the communities I follow and finding an interface that I like.

I’m still going to try to take a bit of a step back though, and move into RSS feeds a bit more. This is a good opportunity to adjust my habits and reconsider my relationship with the Internet.

2 July 2023 13:43: So it turns out I was wrong about the App Library thing. I just got wefwef working, and it seems one of the updates Apple has made in the past few releases regarding PWAs is making them available in the App Library. This doesn’t change my choice to use Lemmy—the ecosystem just isn’t there for Kbin right now—but it does mean that PWAs are now an option for me, where they weren’t before, which is fantastic news.

Now to figure out what RSS Reader to use

  1. The app was actually an acquisition of a third-party iOS app, Alien Blue, but went downhill pretty quickly after the purchase. Android never got a particularly good first-party app, Reddit only really made the app available on Android after they had started to, well, ruin it. ↩︎

  2. I might spin up another post about my thoughts on ChatGPT and Generative API in general, but that’s a topic for another day. ↩︎

  3. I’ve seen folks throw around the idea of ADA lawsuits, but the sad reality here is that the ADA doesn’t currently cover non-government websites. Perhaps that should change. ↩︎

  4. I’ll leave aside for now that Reddit has been caught undeleting things people have manually deleted when trying to leave. There has been talk of GDPR and CCPA violations, and while the latter unfortunately does not apply, I’m not as clear on the former. The EU really likes to fine US companies every chance they can, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them try. I don’t have enough of an understanding on the actual legality, though. Undeleting is still a shitty thing to do either way. ↩︎

  5. You will find a lot of articles calling this rule outdated or incorrect if you search for it. Note the people writing those posts, however–they almost all have a vested interest in the rule being incorrect. While the actual percentages aren’t strict, the ratio is roughly correct, despite what those articles may say. ↩︎

  6. As an investor or an advertiser, these are your favorite users. They add relatively little load to your site, but you can monetize them all day long. Generally speaking, this is also the group with the lowest relative number of tech-savvy folks that would end up using ad-blockers. ↩︎

  7. I generally fall into this category. On Reddit, I was pretty close to being in the 90%. Call me the 91st percentile, I guess. ↩︎

  8. Where do you think the apps Baconreader and Narwhal got their names? ↩︎

  9. We’re already seeing this to some extent—most video and picture heavy subreddits get old reposts upvoted to the top of their subreddits nearly constantly, and a lot of “new” content is no longer Reddit-first, but rather TikTok-first. Reddit is now rarely the first place to find news anymore, like it used to be. ↩︎

  10. Despite that, I am trying to get wefwef working, but have run into several problems. Nothing with the app itself though, and wefwef is sort of tangential to this whole discussion. ↩︎

  11. Fun fact, Aaron Schwartz was one of the creators of RSS, helped develop Markdown (which I write this blog in), and is one of the original founders of Reddit. He is also one of the best examples of the consequences of having politicians regulate things they either don’t understand or are lobbied to not understand. ↩︎

  12. Both The New York Times and Washington Post have RSS feeds, but they don’t give you the full content. That may be an artifact of the past, unfortunately, but it wouldn’t be too different to how I use Reddit today, which is what this article is about. ↩︎

  13. It’s even happening to you right now, as you read this! ↩︎

  14. Or form an echo chamber where it’s even worse, but that’s usually obvious to see and less disturbing. Well, maybe not less disturbing, but at least it’s typically easy to see the bias and manipulation there. ↩︎

  15. And, frankly, haven’t been very good lately. There’s way too much clickbait and way too few substantive headlines. Perhaps they’re limited in what they can work with, though. ↩︎