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posting is charity
Local Reddit Hater Compliments Reddit
, the convenience of which still supersedes the growing litany of objections to it. The works produced by generative AI should be viewed as "good enough" or "merely sufficient," rather than the next frontier in art or expression or innovation. This is just my personal opinion on the matter.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about AI
AI has a number of tradeoffs. The work it creates is bland and utilitarian, useful for a corporate email, but not the next great novel. In addition to quality level itself, the models that form the core of an AI program are based on vast amounts of scraped web data, generated by users who have not explicitly consented to contributing to these projects. That second reason is part of why large parts of Reddit have gone dark this week.
For a very long time, Reddit has provided an API through which developers can access the raw data on Reddit. An API (Application Programming Interface) is a virtual tube for siphoning digital gasoline. At the same time, a provider often hopes that by offering access to the API, they are also making it easier for people to put data into their system. Developer enablement tools like these are a great way to harness unpaid labor, in the same way that giving someone a text box that they can use to blast out their thoughts free of charge, and then putting ads next to those thoughts, is a great way to benefit from unpaid labor.
Reddit, the company, now wants to charge money for access to its API, which it used to offer for free, in large part because its API is currently a great, free way to get a gigantic corpus of text for training an AI model. According to my back-of-the-envelope math, if you go from charging $0 for API access to charging more than $0 for it, you are charging infinity times more money. Most people do not like price hikes of infinity percent. The best software for browsing (and moderating) Reddit is apparently a mobile app called Apollo, which will shut down at the end of the month absent a sustainable path forward. Thousands of subreddits, not happy about this situation, went dark this week. In effect, Reddit the community is withholding value from Reddit the company.
. The last stage in the meme life cycle is currently a writeup in any legacy media publication. A decade ago, it was an appearance on a daytime talk show, SNL, or the local news. Before either of those stages, however, memes would go kaput when they reached Reddit.
This is where I admit that I think Reddit sucks, though my justification for this stance is woefully outdated. Reddit is a Digg ripoff whose early userbase was angry, young, tech-enthusiast men who were often also perverts. In the 2000s, Reddit is where memes went to die. A meme would start on a message board, or a chat room, and works its way through various online communities until you eventually saw that same meme on Reddit and instantly, the meme was toast
Reddit is cemented in my mind as the site people go to when they have no original thoughts or ideas and don’t know how to construct a joke. Don’t have a personality? Mention something you saw on Reddit. “The narwhal bacons at midnight,” etc. Looking for fodder for your blog or social media presence, but also, you are lazy? Just use Reddit.com, my guy.
To illustrate: In the summer of 2010, I was an editorial intern at the pre-journalism and pre-”no haters” BuzzFeed, where my mandate was to post funny/weird/cool/interesting/viral stuff. I made a rule for myself to never source anything from Reddit, because it was almost never a primary source for anything. It was an aggregator; a centralized, poorly curated repository of internet junk no different from Facebook or Twitter — just harder to browse. (Ironically, the new Digg now spends a lot of space aggregating evergreen filler from Reddit threads.) If a day was really slow and I went to Reddit, even to browse, I’d failed. This rule remains in place in the Brian Feldman editorial guidelines.
I realize this is a very uncharitable stance, given that I formulated it half a lifetime ago and have not seen fit reassess in the time since. There are Reddit users younger than my opinion of Reddit. I hear that Reddit is a good way to find crowdsourced information now, especially since many are saying that leading search engines are sucking more and more. One time, a comment did help me fix my mesh router though.
I guess I’m trying to say that I have no dog in the fight between Reddit, the company that permitted creepshot forums for many years, and Reddit, the community of users that spun up creepshot forums in the first place. It’ll end how it ends, and my life will not be changed in any way. It is crazy to me, however, that Serena Williams married that guy.
But I do want to talk about the economics for a second.
One big reason that Reddit can seem like an altruistic force online is that, as far as I can tell, users don’t make money from posting on Reddit. And Reddit the company is historically unprofitable, so it’s also not monetizing these posts for significant direct gain. The product has been relatively stable in part because the company is not publicly traded and not chasing short-term profit growth by constantly rolling out a shiny, new thing. (It did try NFTs, however.) Most subreddits are run by community volunteers, even the most active and populous ones. In effect, Reddit can feel like an amazing crowdsourced knowledge share much in the same way that Wikipedia can.
To crib from Alex Pareene at Defector:
The internet’s best resources are almost universally volunteer run and donation based, like Wikipedia and The Internet Archive. Every time a great resource is accidentally created by a for-profit company, it is eventually destroyed, like Flickr and Google Reader. Reddit could be what Usenet was supposed to be, a hub of internet-wide discussion on every topic imaginable, if it wasn’t also a private company forced to come up with a credible plan to make hosting discussions sound in any way like a profitable venture.
So there are a couple of overlapping ways to perceive this week’s protest:
Redditors are mad that their preferred, API-based ways of browsing Reddit, or moderating large forums, are disappearing on short notice
Redditors are mad that someone is trying to make money off of their posting
Reddit is not a social media platform. It is a vast, seemingly infinite message board, and for all of its faults, Redditors do seem to have largely avoided the pitfalls of the so-called “creator economy.” Reddit is, for better or worse, composed of people who have very specific interests and are very enthusiastic about them, and they post for no reason other than that they care about those topics.
Redditors, at the very least, understand that posting is charity. Facilitating posting is also charity. And charity is good, actually.
A pivotal and incredibly harmful mistake of the past decade has been taking anyone who calls themselves a creator, and the concept of the “creator economy,” seriously. Facebook and Instagram have been hollowed out by recycled, evergreen garbage; Twitter has been run into the ground by a cohort of tech dudes who got obsessed with Sneetch stars; TikTok has funneled an entire generation into a paint-by-numbers approach to creativity; why the hell are individual Bluesky users so instantly focused on “growing” and “scaling” “the platform”? I think I abandoned my last shred of benefit of the doubt for creators around the time totally unrelated YouTube channels pivoted to covering the Johnny Depp/Amber Heard trial to boost metrics.
The pursuit of likes, followers, attention, fame, and money is framed as inherently good, or a noble struggle. To criticize one’s attempt to earn a living on social media is implied to be punching down and unspeakably rude. This discussion is often couched in vaguely populist, technical, and legalistic terms. A platform user’s “unpaid labor” and “intellectual property” is being “monetized” and “exploited” by the forces of “late capitalism,” and users are at the whims of “the algorithm” which “lacks transparency” — but if the participants in the platform’s “economy” were to band together, they could exert pressure through “collective action” in order to access the “profits” held in “creator funds” that are rightfully theirs. This is, when you think about it for like half a second, a myopic and stupid way to think about interacting with or informing other human beings, and yet it is the dominant mode.
The framing of posting as “unpaid labor” carries this malignant idea that people should be getting compensated for it, when that assertion is transparently wrong. Posting, like every other social transaction, does not in fact need to be profitable for the individual user. Here’s an analogy: let’s say I invite a friend to the bar. I buy the first round and we shoot the shit. Then, my friend buys the second round and we continue shooting the shit. Then, I buy the third round and we shoot the shit a bit more, and then we both call it a night and go home. Only a real weirdo would object to the fact that I voluntarily paid for more drinks than my friend, and that the bar keeps all the money, and that nobody else heard the funny comments I was making, so I didn’t even grow my audience. Who cares? I had a nice evening and a nice conversation even if I ended the night in the red financially. All of life — online and off — is about understanding how to accept certain operating losses. Lost time, lost attention, lost money are all actually fine if you end up having a good time.
Reddit, the userbase, seems to understand this concept, and appears inoculated against creator-like impulses. As I do with every large online platform, I object to the skeevy, hateful, misogynistic, and/or racist tenor of a considerable amount of the activity on Reddit. But crucially, I also don’t think those users are disingenuous. Analyzed collectively, Redditors grok that posting is charity, and that internet culture is sustained by the permissive, unprofitable flow of information.
Perhaps this is because the site (and for a long time, its literal design and user interface) predates the social media age. Perhaps it’s because the core feature of Reddit is sharing a hyperlink, pushing curious people outside of a walled garden to other parts of the internet, as opposed to platform-native videos and pictures. Perhaps it’s because the site is structured around shared interests, instead of individual cults of personality. Perhaps it’s because the community moderators are participants in the subreddits that they moderate.
I guess another way to put it is like this: I can see the twisted appeal of using generative AI for tedious work like email writing, and asset generation, and content creation. But I cannot find any significant upside to using that same tech to automate posting and commenting on Reddit.
"AI," to my mind, is more simply framed as a type of complex pattern-recognition software, rather than software that can draw new conclusions and deductions.
I think even the Cheezburger Network was quicker on the draw than Reddit.
More recently, “I saw something thing on Reddit” has been replaced by “I saw one TikTok” in the pantheon of lazy internet-culture coverage
I have no public opinion on the matter of whether certain search engines mondo-suck as compared to five or ten years ago.
There are some obvious caveats that I will acknowledge here but that I don’t think undermine my larger point: 1) I have the privilege of not having to worry too much about recouping the cost of a couple drinks. Others do not. 2) Social media platforms elevate and profit from the work and culture of demographics underrepresented in more traditional forms of media. The line between fair exchange of services and exploitation is notably blurry here.