Closed APIs are more expensive than you think.

On July 1, the popular discussion website Reddit took a ruinous step: Its application programming interface (API) — the tool that gives developers access to its rich store of data as they build and train applications — ceased providing free, open access. Going forward, it will be closed and, for some developers, too expensive to access.

The Reddit community has been rocked by ongoing protests against this move, which Reddit CEO Steve Huffman billed as a business decision designed to force profit-making companies that feed off Reddit data to fund the API.

Here’s the truth, though: When a social platform powered to prominence on the back of its community shuts the gate on its API, it imperils the future of more than the development community that grew up under its protection.

Not only do centralized, seemingly arbitrary moves like these alienate users, but they also risk choking off the innovative spirit and creative energy that fuel the early success, engagement, and esprit de corps of most successful social platforms.

Betray your community, endanger your future

Despite the protests, Reddit’s Huffman has persisted in arguing that Reddit is “a living organism, this democratic living organism, created by its users.” To Reddit developers and users, changing the rules constitutes a betrayal of that promise.

The biggest indictment of Reddit’s and Twitter’s product chops is the user love for third-party apps. The entire API saga both companies went through was an embarrassing show of incompetence of wasting opportunity to create a nice app over a decade and with limitless funding https://t.co/1NVe3KqYLx

— Sar Haribhakti (@sarthakgh) July 5, 2023

The betrayal is all the more stinging given that many suspect Huffman’s real motive is to fatten Reddit’s bottom line and craft a narrative of future revenue streams ahead of this year’s expected initial public offering of shares. Twitter made a similar move before its IPO. Facebook’s Open Graph, a launchpad for breakout companies like Zynga and Spotify, was also replaced by a walled garden.

Users’ expressions of displeasure have ranged from a mid-month 48-hour blackout by nearly 9,000 forums — or subreddits — to flooding the platform with John Oliver posts. At best, these are disruptive. At worst, they are causing lasting harm.

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Hundreds of popular subreddits remain dark. At least two of its most popular third-party browsing applications — Apollo and RIF is Fun — are shutting down. Finally, there are growing calls for an exodus to other platforms.

This is going to hurt

It is true that many major technology companies draw upon social media data to train applications for free. Among these are the large language models helping develop ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence systems likely to be worth billions.

But most of the developers who will be affected by Reddit’s API change are far smaller, and many are responsible for tools and functionality expressly designed to improve the user experience of the platform — by making navigation easier, for instance, or by helping subreddit moderators maintain peace and order.

This last element is important, given research from the University of Minnesota that shows Reddit’s moderators are the source of a significant amount of its value.

Unfortunately, Web2 companies that may have placed great store on the innovative energy third parties bring to their businesses risk losing sight of this as they grow and assume the trappings of more traditional corporations.

It is for this reason that no Web2 social platform will ever be truly safe from one-sided “business” decisions that leave communities and developers in the lurch.

Web3 social spaces offer a potential solution.

Community comes first

To those Web2 developers who may shy away from decentralized platforms because they equate them with cryptocurrency exchanges, it is important to remember that there are very different motivations at play in these two arenas — just as there are between Web2 and Web3.

Web3 social platforms set out to offer all the functionality of a Web2 space (if not more!) but with this critical difference: Their objective is to maximize openness, collaboration with partners, and transparency, not just the platform’s dollars and cents.

Since many Web3 social media platforms are owned and guided by their communities and highly value partner collaboration, they tend to be safer from arbitrary decision-making and profiteering. They are also built on blockchain technology, which can include (crypto) financial rails that enable platforms, users and partners to synergistically profit from platform growth.

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And critically for developers, these platforms and the ecosystems behind them are committed to achieving and maintaining open APIs, which they see as crucial to bringing innovation to their platforms and to protecting the choices of users.

This means they will never forget the truth that Reddit and many other Web2 platforms seem to forget in the throes of ambition: that nurturing an engaged, innovative user and developer community leads to exciting functionality that serves the community.

Social media platforms should be built to serve their communities, not just to produce profits for investors and executives. And however successful they may become, they should never turn their backs on the committed and enthusiastic developers that helped them at the start.

True democracy has spoken — and Web3 is listening.