Mysteriously, people never stop expecting premium technology products to be offered for free, forever. Unfortunately, living in society means accepting certain restrictions imposed by society’s rules; in most of the world, one of those restrictions is living within capitalism, where things cost money.
NTLDR (Not too long, did read)
Reddit has been in the (tech) news a lot lately. If you haven’t heard, Reddit recently decided to start charging for access to their API. To many, it is abhorrent and shocking that a for-profit corporation has enacted a policy to make a profit.
The reason the proposed API fees are a big deal is because of a market for “3p”, or third-party, clients that provide a (typically ad-free) UI that delivers approximate feature parity with the main Reddit app. One of the most popular of these options is Apollo. Third-party Reddit clients work by fetching data from the Reddit API and displaying it in their own app. Third-party apps will effectively be shut down with the new API pricing because the Reddit API will become prohibitively expensive to use in high volumes. This has made a small group of Reddit users upset because their preferred way of consuming content on Reddit will no longer be available. For those who aren’t clear: Reddit itself will still be available for free; the only change is that now everyone will have to go through reddit.com or one of the official apps, instead of a third-party app.
In summary, there is a vocal minority of Reddit users who believe they deserve free access to the features of a platform that someone else is paying for. Phrased another way, a vocal minority of Reddit users feel that Reddit should continue to exist for their personal enrichment; any and all bills related to personnel costs and hard assets such as servers should be handled by the company at the company’s own expense.
I feel two things very strongly:
- Capitalism has the propensity to create deeply inequitable outcomes for people. We see many of these effects borne out in modern American capitalism; one example of these negative effects is the massive wealth inequality we see today.
- Unless a company has a monopoly on a given idea or service (for example, an internet forum) or operates an essential service such as healthcare or a utility, we all have the moral imperative to take responsibility for our own actions and choices, including which services we consume and which companies we support. Sometimes, this means choosing not to use a service when doing so means compromising on your values.
I see no problem with Reddit charging for access to their platform because (spoiler alert) there are plenty of other internet forums available for people to choose as an alternative to Reddit. If the features offered by Reddit (such as the robust community) are sufficiently appealing that you want to continue using Reddit, then you must make a sacrifice of abiding by their terms. One of their new terms is a fee associated with access to their API.
Making sacrifices to participate in a given system is a cornerstone of the human experience. Driving a car requires wearing a seatbelt and driving within the speed limit. Voting requires registering your identity with the government. Having shelter from the elements requires either A. buying a home, B. renting a home, or C. building your own home (each of which typically requires money). Participating in a capitalist society requires earning and spending money on goods and services.
This is not a defense of any of these systems; it is simply an acknowledgement of what exists. Fighting against reality is a losing battle, and we must often accept the constraints of the systems around us in order to live a full life. Pretending that a for-profit enterprise exists entirely for the public good is a fallacy. Believing that one is entitled to unlimited free services is absurd. The most important point in all of this is that you always have a choice: you can take the bus instead of drive, you can choose not to vote, you can live off the grid or choose to live outside, and you can host your own internet forum if you don’t like the options available to you.
There is nothing about our current situation that is new. For example, ever since torrenting became widespread, there has existed a subset of the population who believe that they deserve content and services for free. Granted, when peer-to-peer (P2P) services first gained traction for sharing media content such as movies and music, it was largely in response to bad-faith actions from media companies, such as overly restrictive Digital Rights Management (DRM). But for many people, it was (and continues to be) about nothing more than feeling entitled to free goods.
We live in a moment that expects and rewards outrage in public spaces, and I believe this explains a large part of the response to Reddit’s fee proposal. Abstaining from outrage culture takes a lot of energy, and I understand how easy it is to be swept up in big emotions. It’s times like these when I find it useful to take a breath and repeat my internet mantra a few times (we’re all just humans, doing our best in this difficult world. we’re all just humans…). We as humans are entitled to many things: safety, self-determination, clean air and water, shelter, nutritious food, respect from our fellow humans, healthcare, and so much more. One item that is notably absent from this list is free internet forums. In a time when serious personal liberties are being revoked, such as private medical care, perhaps our energy would be better served by paying attention to the things that matter.
Important clarifications, lest I be willfully misinterpretted
I’m not writing this to be a corporate pawn. My motivation in this post is a strong emotional reaction to the level of entitlement I witness on the internet around paying for services. People should complain less about free services online; also, tech companies should do better. Both of these truths can coexist.
- Allowing a company to set its own terms of service (including associated fees) does not give that company blanket permission to abuse its users. However, if a company is abusing its users, the users should feel a moral imperative to leave the service. Important exceptions include services where no equivalent competitor exists (I personally can’t think of an example of an online service with no competitor, but I’m sure they exist).
- Companies must be able to offer reasonable accommodations for all their users. For example, if a company’s native app does not meet accessibility standards, then clearly the community is entitled to an accessible alternative.
- Companies must not engage in “dark patterns” that hurt their users in unforeseeable ways. (When bad practices are hidden from observation, it hinders the user’s right to self-determination, e.g., by leaving a service which they deem unacceptable.) Examples include:
- Selling or distributing user data
- Preventing account closure or making the process unnecessarily difficult
- Charging users without notice, and/or without offering a reasonable ability to refund the charge
- Companies that provide essential services must be held to an extremely high standard of service, above and beyond anything discussed in this post.
- Reddit is not an essential service.
- If you use a service from a for-profit company, don’t be surprised when they charge for it.
- There are always alternatives available. If your disgust outweighs the benefits you receive from using a service, then simply stop. Nobody is forcing you to continue using any particular online service.