how Reddit did what Tumblr couldn't

the true make-or-break moment for a social network is not getting users, it's knowing how to get rid of them.

in the 2010s, Tumblr was a great hub of online culture. countless memes were started there, and countless more died there. it was truly the Place to Be if you were a weirdo who wanted to find other weirdos.

of course, having a bunch of weirdos together in the same place, this led to a lot of exploration of sexuality. lots of unique erotica and queerness, but also just lots of porn. investors did not want Tumblr to be a porn site. but how do you fix that?

well, when the Tumblr app was removed from Apple's app store,1 Tumblr didn't really have much of a choice. they hastily banned anything and everything that could possibly be considered pornographic; even taking down a lot of tasteful nudity and classical art in the process. of course, this did not go well for them.

within a few months, they'd lost almost a third of their traffic. many users, instead of complying with any sort of censorship, just left the platform entirely. while the platform's remaining users may have theoretically been a kind more attractive to advertisers, the sheer lack of them meant it was hard for any advertisers to really justify any specific campaigns on there anyways.

when Tumblr was sold to Yahoo in 2013, it was bought for $1 billion. less than a decade later, it sold to Automattic (owners of Wordpress and Gravatar) for only $3 million. while Automattic has managed to turn the website around to profit somewhat, Tumblr is still nowhere near as relevant to online culture as it was a decade ago.

Reddit had a very similar problem coming into the 2020s. while the majority of its userbase was young and new, almost all of the subreddit moderators consisted of old users. these old users did a lot of unpaid content moderation labor, sure, but they also didn't make them much money as users. they scared away the new users with complex rules, used ad blockers and third party clients, and didn't care about enforcing Reddit's rules, only their own.

of course, it would be difficult to purge the oldest and most vocal segment of your userbase all at once, even if they were no more than a small but powerful minority. so how did Reddit do it?

in the summer of 2023, Reddit announced that they would change the pricing model of their API. while claiming to prevent scraping, the change also happened to make all third party Reddit clients stop working. of course, all the power users had been using third party clients, and they didn't like this change. they shut down all their subreddits, or even deleted their account and posts.

Reddit, of course, seemed to have planned for this. in response, they banned anyone who shut down a subreddit, replaced them with new moderators, and un-deleted any comments that were deleted. Reddit got exactly what they wanted; they purged all the old users who were making them less profitable, while minimizing the disturbance to the new users who didn't care; preparing their site to be nice and profitable for a lucrative IPO.

1. Apple never officially said why the Tumblr app was removed.

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