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Blackout, June 12-14 2023

If you are here, you have clicked through from the subreddit, which is currently inaccessible. As part of a wider movement by hundreds of mod teams on reddit, we have closed our subreddit for two days in protest of recent moves by reddit. Please find our statements on the closure below:

Our Statement Regarding Blacking Out from June 12-14, 2023

A few days ago we shared a post outlining our thoughts around API uncertainty. The tldr: changes negatively impact our ability to moderate. These changes are part of a larger pattern in which Reddit’s leadership has failed to support what we believe is one of its greatest assets. Basically, our primary responsibility is making sure Reddit users are getting the best answers to your questions about history and Reddit is making that harder to do.

We understand Reddit’s need to change and evolve. For all we may harp on Reddit’s flaws, we do want to see it succeed! After all, we wouldn’t exist without it. So, if we’re expecting Reddit leadership to listen to us, we should be willing to work with them. In the days following the publication of the post, we discussed as a team what the specifics of working with Reddit would look like so we could clearly articulate it to you. We decided that compromise means:

  • Updates to the API are not tied to a particular date but are, instead, rolled out once the roadmap shared here is successfully achieved.

  • Accessibility tools such as screen readers are part of the native Reddit infrastructure.

  • Updates are made across Android and iOS.

We think slowing down is the right thing to do. It would minimize further disruption while also generating an income stream for Reddit.

The AskHistorians’ mod team members are, functionally speaking, Reddit super-users. We have collectively invested thousands of hours into building our small corner of Reddit into a subreddit that is viable, trustworthy, and valuable, as well as something bigger. There’s our podcast, academic writing by us and about us, and our reputation as, "good history eggs on the internet." We’ve hosted two conferences, a long series of AMAs and presented about AH at other academic conferences. We even won an award! Major outlets have even covered our approach to moderation. We take all of this very seriously.

Nearly every time Reddit has asked for volunteers, we’ve stepped up. AH members help with the Moderator Reserves project, sit on council meetings and phone calls, host Reddit administrators who want to shadow moderators, and participate in surveys. Due to our commitment to the subreddit, we’ve built positive relationships with many admins who have been open to our feedback. But over the last couple of days—most notably during Spez’s AMA—it’s become clear to us that Reddit’s leadership is not interested in finding common ground; rather, it seems to us like they're hell-bent on pursuing a course that damages us and them alike.

We feel we are left with no choice but to join the protest. On June 12, starting at 7am ET, we will take our sub private. We will remain private on June 13 as well.

We’ll open the sub again on June 14th but will pause participation. This means you will be able to access existing content, such as the Trans History Megathread in Celebration of Pride Month, but will not be able to ask or answer questions. We will be delaying or holding off AMAs, limiting our newsletter, and will not be recording any new podcast episodes. As of today, we do not know how long this pause will last.

We cannot put this letter out into the world without thanking you for the immense support you’ve shown us over the last week. We’ve received support across platforms, in public and in private. We’ve been a community for nearly 12 years and that would not have happened without you and our other 1.8 million subscribers. We know we’re not the easiest community to post in, and deeply appreciate the people who ask dozens of thoughtful, rule-abiding questions every day, the people joining in on April Fools Day, those who anonymously report trolls and low effort answers, support the podcast via Patreon, and those who provide honest, thoughtful feedback on how we’re faring in general. We don’t take lightly the idea of shutting down this place and the community that we all build together, and we understand how frustrating it will be to not be able to find out, for example, why GPS is free.

We are all, at heart, historians. Studying the past requires a fair amount of optimism and confidence in humanity and as such, we are hopeful and confident a resolution can be found.

Our Original Statement from June 6th, 2023

On April 18, 2023, Reddit announced it would begin charging for access to its API. Reddit faces real challenges from free access to its API. Reddit data has been used to train large language models that underpin AI technologies, such as ChatGPT and Bard, which matters to us at AskHistorians because technologies like these make it quick and easy to violate our rules on plagiarism, makes it harder for us to moderate, and could erode the trust you have in the information you read here. Further, access to archives that include user-deleted data violates your privacy.

However, make no mistake, we need API access to keep our community running. We use the API in a number of ways, both through direct access and through use of archives of data that were collected using the API, most importantly, Pushshift. For example, we use API supported tools to:

  • Find answers to previously asked questions, including answers to questions that were deleted by the question-asker

  • Help flairs track down old answers they remember writing but can’t locate

  • Proactively identify new contributors to the community

  • Monitor the health of the subreddit and track how many questions get answers.

  • Moderate via mobile (when we do)

  • Generate user profiles

  • Automate posting themes, trivia, and other special events

  • Semiautomate /u/gankom’s massive Sunday Digest efforts

  • Send the newsletter

Admins have promised minimal disruption; however, over the years they’ve made a number of promises to support moderators that they did not, or could not follow up on, and at times even reneged on:

  • In 2015, in response to widespread protests on the sub, the admins promised they would build tools and improve communication with mods.

  • In 2019 the admins promised that chat would always be an opt-in feature. However, a year later an unmoderated chat feature was made a default feature on most subs

  • In 2020, in response to moderators protesting racism on Reddit, admin promised to support mods in combating hate

  • In 2021, again, in response to protests, Reddit’s admin promised a feature to report malicious interference by subreddits promoting Covid denial.

Reddit’s admin has certainly made progress. In 2020 they updated the content policy to ban hate and in 2021 they banned and quarantined communities promoting covid denial. But while the company has updated their policies, they have not sufficiently invested in moderation support.

Reddit admins have had 8 years to build a stronger infrastructure to support moderators but have not.

API access isn’t just about making life easier for mods. It helps us keep our communities safe by providing important context about users, such as whether or not they have a history of posting rule-violating content or engaging in harmful behavior. The ability to search for removed and deleted data allows moderators to more quickly respond to spam, bigotry, and harassment. On AskHistorians, we’ve used it to help identify accounts that spam ChatGPT generated content that violates our rules. If we want to mod on our phones, third party apps offer the most robust mod tools. Further, third party apps are particularly important for moderators and users who rely on screen readers, as the official Reddit app is inaccessible to the visually impaired.

Mods need API access because Reddit doesn’t support their needs.

We are highly concerned about the downstream impacts of this decision. Reddit is built on volunteer moderation labour that costs other companies millions of dollars per year. While some tools we rely on may not be technically impacted, and some may return after successful negotiations, the ecosystem of API supported tools is vast and varied, and the tools themselves require volunteer labour to maintain. Changes like these, particularly the poor communication surrounding them, and cobbled responses as domino after domino falls, year after year, risk making r/AskHistorians a worse place both for moderators and for users—there will likely be more spam, fewer posts helpfully directing users to previous answers to their questions, and our ability to effectively address trolling, and JAQing off will slow down.

Without the moderators who develop, nurture, and protect Reddit’s diverse communities, Reddit risks losing what makes it so special. We love what we do here at AskHistorians. If Reddit’s admins don’t reach a reasonable compromise, we will protest in response to these uncertainties.

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