Monday, June 24, 2024

Reddit’s founders lived in this Davis Square, Somerville, apartment. (Photo: Marc Levy)

From favorite moderately priced Harvard Square restaurants to “Weird guy near Inman being sus” and from pizza to politics, the Cambridge and Somerville pages on Reddit are where more than 43,500 local users go regularly to stay informed and share experiences. It’s a community that has thrived since 2005, when the social media website was founded in Medford and Somerville’s Davis Square and refined by the late tech activist Aaron Swartz.

But as the social media app experiences an upheaval verging on civil war between executives and the citizens upon which they rely to lead its more than 100,000 active communities, subreddit moderators in Cambridge and Somerville made only a brief protest and are largely silent on what the changes will mean.

The Cambridge subreddit went private June 12 with hundreds of others to protest a change in Reddit policy. While its protest lasted 48 hours, according to one of its three moderators, other pages have taken more long-term steps; the latest approach is change settings to NSFW – not safe for work – making a subreddit unfit for the advertising on which Reddit executives are trying to capitalize.

Reddit’s estimated 57 million users daily provide content useful to Google and in training artificial intelligence, which companies can do by processing data through an application programming interface – but Reddit wants revenue for that too, and on April 18 said it would begin charging for access.

The third-party app Apollo is among many that have since shut down, saying they could not pay the expense. Apollo’s Christian Selig called the changes “drastic and sudden” as the app shut down June 30, taking away a fast, sleek and ad-free tool moderators and users relied on to navigate a sprawling but clunky site.

Cambridge resident Ian McGoldrick, 31, became a moderator of the Cambridge subreddit in November 2022, two years after joining and finding it to be a “really good source of information.” He talks with the other two moderators only via the messaging app Discord. He knows their names but, despite all three presumably living in the same city, has never met them in person, he said.

It was through chatting on Discord that the three Cambridge moderators decided to participate in the blackout.

“One of the other moderators was the one who reached out and said, ‘I think we should do this. There was clearly a lot of people in the community who were upset,” McGoldrick said, referring to the changes being put in place by Reddit executives. “So I thought it was fine to join in solidarity.”

During the 48 hours the page was private, McGoldrick said he received a lot of messages and requests for help from users having trouble accessing the page. McGoldrick and the other moderators chose not to respond, staying silent to commit to the blackout.

The Reddit policy changes won’t affect those casual user “all too much,” but the site relies on unpaid volunteers such as himself who will be affected by changes to the toolkit they use to manage pages. Many Reddit communities are “fearful that it’s a money grab and that it will fundamentally change the way Reddit works,” he said. “And it might.”

McGoldrick said he understood Reddit’s choice, but wished there was a way to reach a compromise.

The other two moderators of the Cambridge subreddit and the moderators of the Somerville subreddit did not respond to requests for comment.

It’s unclear whether the Cambridge and Somerville moderators were aware of the local history of Reddit or Swartz, 26, who killed himself in 2013 as he faced more than 50 years in prison from federal prosecutors for a mass downloading of articles from an academic journal repository to which he had legal access. Though he died in New York, Swartz had worked at MIT and lived at 265 Elm St., Davis Square, Somerville, with Reddit founders Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian.