There’s been a joke for a few years now that all the web applications you’ve ever heard of are actually some other Internet protocol, reconfigured to answer on port 80, the standard port for (unencrypted) web traffic. Some of these parallels are obvious, and even more or less literal: Gmail is IMAP and SMTP, and Google Talk is (or was) XMPP, all on port 80 in the same browser window. Others are more metaphorical. Twitter is IRC on port 80, although one primarily listens to users instead of channels — but listening to channels is still possible, if one uses a client that can follow hashtags, and the syntax is even the same. Dropbox is FTP on port 80. Reddit is Usenet on port 80.
What are the side effects of the port-80fication of dozens of protocols that began as distributed systems, but which Web 2.0 centralized?
Money is the most outwardly obvious one, but no points for guessing it, so we’ll get back to that. We have models now for monetizing centralized systems, but they’re still not all that predictive, and back when AJAX was still something you had to be deeply familiar with web development to have heard of, everybody was just guessing. We only think we know what we’re doing because of survivorship bias. The sites that have survived did so because they lowered the barrier to entry for the old, distributed protocols for enough users to matter.
The barrier to entry is much more interesting. Of course, there are Windows, Mac, and Linux clients for all the protocols we’ve talked about so far, and have been for years. Remember mIRC? Or WS-FTP? Or Eudora? Remember having to try out various programs until you found the one whose quirks you hated the least? The one-interface-fits-all paradigm of the web era puts information overload to the sword. Web developers can also capture much richer information about how users use their interfaces, and put that to use in improving accessibility and usability — though at this point a dark side of the control that centralization affords begins to emerge, with reports of Facebook actively manipulating users via the contents of their news feeds.
Interfaces are the barrier in the entryway, though. Before everything moved to the web, how did you even find the door? Websites used to, and some still do, link to resources using schemes other than HTTP(S); ftp:// and irc:// are still around, git:// has shown up, and of course the venerable mailto: is still around, but by and large, the URL schemes that we see today are those for which browsers provide some amount of support. Browsers support HTTP best — it’s what they’re for — and if you design things right you can put a web frontend and a mobile frontend on the same application backend. So, for years, the winning move for developers, particularly social developers, has been to move everything to port 80, so that users of other protocols-on-port-80 can easily find their way to your protocol-on-port-80. And that means centralization.
Let’s get back to money now.
In 2006, Condé Nast, a division of the privately held Advance Publications, acquired Reddit, and in 2011 Reddit became an independent subsidiary of Advance. The company has struggled for years without reaching profitability. They don’t disclose all their revenue (e.g., Reddit Gold subscriptions), but earlier this year they reported a 2014 advertising revenue in the high seven figures. This is with a userbase of over 160 million as of last month.
Like any other company that offers a free service to users, for Reddit, its users are its product. And, indeed, its users have found uses for Reddit that its makers perhaps never intended, creating forums that range from gift exchanges to mental health support to an ongoing interview series where the userbase gets to drive the dialogue. That last subreddit, /r/IAmA, has been one of the biggest draws bringing new users to the site, so much so that Reddit’s first official mobile app is geared specifically to these “Ask Me Anything” sessions. But a curious thing is happening on /r/IAmA right now: its doors are shut.
Until July 2 of this year, Reddit’s Director of Talent, Victoria Taylor, provided essential operational support to the moderators of /r/IAmA, /r/science, /r/music, and other subreddits that conduct AMAs. Both Victoria and Reddit have been predictably silent about the circumstances surrounding Victoria’s firing; Reddit is known to have a non-disparagement agreement. Reddit’s userbase, on the other hand, has not been nearly as quiet. At the time of this writing, nearly 200 subreddits have shut down, including not only popular “front-page” forums like /r/movies and /r/funny, but even subreddits with a reputation for being welcoming, like /r/trees and /r/dogecoin. Threads supporting Victoria and condemning Reddit’s decision dominate the front page of the site — what new users see on their first visit.
Port-80fication makes money flow from the leaves of a social graph towards its root, when there is money to be had. For Reddit, revenue originates from the creativity and goodwill of its users. Reddit doubled down on the success of AMAs, devoting its own resources to improving that channel of communication, but they didn’t take into account what would happen if the unpaid moderators who grew AMAs into an attractive resource were to shrug, en masse, and walk away. Last month, centralization had Redditors worried about subreddits they liked being shut down by fiat. This month, the double-edge of the sword of centralization finally shows itself.
This is always the hazard of staking your reputation on something that someone else has done: they can always decide they don’t want to cooperate with you anymore, and then where’s the basis for your reputation? Reddit’s management may be able to superficially recover from the wreckage they carelessly wrought, but their handling of Victoria’s termination betrays a deep failure to understand the very phenomenon they’re betting at least part of their business plan on. Speedy triage may very well lead to replacement subreddits for the popular ones that remain closed, and replacement moderators for the ones who leave, but whether the AMA brand will keep the reputation it’s earned remains to be seen.
Many Redditors are debating the relative merits of other Usenet-on-port-80 sites, such as voat.co and snapzu.com, both of which are groaning under the strain of so many emigrating Redditors. This misses the point, though. Smaller centralized sites can’t support the load of large ones, and small sites don’t become large without growing a financial arm for their organization. If the Reddit diaspora coalesces in a new home, and that new home grows to the cultural prominence of Reddit, cost will become an organizational concern that competes with content, and the financial organ will have opinions about content that it will have the power to enforce from the top down. From banning forums to pushing for features users don’t want, all the failure modes of Reddit itself — which, don’t forget, was “the new Digg” in its infancy — will surface again on any centralized “new Reddit.”
Thanks to the Internet Engineering Task Force’s practice of open standardization, however, all those old decentralized protocols that new Internet users know only from their centralized equivalents still exist, just waiting to go home to their original ports. Not much has happened in the NNTP world lately, but Usenet is still out there. These days it’s more about binaries and spam than about discussion, but in the couple of decades since Usenet was cool, we’ve learned a lot about client-side spam filtering. Usenet just looks like text by default, but Google Groups managed to throw a decent web frontend on it, and any unhosted web app can do the same.
Another example of a decentralized forum system is Aether, which uses an asynchronous messaging protocol called AMP to power a standalone peer-to-peer desktop application. However, without features Reddit users rely on, Aether is a less attractive solution to many Redditors than alternative centralized sites. This also points to a flaw in the Usenet analogy; Reddit isn’t just Usenet on port 80, it’s Usenet with a reputation system on port 80. If it’s important to users to be able to send private messages, upvote or downvote posts, or accumulate karma, users will gravitate toward services that provide those capabilities, and perhaps try out but ultimately leave services that don’t.
But users also care about being able to continue to interact with platforms in the ways they’ve gotten accustomed to — often because the platform’s user interface offers ways to process information and interact with others that are already a good fit for them. If the allegation that Reddit planned to introduce video AMAs is true, then it provides an example of what happens when a platform betrays those users whose loyalty is based on liking the existing interaction style. The population of users who prefer text interaction is limited, though, and probably an even smaller fraction of celebrities. At some point, being unsatisfied with the limited population compatible with that niche, the management of a centralized system will try to change the interface out from under the established userbase to make it more appealing to the mainstream — the repeated consequence of the “one-size-fits-all” interface paradigm. The existing users are then caught between the Scylla of no longer being well served by the centralized platform and the Charybdis of network effects that require abandoning a lot of social context in order to switch to anything else. Being a minority-niche user of a centrally managed platform means constant pressure toward more and more mainstream styles of interaction. Decentralized systems hold stable in the face of such pressure.
It’s too early to say what will happen to Reddit, or whether a decentralized version of it could thrive. Decentralized-Facebook clone Diaspora is still around, though still nowhere near as popular as its centralized predecessor. The person who can build newsgroups with reputation may very well end up replacing Reddit, if they can solve the introduction problem (“how do you get the users there?”) and the usability problems (of which there are many). What the blackout of July 3rd shows, though, is that mutiny is a realistic risk for the operators of even centrally controlled regimes. Users may be the cash cows of the internet economy, but thinking that users can be herded like cattle is a mistake that entrepreneurs cannot afford to make.