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Reddit says new accessibility tools for moderators are coming. Mods are skeptical

Reddit's updates will include access to moderation tools, messaging, and control settings for user approval and bans. The Reddit app icon is pictured on a smartphone.
Matt Slocum
Reddit's updates will include access to moderation tools, messaging, and control settings for user approval and bans. The Reddit app icon is pictured on a smartphone.

Reddit users staged a mass boycott last month over the social media company's move to charge fees to third-party developers. Some of the most vocal protesters complained of losing the accessibility resources that disabled communities use.

They're accusing the company of killing off third-party apps that allow them to access the site.

Now, Reddit is trying to appease those protesters.

The company, which has about 57 million daily users, announced new "accessibility improvements" to its moderation tools on its website and mobile apps. It said the changes will be rolled out starting Saturday.

Moderators, also known as "mods," are volunteers tasked with keeping Reddit's online communities running smoothly, ensuring their respective forum users stay on topic and stick to the rules.

A person identified as a Reddit director of product, under the username joyventure, notified moderators of the upcoming changes in a post on June 23: "We've been talking with moderators who use assistive tech and/or moderate accessibility communities to hear their feedback and concerns about the tooling needs of mods and users."

The changes, which will arrive in stages through August, include access to moderation tools, messaging, and control settings for user approval and bans.

Protests darkened much of Reddit

The announcement comes nearly two weeks after nearly 9,000 subreddits went dark. They were protesting the company's decision to charge third-party developers to access the site using data from Reddit's application programming interface, or API.

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said the mass protest did not change the company's plans to start charging for data. "It's a small group that's very upset, and there's no way around that. We made a business decision that upset them," he told NPR in an interview. "But I think the greater Reddit community just wants to participate with their fellow community members."

Reddit answered the protest with a warning: It said moderators would lose their mod status if they kept their communities "private" in protest, The Verge reported. More than a quarter of the site's subreddits remain dark, according to Reddark, a site tracking the boycott.

For years, Reddit didn't have its own app. Third-party apps arrived to fill the void for users on mobile devices — and remained popular after Reddit put out its official app in 2016. Yet the official Reddit website and app lack basic accessibility features, according to people who are visually impaired or have other disabilities.

They have come to rely on third-party apps to browse the site. Some popular third-party developers such as Apollo have said the exorbitant new fees mean they will have to shut down their apps. Apollo said the monetized API would end up costing the developer $20 million a year to continue running its app, The Verge reported.

Moderators call Reddit's accessibility approach flawed

Following the news of the accessibility changes, moderators expressed skepticism. They say these changes are a hurried, short-sighted attempt to placate communities with disabilities.

"They have created their own problem," said Noah Carver, a moderator for r/blind. "They are creating a situation where the developers have to crunch to create an accessibility fix for moderation" and "putting disabled users in a position where they're not going to be able to use the accessibility client that is most accessible to them."

Huffman has expressed a firm commitment to improving accessibility on the company's platforms. In an Ask-Me-Anything chat, he responded to criticism about Reddit's approach to accessibility, saying, "for our own apps, there is no excuse. We will do better."

But moderators for the r/blind subreddit say their recent experiences communicating with Reddit to improve accessibility features do not give them confidence that the company can commit to its promises for the long term.

"We applaud Reddit for prioritizing these features, but would prefer a top-down corporate response that gives the product time enough time and addresses the broader community's concerns," the moderators said.

When NPR reached out to Reddit for comment, a spokesperson for the company pointed to the "Accessibility," section on its blog page explaining the API changes; the section notes what the company says it's doing to improve accessibility, including its partnership with developers of three apps that address accessibility needs.

These updates are insufficient, says Carver, adding that they were shared with the r/blind community moderators during a meeting that left them with "serious concerns."

"These three apps are perfectly adequate if you're just a reader of Reddit," Carver said. "But for people to moderate a community ... none of them have the full functionality we need."

For example, when the thousands of subreddits first went on strike, Carver said the r/blind subreddit moderators required the assist of a sighted person to turn the forum to private in order to join the boycott.

According to the r/blind team, Reddit invited the moderators to test the accessibility improvements a few hours before they were announced.

"What they're asking [us] to do is essentially something that you would contract someone to do this work," Carver said. "It's not the community's responsibility to make things accessible. It's not a well-intentioned developer's responsibility to do that. That is Reddit's responsibility."

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