Freeloader Culture

Reddit seems to be crumbling under the weight of a big controversy. The reason? It didn’t account for its free-riders.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: In many ways, the internet is a network driven by literally millions of examples of the same problem happening over and over—people freeloading on access to resources someone else made available for free. We all do it—some of us want to read paywalled articles, so we try to find ways around the paywall. We hate distractions, so some of us turn on ad blockers. We don’t want to pay for every cable channel or streaming service, so we load up torrent programs (unless you’re Gen Z, then you may not know what they are). In many ways, the recent debate around Reddit has been a discussion of infrastructure and freeloading. Who’s getting the free ride? And who’s stealing resources from whom? In many ways, Reddit represents a microcosm of how the internet works when it comes to people taking advantage of free resources. So with that in mind, today’s Tedium ponders freeloaders and free-riders in the digital era. — Ernie @ Tedium


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“As a rule, a host likes to be agreed with or he would not be a host. If he wanted people to disagree with him, he would not bother assembling them at some expense about a table with him. He would step down to the corner and find plenty of disagreement at no cost, except perhaps a doctor’s bill. Young freeloaders should always remember this psychology of the host.”

— Damon Runyon, a newspaper writer and short-story writer, discussing the philosophy of freeloading in a syndicated 1940 essay. To put it another way, freeloaders are expected to play by the rules, or they become freeloaders no more.

When and why freeloaders first became a thing

One could imagine The Three Stooges leading a “Freeloaders Association,” an ad-hoc name for the makeshift group of people who showed up at an event just to take advantage of the free food.

In the Great Depression era of the 1930s, this term was used in newspapers, and helped to popularize the freeloader phrase, which was a nonentity before that point.

If I had to nail down where this phrase came from, I would root it to a now-obscure movement that emerged from the United Kingdom in the early 20th century, the Unionist Free Food League. The group, which included a number of prominent politicians among its membership—most notably Winston Churchill, who later left—came to life in an attempt to fight a tariff against food imports into the United Kingdom. It was not literally arguing for free food, but food free from additional taxes. (Yes, it is ironic that the roots of a concept tied to free food come from a conservative movement, but stick with me here.)

It didn’t work out—the movement died off within a few years, with nobody really taking the politicians’ side. A skeptical take on this movement from a 1904 article in the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser breaks down the somewhat disconnected nature of the phrasing:

The Free-fooder, if we may hazard a rough guess, is one who wishes the food supply of this country to be free of taxation, and who, where it is proved to his satisfaction that food is already heavily taxed it still prepared to resist any proposals, no matter how important, how sound, or how world-wide in their incidence they may be, which will cost the working man (blessed word, “working man“) a few shillings a year extra for his food. You may tax his beer and other liquors as much as you please, as you do you may make the poor working man pay fourpence an ounce for a farthing’s worth of tobacco, and which, mark you, he prefers to food when it comes to a pinch, but you must not tax his “food.” The Free-fooder is a doctrinaire who subscribes to the theory of the Free breakfast table,” and shibboleths of that kind and though you were to prove to him that a mere readjustment of taxation on food would help him, help his kinsfolk in the Colonies, and hurt nobody, he still cries Free-food in reply to every argument, just as Longfellow’s mad mountaineer replied, “Excelsior” to all comers.

To put it another way, Free-fooders were more about economic freedom—or really, just against import taxes on food—than they were about getting things in a gratis fashion. But “free-fooders” is a very short skip away from free-loaders, which implies that a connection between the two may have been indirectly made, especially given their relatively close historical proximity.

The term freeloader implies a degree of shamelessness about what those partaking in free experiences are doing, and is sort of implied in the first mention of the term in a Miami Herald sports article in 1933. The article is basically a gossip roundup of local golfers and sports betters, and the tone is mocking:

George Ryall, former president of the Freeloaders Inc., has just been elected chairman of the board and served in that capacity at the Miami Beach Kennel club Monday evening.

Mr Freddie Hayden is now president of the Freeloaders and stands up well under the responsibilities thereof. Mr Ryall still is chairman of the arrangements committee and is seeking some angel to step forth with gratis food and drink for his organization next week.

From that starting point, “freeloaders” became a heavily used phrase to imply a certain lack of grace in accepting handouts—and early on, it was used in tandem with the phrase association, suggesting an organization of people who got together just to steal your food.

One notable example of what is traditionally meant when the term “freeloader” gets thrown around comes from the Republican congressman Charles S. Gubser, who said this about journalists in 1958:

I should not say this but there is no greater group of freeloaders in the world than the press. They will take anything they can get . They criticize our junkets, yet they are the first to accept them for themselves.

Gubser quickly walked back the remarks, which he claimed “were made under great emotional stress” after being upset that the press was going to publish something negative about a political ally.

Solo Cups Beer

Free beer, often handed out in freeloading contexts. (Jonah Brown/Unsplash)

Now, freeloaders aren’t necessarily a problem if you know how to manage them. If you’re trying to convince people to join your club or buy a condo, a promise of free pizza is an excellent way to get people through the door. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “free as in beer,” same concept. Keep in mind that you might be drinking that beer at a marketing or political advocacy event, or it might be offered at a work party by your employer.

In the modern day, freeloaders have continued to maintain a certain degree of negative connotation, but the concept has expanded well beyond food. If you think about the internet as a whole, it couldn’t work without some degree of freeloading. If people didn’t have free email addresses, they wouldn’t be able to log in anywhere. Without free Wi-Fi, odds are they may not even leave the house.

Society requires a degree of access to public resources, or we wouldn’t be able to take part in the digital culture we have.

The problem is, someone has to pay for the bill—and they want to get something back for it.

Bus Ride

Buses, often associated with free-riders, because transportation of this nature is usually publicly subsidized. (Luke Michael/Unsplash)

The free-rider problem: The social-sciences term that explains why Reddit is so pissed at third-party apps

Is a free-rider the same thing as a freeloader? I’d argue no. Admittedly, they sound similar, and they point to the same sort of problem—people taking advantage of resources that aren’t necessarily theirs. But there is a subtle difference that means that free-riders, depending on your point of view, are arguably more dangerous for society as a whole.

If I had to nail down the difference between a free-rider and a freeloader, I think I’d put it like this: Free-riders often take advantage of systemic issues, while freeloaders often mooch directly from the source.

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the free-rider problem, a concept in the social sciences that refers to a tendency among people to access goods and services they didn’t necessarily earn, but they benefit from anyway.

A common context where this comes up is the labor union. While unions are funded by employees of a given company, what can happen is that someone chooses not to take part in the union, skips out on the meetings, doesn’t contribute, and so on, but benefits from any negotiations and salary increases the union decides on. The way that many organizations fight this is by requiring everyone to join the union, but that approach has faced some legal challenges in recent years.

This is often explained in governmental terms as well—if you don’t pay taxes or aren’t contributing to society in a meaningful way, you are a drag on society. In the purest form of this philosophy, children and the elderly would technically be seen as the most aggressive free-riders, as they extract resources from society without putting anything else in. But because we’re not monsters, we generally focus on people who are able-bodied and can work when we make such free-rider arguments.

A notable example of a free-rider problem comes in the case of open-source software. Now, free and open source software would not exist unless someone was creating and distributing it. But the incentives to build better open source software just aren’t there. As a Ford Foundation report put it:

The decentralized, non-hierarchical nature of the public coding community makes it difficult to secure pay for coders, yet the work that emerges from it is the foundation for a digital capitalist economy. Increasingly, developers are using shared code without contributing to its maintenance, leaving this infrastructure strained and vulnerable to security breaches.

You have to build the roads, too, and the way that you build the roads is through publicly supporting the infrastructure. Open source software, as some would argue, is the digital equivalent of public infrastructure. But it is a victim of free riders who choose not to support it, even though they could.

Of course, you can’t stop free riders if you haven’t bothered to offer another option … which leads us to Reddit.

“It’s not reasonable to let this … it’s been going on for a very long time. Folks have made millions. These aren’t like side projects or charities, they’ve made millions. One is owned by an ad network. They have no contract with us. Our peers just turn them off. Reddit’s the only company that allows these sort of competitive products to exist, and we’ll allow them to continue to exist if it’s fair, if they’re on equal footing, which is paying for their data in the same way that we have to.”

— Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman, offering a justification for the company’s plan to remove mobile apps from its service in a recent interview with The Verge. The API plan originally came out of a desire to not allow AI firms to scrape the company’s data set, but it eventually became clear that the real target was the third-party apps that are popular with power users. “What they have in common is we’re not going to subsidize other people’s businesses for free,” Huffman added.


(Brett Jordan/Unsplash)

Reddit has a freeloader problem—and a free-rider problem

Reddit, like many social networks, is a platform built for freeloaders, with the idea that the free users are not actually the customers, but the product. After all, if they weren’t there, the platform’s value would not exist. The problem for Reddit has been, essentially, that these users, despite their internet-dominating scale, don’t generate enough value for the company to make them profitable. They’re handing out more red solo cups full of alcohol than they’re getting buyers of their service.

And that is leading the company to look deeper in the system to figure out where to cut waste.

And in that process, in Reddit’s view, they found a very significant free-rider problem: Users of the company’s API were aggressively taking value from the platform without being required to give anything back. API users are basically allowed to do nearly anything with the company’s API, including compete directly with Reddit in the form of applications, and the rules Reddit has put into place have meant that they weren’t paying their fair share to access an important part of the platform.

Of course, on the flip side of this, one could argue that the free-rider problem is of Reddit’s own making. The network decided not to invest in certain experiences that were important to end users, particularly mobile apps, which left an opening for other companies to take advantage of the market gap. But on the other hand, Reddit failed to offer a reasonable option: At first, it didn’t have a decent app at all; later, it bought a decent app but failed to keep it usable for many classes of users.

And on top of all that, it never charged a reasonable rate for its API. The result is that the company has so many free riders that it cannot support them anymore, and the problem is becoming worse, because artificial intelligence is creating many more free riders, many of whom will extract data from its API but not create any value for the Reddit platform whatsoever.

Meanwhile, a completely separate free-rider problem had emerged. Know those freeloaders that Reddit has been attracting to its platform? Turns out that some of them have been making Reddit such a valuable place to be that Reddit was arguably getting more value from them than the communities were from Reddit. And so, when Reddit removed a point of value for them—the applications that made it possible to easily moderate their communities—they responded by “blacking out,” reminding the platform that they arguably hold all the value.

The problem is, Reddit does not see it that way. Instead, they see the moderators as the free-riders, rather than the other way around. At least, that’s sort of how it feels, given CEO Steve Huffman’s recent quotes on the matter.

“The people who get there first get to stay there and pass it down to their descendants, and that is not democratic,” Huffman told NBC News last week.

Huffman, without explicitly stating it, has essentially implied that Reddit’s most important moderators—who worked for free, generated all the value for the communities, and kept them safe—are merely freeloaders, and that Reddit ultimately owns the platforms these freeloaders built.

The implication is not to be missed. Huffman does not value the community that makes his platform viable. This is an excellent way to turn a free-as-in-beer problem into a free-as-in-speech response.

If you ask me, online communities have long suffered from this awkward position where the corpus of information is immensely valuable, but the way the information is valued piece by piece is not.

It’s like running a radio station and deciding that the individual songs weren’t actually worth anything—when the truth is, all the value is in the songs, and it’s the radio station is the thing in danger of losing value over time. It’s not like licensing companies are doling out nine-figure checks to AM radio stations.

That’s a hard truth when you’ve built a platform like Reddit—that the platform is transitory, but the information being delivered is where the true value lies.

If you built a platform like Reddit, knowing you would be paying all the server costs and responsible for payroll, you might think that every end user on your service is a freeloader, just another Stooge taking advantage of the sandwich platter on the other end of the dining hall.

But the thing is, we live in a digital economy where the creation of value is often by the end users, not the platforms. The things that make TikTok or Twitter worth reading are generated by users who feel like they’re creating things. As has been implied by Huffman and his apparent inspiration Elon Musk, those creations are worth nothing in the mind of a digital industrialist. Elon wants you to pay $8 a month for Twitter because he does not think your thoughts are worth anything, rather than because he wants to make his service better.

The problem is, we’re not. And we need to make sure it’s clear as day to the people that operate commercial platforms that we’re more than just freeloaders.

If they seem to think otherwise, that’s when we walk.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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