The Magic of r/place
Reddit is the place where I spend most of my free time, I am not proud of it, but it is what it is. They say you become the average of the 5 people you spend most of your time with. For me 3/5 would be Reddit subs (subs or subreddits are specific discussion forums where like-minded people engage each other through various forms of media, called posts, which can take the form of a photo, video or even a simple enough text wanting to discuss something). I was introduced to Reddit back in 2014 and it was love at first sight, it was nothing less than a treasure trove of new information for me. I found people to talk about and learn new things from about all the things I was passionate about, like football, politics, economics, books, you name it. Moreover, since I was the only person in my friends group active on the “front page of the internet” (that’s what Reddit calls itself), I was privy to most news and happenings of the world before any one of them were and back then, it felt “cool” to be the one to break out the story to your group (to be honest, it still does sometimes).
Now, I have established how Reddit is a cool place to be, but it’s a much cooler place to be around the 1st of April every year. Reddit has an annual event on the April fool’s day where they come up with all kinds of wacky fun ideas to engage its users. More often than not, they feel much more like a social experiment of sorts once they are finished and you look back upon what just transpired. r/place was Reddit’s idea for the 2017 and till date remains their most popular social engagement. The premise was simple, you have a 1000*1000-pixel open canvas, you can color any pixel, but only one pixel every 5–10 minutes. It ended 72 hours later. What started off as a fun experiment devolved into what is now known as the “The Great Pixel War” and I was a foot soldier for 3 communities in this great war.
“There is an empty canvas.
You may place a tile upon it, but you must wait to place another.
Individually you can create something.
Together you can create something more.”
With no guidance beyond these four lines, it was perhaps inevitable that the first forms to emerge on the canvas were swear words, swastikas and penises, but people soon realized the kind of opportunity they had on their hands, and communities gathered together and rallied their troops in order to leave a permanent marker on the canvas and forever become part of Reddit folklore. Over the three days, communities came together and split apart, nations went to war, and strangers strategized on how best to create and defend the artistic representations of their passions — be that their favorite sports team or painting bits of their favorite movies. It was a war waged in five-minute intervals that showed the internet at its best and worst. It became a community-driven labor of love that spawned territorial control and aggression, coordinated efforts to build, attack, defend and rebuild, debates over real estate allocation, diplomatic talks and alliances, faction sanctioned protection and other various activities that you’d least expect to come from a random social experiment whose main goal was simply to draw things on a canvas.
Before I dive into what someone can learn from this event, it is important to highlight some interesting wars that were fought on the canvas just to give you a gist of what r/place was all about. The time lapse of the 72 hours can be watched here and is a thing of beauty in itself.
Firstly, there was the great battle of the American flag. The Black Void was a nihilistic group which attacked every artistic creation, at random and destroyed many a piece on the canvas before setting their eyes on the grand prize of the US flag in the dying hours of the event. The 4000 strong community managed to leave a giant blot on the national flag of one of the strongest countries in the world, poetic some would say. What started as a small crack at the bottom of the flag soon fractured and spread to a black emptiness where the stars and stripes used to be. With national pride at stake, Americans came together to restore their flag, to the point that when Place finally finished, only four black pixels remained. Then, there were the battles between nationalities which also took interesting turns, with some smaller countries winning over the larger ones in this virtual war whereas in certain cases, the fictional war was much closer to reality with sheer numbers doing the talking as India totally decimated Pakistan and painted over their flag in the final hours.
If one takes the pain, or shall I say the pleasure of going back and retracing the entire timeline of r/place, I believe there are things to learn and apply for anyone and everyone. e.g., if you’re an entrepreneur and working on a coming up with ways to reduce the hate content on social media, r/place is an example of how user-based moderation can pave the way forward in these testing times. As online social spaces evolve and become more acutely subjected to exploits and hateful activity, r/place serves as a rare, if brief, example of what happens when abusive voices require a completely different tactic to thrive. An individual social-network user can devote time to creating multiple accounts and carpet-bombing specific targets with emotional and psychological attacks. An r/place user had to unite an army of persistent voices over long stretches of time to preserve a minuscule bit of pixel real estate. Hate speech is harder for the recipient than the sender because it only takes seconds to rattle off a text attack that can be read, re-read, and remembered by the victim. But if creating and maintaining the abuse takes longer than reading it, maybe that flips the tables.
The event also shows how we can work together to create something, how communities form and grow, and what happens if they grow too fast or without organization. How rules or absence of them affect our communities. It had diplomacy and politics, entertainment, and a display of human nature. The whole canvas ended up looking like a sized down version of the world now. Countries suffocating everyone by being anal about territories. Terrorists being irrationally aggressive and violent towards others because of misguided beliefs. Corporations exploiting the common man for their own benefits. But when you look close enough, you can see the individuals, each with their passions working for what they believe in, small as it might be.
r/place was a once in a lifetime event. It was, in its essence, nothing more than a coloring contest. But what Place captured was an amazing cultural snapshot of the internet in all its wonderful and horrific glory, for those 72 hours in April 2017.