If I Had a Million Pixels: A Short History of /r/place

This rules Over the April Fools holy holiday weekend, I was in Ottawa gallivanting with the brightest lights of the Canadian music industry as part of the Juno Awards which are basically Canada’s Grammy Awards, where I co-host a backstage stream from the basement of a hockey arena. Sam: Shawn Mendes, hey! How’s it going man, congratulations! Meanwhile, my lovely redditor wife was literally staying awake until dawn watching the beautiful social experiment of r/place unfold. I had no idea this was happening until Monday morning, when I’m on a train going back to Toronto with garbage Wi-Fi trying in vain to get gifs to load that will explain to me why my otherwise normal and lovely wife had foregone sleep to watch 8-bit flags appear and disappear and reappear again. And then I finally got one of the gifs to load, and I was like, “Oh, I definitely would have stayed awake and watch this.” So what was r/place? I mean, it was an April Fool’s joke, part of a Reddit tradition that dates back to 2015’s the button. The button was the first of Reddit’s social experiments. Unless you consider the very existence of spacedicks to be a kind of social experiment, and lots of people including myself who has had the button as a This Exists episode topic on a list for 2 years were fascinated by it. It’s a very simple concept. It was a subreddit, with a counter, and a button. So you simply press the button, and that is it. Users could press the button only once, which would cause the counter to reset again to 60 seconds. And you got color-coded flare once you had pressed the button So if you pressed between 60 and 52 seconds, there was a purple dot next to your username. Between 51 and 42 seconds, a blue dot, and so on and so forth, Until you reached the elite, red dotted tier for pressing between 11 and 0 seconds. And anytime a user pressed the button, the counter reset for everyone in the subreddit, so watching it tick down became a collective exercise in restraint. People began to wonder: What would happen if the counter reached zero?
What would happen if it just stopped? Much like Lost, the button didn’t mean anything. But, it was a delightful social experiment that took advantage of Reddit’s unique user base to craft a compelling mystery, and totally just fuck with people. Place used the same community as its foundation, but may have said something much more interesting about the internet in the process r/place appeared on April 1st, 2017. It featured a million pixel canvas, a 16 color palette, and allowed individual users to place one pixel, every 5 to 20 minutes. Naturally this meant a Pollock-inspired children’s finger-painting vision of chaos right out of the gates It’s what came after that is so remarkable. After randomly mashing up pixels and discovering the limitations of place’s mechanics, citizens of this new subreddit realized that they could, through collaboration and coordination, collectively draw something recognizable. Naturally, they selected Dickbutt. But this discovery about teamwork and planning and Dickbutt changed everything. Soon, other subreddits were coordinating to collectively draw their respective flags, their favorite video game characters, basketball logos, (Accented reference to Bane, The Dark Knight Rises (2012)): But they merely adopted the place. (Continued): Others were born in it, shaped by it. Like, the Rainbow Road. Rainbow Road quickly became one of the most recognizable place cults, zigzagging across the thousand by thousand canvas and filling in any blank space with the Mario Kart-inspired positivity of a road of rainbow. The faction known as the black void were essentially the opposite. The black void existed to purge the map and give new art a chance to rise in its place. Also presumably because black is cool, and “void” is a sick word. But it is the black void attack on the U.S. flag that perhaps best captures the innate appeal of r/place. It was this gif that finally convinced me what an exciting experiment this really was. That was the coordinated attack and defense of the American flag In which one faction, the black void, overplays its hand by attempting to impersonate the Rainbow Road in its attack, thus causing the Rainbow Road to join the Americans as an ally, and defeat the void. Let’s watch it again. These were hardly the only factions that developed over the course of the 72-hour existence of r/place. There were the Starry Nights, creators and defenders of a Van Gogh lo-fi masterpiece, The Mona Lisa clan, whose job should be fairly obvious to you, and the blue corner, who had early and very literal success. These time lapses are mesmerizing. what you’re really watching is over 1 million users, or, people, as we sometimes say, participating in a massive collective art project, by working together to share the interests and enthusiasms of their community. It’s pulsating with life; like, literally the things that you love and share with other people that make your life worth living. This was an April Fool’s joke! The only April Fool’s joke I ever made was uploading a video to this channel where I pretended not to know what Star Wars was. It brought no communities together to work towards a collective goal, and said absolutely nothing of value about the Internet’s collective creativity. Sam: And one of the bad guys… is a trash monster. Unlike my extremely unpopular April Fool’s joke, Reddit accidentally said something really exciting about the internet, and the people who call various corners of it home. Maybe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the default tone of online conversation isn’t negative, but is actually celebratory. Maybe we’re much more excited to share the things that we love than shit on the things that other people love that we actually hate. When you watch place unfold long enough, you’ll eventually start wondering: Where are the swastikas? I thought there’d be more swastikas. And for sure, there’s a Pepe over here and, oh look, Charmander has a massive dong, but for the most part what you’re seeing is a real-time expression of the things that people love, and the communities that Reddit is based on. Place ended on April 3rd, 2017. The final version of it is frozen in time still in flux, half finished with little ideas, like this tiny promo for Banger’s YouTube channel where I sometimes hang out to yell about nu metal. Sam Dunn: This week… You wanted the worst, you got the worst! You guys asked for this one. We’re doing nu metal, and to help me with this discussion, is journalist author and host of the fantastic YouTube show, This Exists: Sam Sutherland. Welcome back sir! I made him do that Limp Bizkit intro, which was sick, and that’s just one of the creative wormholes that a few of those million pixels can take you down if you follow them. And it’s there, fixed for eternity, or until Reddit nukes it. It really is an anarchic version of one of my favorite pieces of early web nostalgia, the Million Dollar Homepage. The Million Dollar Homepage really was capitalist place. Launched by one dude, just one guy who needed money for school. It was a thousand by thousand pixel canvas and every individual pixel was available for one dollar. It launched in August 2005 and by January 2006, demand for the Final thousand pixels was so popular that they were sold on ebay for 38,000 dollars, for the whole kit and kaboodle. At one point it was the 127th most popular website on the internet. Since place was shut down, clones have inevitably appeared in its… place, attempting to piggyback on the energy and creativity of the first version. But like all sequels, these are inevitably bad, and boring, and lack the community driven inspiration of the first one. Some like Color the Space started with the final place image, so now it’s just desecrated and scrawled over with swastikas like some internet alternate 1985. Others, like Place 2.0, are just empty. The original place was lightning in a bottle. That rare social experiment that captured people’s imaginations and said something positive about them. Not like other, total bummer social experiments, that have inevitably taught you that people are corrupted by power, and everyone you know will electrocute you given half a chance. Place said something encouraging about people, and the internet, and the way that it’s connected us to our passions so we can share in our love of our country, and Vincent Van Gogh, and Dickbutt. What do you think? Did place say anything important as a social experiment? Were you one of the million people who participated? What would you draw now, given the chance? Let me know in the comments and be sure to subscribe for new episodes of This Exists… from time to time.


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