A simple prank or so much more?

Photo by Casey Gomez

Most of what we hear about the internet is reported with a sense of doom: Internet service providers (ISPs) are collecting our search history, elections are being tampered with and GTwifi is down for the third time in a week. Certainly, all of these issues are extremely important and deserve attention, but in the buzz of reporting such news, other more redeeming aspects of the internet are lost.

Cue r/place, one of many online communities known as subreddits on the social news aggregation website reddit.com. r/place was created by Reddit administrators for April Fools’ Day and provided a canvas on which users with accounts could place a single pixel in one of 16 colors every five minutes. What originated as an amusing experiment resulted in one of the most extraordinary visualizations of human nature ever created.

But in order to understand the significance of r/place, one must understand the Reddit community. Since its conception, Reddit has proven to be an extremely powerful tool in collective action for causes good and evil. In 2010, Reddit responded to Glenn Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor by hosting a “donation strike,” resulting in just under $600,000 towards the charity Donor’s Choose. However, Reddit has also gained notoriety for the existence of its darker communities like r/watchpeopledie, r/nazi and r/beatingwomen2 that, while disturbing, are allowed to continue to exist.

With over one million active subreddits to date, Reddit has inadvertently created a single website that serves as a microcosm for the internet itself, representing most all types of peoples who use computers. This is the raison d’etre of the website and what makes r/place so mesmerizing. In 72 hours, members of Reddit fought for space on the canvas, attempting to create logos and write text representing online and real-world communities, replicate art from the Mona Lisa to He-Man or simply destroy what had been created.

Subreddits were formed for the sole purpose of leaving their mark on the canvas, rallying support among members to defend their territory or attack a rival’s. Tech’s own subreddit, r/gatech, organized to create the largest university logo on the canvas, negotiated with members representing the Mona Lisa so as to not encroach on their claimed space and successfully fought off red pixels representing the University of Georgia.

The constrained canvas space combined with an allotted rate of pixel placement resulted in a battle analogous to the political conflicts we see between real-world organizations every single day. Communities fighting for mainstream ideas or references to society experienced opposition from other mainstream groups. Smaller communities fought to retain their stakes. And all communities fought the anarchist group self-identified as The Void, which attempted to spread black pixels over other creations in a cancerous fashion. There was no regulation by moderators or staff — only pure collective action based entirely on Reddit users identified politically, socially, psychologically or with what ever communities they represented.

The final 1024-by-1024 pixel sized canvas was left with holes and unfinished works frozen during a still raging battle. While the scope was limited to the denizens of Reddit, r/place was perfect representation of human nature, not despite the imperfections, but because of them. The free and open nature of Reddit communities, even the ones that are unpalatable, made r/place what it is. It would be easy to create a more visually appealing version of the canvas, but that would be missing the entire point of the experiment. R/place’s true appeal was never about how it looked, but instead the process through which it was formed: open to all and beautifully chaotic.