Digitized Love, Pixelated War, and the Joy of Discovery in r/Place
Fear not, I will explain what r/Place is.
Listen to this article (17 minutes):
~2,000 words, a ten-minute read
For better or worse, seldom is the question asked: how minimal can the rules be? But that question was definitely in the air when r/Place was conceived.
r/Place is, or I should say, was, an online event that took the form of a time-limited virtual canvas hosted by forum website Reddit. On this canvas, any registered user could place a small square tile of color once every five minutes or so. That’s basically it. Each tile can be thought of as a pixel that aggregated into a collage of imagery with varying degrees of coherence. As long as users waited for the 5+ minute “cooldown" period, nothing stopped them from placing another tile after the timer hit 0:00. Coloring over other tiles was allowed. So that’s where things got extra spicy.
r/Place has been “live” twice. In 2017 and 2022. Both times, it launched on April Fool’s Day. This article is about the 2022 version, which was even more spectacular than the original. This year’s virtual canvas was 2000x2000 pixels, and was editable for almost four days. According to a recap by Reddit, user engagement was stratospheric:
r/Place lasted just about 83 hours, slightly longer than 2017’s 72. During that time 160 million tiles were placed by 10.4 million people. At the peak of our activity there were over 5.9M pixels placed per hour, with over 1.7M people setting tiles per hour.
The subreddit r/place got over 26 million views, with 2.8 million unique visitors at the peak of its activity while the canvas was live. And activity was off the charts, with an average of 10.4M daily active users in the community, spending a total of 1 billion minutes per day.
This is the point where I say: you just have to see it. Reddit’s official time-lapse video renders it best, but videos don’t work well into email newsletters so this article will make due with still captures. I srsly recommend viewing the time lapse though. It’s an extraordinary representation of the internet hive mind.
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Before April 1, Reddit already had a massive userbase. On top of that, account registration was/is free, so as you can imagine, things got cray fast. As soon as it launched, communities quickly formed on all kinds of platforms, virtual and RL. Like Twitch, Slack, Discord, WhatsApp, college dorms, etc. Groups united on a simple premise: that working as a collective would produce something far grander than what a lone individual could ever hope to make on a finite piece of virtual real estate fought over by millions. Inside their subcommunities, Redditors collaborated over the interwebs across all time zones to create symbols, memes, inside jokes, Rembrandt’s, the Windows Start menu, hundreds of flags, pregnant Mario, Garfields, Zelensky in sunglasses, and thousands of other 8bit style representations. Maybe more. Imagine something, anything. It’s probably there somewhere. Limitation digital graffiti knows not, even if confined to four million pixels.
Well, for about 82 hours anyway. By design, the final minutes of r/Place surprised everyone by only allowing white-colored tiles. When this went into effect, click-happy Redditors inevitably returned it all to the blank canvas from whence it came. Then it was over. A shocking but beautiful ending, I think. Luckily, Reddit ctrl+S’d on all of it. You can browse the entire 83 hours:19 minutes of it here. Or, check out the r/Place Atlas that documents each pixel-art piece with an impressive amount of background information.
Various tech media outlets duly went nuts over this. A lot of articles pulled the age-old journalistic tactic of pointing out the coexistence of contradictions. I’m paraphrasing here, but a general theme in the articles I read was something like the “good-internet vs bad-internet” story. That is to say, some smaller communities got pushed out of pixel real estate by more powerful ones, and a handful of bad-faith actors made attempts to program bots to “destroy” other’s work. Yet in spite of all the chaos, an extraordinary composition emerged, amazing feats of global collaboration largely outshined occasional destructive forces, and the spam bots didn’t (completely) take over. I think of Carlos Castañeda, who wrote that the art of being a warrior is to balance wonder and terror. As a whole, r/Place drops the scale toward the former.
Also, poking around YouTube, one gets a glimpse of how the better-organized communities gained and defended territory. Larger groups were often led by internet celebrities known as “streamers”, some of whom uploaded highlights of their triumphs and tribulations. They’re impressive to watch. They present a marathon effort akin to a kind of coordinated military operation, but instead of phonetic code words, the extravaganza is rendered in a never-ending clacking of keyboards and random outbursts of millennial speak.
I think the tech-media observation about the tension between creation and destruction is astute. But that alone doesn’t fully capture this massive crowdsourced art project. At the end of the day, the attempts to make and hold sovereignty over a piece of virtual land will only be part of the r/Place legacy. Sure, it’s partly about the pixel battles. But consider the minutes between clicks, during the cooldowns. This is when the virtual-graffitists were free to leave home base and explore everything else on the page. Genuine curiosity and discovery came into play. And that’s a refreshing thing in the age of DJGI.
On that note, here’s what I discovered by following my curiosity about one community that held its ground.
First, I wanted to get a better sense of how the more-invested participants approached this cray thing. I’m in Singapore these days (SG), so I decided to focus on the SG flag. It’s in the central-west region. It holds a cozy but respectable piece of real estate, measuring 37 x 24 pixels. (exactly 888 px^2: so auspicious lah!) Over top of the flag are some local icons: Marina Bay Sands hotel, the Merlion, Changi Airport’s control tower. SG’s territory is clearly defined by a single-pixel-wide black border that fences it from adjacent communities. The neighbors include Malaysia’s flag to the right, and Bangladesh’s below. The harmony between the three is enshrined with a little linking heart. Turns out this is a recurring motif throughout r/Place. It symbolizes a sort of alliance/truce between communities. Scroll around: 8bit hearts stitch borders everywhere. Digitized love between strangers.
To get a better idea of how SG Redditors organized, I messaged a bit with one of them. u/thatnewaccnt kindly took the time to answer a few of my questions, and relayed some fascinating insight into the process (the following has been lightly edited for clarity):
I used a Reddit post to relay information from the Discord server to Reddit so that everyone contributing was on the same page.
We used screenshots of flags made in Excel so that everyone knew exactly where each pixel went. And the territorial negotiations with other users took place on Discord. The Discord server has 38 people.
We formed 9 alliances with other people in different time zones. Essentially we’d help them protect their territory while they were asleep and they’d help us protect ours.
The most helpful ones were Malaysia and Bangladesh, and of course BAR. We allied with BAR because we kind of hijacked their space for our flag and they were not happy about that so we let them have the 3 letters in our space.
Here’s a few snapshots with corresponding timestamps to show the evolution of the SG territory over time.
So I obvi needed to learn what BAR is. It turned out to be an amusing rabbit hole.
It turns out BAR is a reference to Birds Aren’t Real, a satirical conspiracy theory invented by American Gen Zers. It sounds alarming until you get the punchline: the group is entirely predicated on the idea that mockery, not censorship, is the best antidote to absurd conspiracy theories. So they propagate an extra-insane one. BAR’s gone viral in parts of the U.S. Today, they have their own van which they use to preach the fake fake news. The side of the vehicle advertises the giant san-serif tagline: “BIRDS AREN’T REAL”. That, and a hilarious diagram of a pigeon made of surveillance hardware in lieu of biological parts. And BIRDS AREN’T REAL billboards have sprung up in places like Memphis and Hollywood. This is a slight aside, but the whole BAR thing seems deeply and refreshingly American. Let’s just say that giant signs claiming entire animal groups are actually government surveillance drones would DEFINITELY NOT be kosher in, say, the country this article is being written / the country BAR shared virtual territory with. That they randomly found coexistence on r/Place is part of the magic of the www.
So that’s what I found looking at 0.02% of the space. Who knows what else is in there. Each little pixelated piece of virtual graffiti (I’m still trying to figure out a good catch-all term for the various elements on this thing, if you couldn’t tell) is like a building you can “go-inside” by learning its story. You can genuinely “wander” and “get lost” in the best possible way in r/Place. Remember getting lost online in the early days of the internet? Before websites had smooth UI/UX? Before every .com followed the same 4-click deep template that makes everything kinda feel like there’s really only one website designer doing everything? Before the tyranny of search engine optimization?
r/Place somehow brings back the old spirit a little. And if you need an excuse for a quest, go look for Waldo. He’s in there somewhere. Resist the urge to DJG his location.
We like our analogies to the built environment here at Plans in Perspective, so let’s end with that. r/Place is super comparable to a city. Multi-dimensional, large but contained, gridded but flexible, constantly changing but not without rules, full of complexity and contestation both spatial and social. Like a city, there are random adjacencies everywhere. Between humor (i.e. superstonk), and commemoration (i.e. to YouTubers departed), and political activism (i.e. F— CARS), and current-day tragedies (Ukraine’s Place territory is one of the biggest and most well-crafted on there). It’s all technically finite, but at the same time so vast one person could never hope to comprehend it all. Economics might be the missing ingredient, but I bet the NFT’s are en route.
In cities, “placemaking” is a popular topic for planners. A transitive-verb turned gerund, it refers to the transformation of underused public places into areas worth finding, worth going to. Worth staying put in for a hot sec. By contrast, Reddit’s Place is a proper noun and it flips all that upside-down. A visitor does not go to r/Place to visit a Place, but rather to get lost in a bunch of little ones. Even for five minutes. Maybe we should try to do that IRL more often.
(IRL means in-real-life. If you knew that, forgive my mansplaination. If you didn’t, can you help the rest of us get back up there? I miss it.)
Edit — May 1, 2022: “in RL” has been changed to “IRL”. N00b.
© 2022 James Carrico