The time-lapse videos on YouTube tell the story of /r/place.
Over the blank canvas, a pattern emerges: the watcher sees ecosystems of brands and symbols grow and die. Here are clumps of meaningfulness—there ketchup spills of nationality. From chaos emerges hieroglyphic blots of memes, fractals of confusion, and contesting trademarks swarm like weather patterns over a war-ravaged countryside. The Mona Lisa colonizes the center square, right above the Pink Floyd triangle. Just above her, He-Man’s head leans back in pink ecstasy. Above him, a boxed quote from Star Wars. Every space matters, every pixel matters to somebody. Big ideas take precedence, so state flags are everywhere. Just as quickly, rebels eager to tear down established beliefs dissolve group pictures in inky rots of black fuzz. Merry pranksters establish a blue corner and keep it there. In this sign we shall conquer.
Last Friday—March 31st—Reddit released its annual April Fool’s Day social experiment. As Matt Weinberger reported for Business Insider:
Basically, Reddit Place was a huge, collaborative canvas accessible on Reddit for desktop, iOS, and Android. It’s almost like a massively multiplayer Microsoft Paint, where every Reddit user gets to paint one “tile” on the canvas every five minutes. That time limit means that users are forced to work together to do anything more meaningful than a random scribble.
By the time the experiment ended on Monday, over a million Redditors had painted on sixteen million tiles over the weekend. Redditors cooperated individually, or wrote auto-scripting tools to do so.
Redditor /u/vorilant pleaded with other people on the Place subreddit:
Watching the last few minutes basically is all I needed to be assured that bots are controlling most changes. Moderators PLEASE include a I’m not a Robot captcha or something to stop this scripts.
To which /u/nzym replied:
one might say that auto scripting is part of being human. throughout our history, we have devised tools to create things more efficiently. from ag, to industrial, to the upcoming revolution in artificial intelligence. every major tool was created for a similar purpose. this social experiment is yet another pixel of evidence.
I submit that the /r/place image is the real picture of our world.
Not the physical world. We already know what that looks like:
Earthrise is a picture taken by NASA astronaut William Anders from the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968. Nature photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”
We live in two worlds. The first world is physical: the world of mass and particles, gravity. That world has its own rules, called the laws of nature. We’re familiar with that environment. All our stuff is there. That’s the picture above. Good old Earth.
However, the world where we actually, really spend most of our time (and the lens through which we perceive the first world) is the world of the mind. This is where ideas, feelings, memories, consciousness, and beliefs live. Ideaspace. Call it whatever you want. The laws of this world are much less understood. Nations don’t exist in the physical world: there’s no gene for Germany, no chemical symbol for Australia. Rick and Morty only live inside the Ideaspace.
The comics writer Alan Moore discussed Ideaspace. He used an interesting example: the two places that are the farthest apart in the United Kingdom are Land’s End in far west England and John O’Groats on the distant north coast of Scotland.
“As I understand mental space, one of the differences between it and physical space, is that there is no space in it. All the distances are associative. In the real world, Land’s End and John O’Groats are famously far apart. Yet you can’t say one without thinking of the other. In conceptual space they are right next to one another.”
Cyberspace and Ideaspace have a lot in common, which is why memes spread so easily online. They’re not the same thing, but we get a much better idea of what the Ideaspace looks like by watching the Internet: a lot of noise, people love cats, and there seems to be a lot of pornography.
Obviously, a communally-drawn picture on Reddit is not exactly the same thing as a picture of collective human consciousness. But if we could see the heads of everyone in the world, if you could draw a picture of the Ideaspace of the entire world, it would look like this. This is as close as we get to a map of it.
It’s easy to write off /r/place as an amateurish prank, the equivalent of antique graffiti on a recovered Roman wall. Academics and columnists love this big picture stuff—it’s easy to clump together whatever conclusions you want from the foam of semiotic meaning. It takes no insight to stare into snow fuzz on TV and see the gabble of the angels or alien telegrams. Gazing into information and retrieving patterns is what humans do. It’s our primary function and main squeeze. We can riddle out gods from storm clouds and see the arc of a prayer in lottery balls. And I am skeptical of technological narratives. When I hear a TED Talk or a Silicon Valley heartthrob speak of “emergence” or “complexity” I reach for my revolver.
But this time there’s something to the idea of self-generating order. During the drawing period, /r/place was a constantly-changing picture of the non-physical world. Like Ideaspace, the /r/place picture was determined by consensus reality, and it’s always under flux. Groups of people come together and agree on large notions, like countries or memes or football teams or brands or pictures of cartoon characters. Together, they work to turn the pixels in their way, or design tools that help them.
One subreddit, OSU Game, fought like hell to keep their logo from being written over in the corner. Here is the three-dimensional map of stacking changes, posted by Redditor /u/lucas7yoshi:
And although no single image or idea controls all the board, and although all appears to be discord and chaos, madness everywhere you look, it’s ordered (in a sense), and it’s amazing there’s anything at all, isn’t it, when you consider how much effort changing anything takes. As strange as it sounds, /r/place is the Earthrise for our time.