By: Lee Anthony
Class: Kai Soh, Thursdays 12pm
WARNING: Contains some NSFW content
“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.”
One of the internet’s largest communities staged a 2017 April Fool’s Day joke that quickly became an extraordinary social media experiment. The diversity expressed by users in Reddit’s 72-hour r/place challenge and the social media dynamics they generated came to represent a microcosm of interaction and “produsage” (Bruns, cited in Hinton & Hjorth, p57) in the online world.
More than a bulletin board
Reddit was launched in 2005, as “the front page of the internet” – a news aggregation and social discussion site. It is still often described somewhat clinically as an ‘online bulletin board system’, but its history of community and sub-community activities, language, and memes show it has grown to become much more than that.
Users, or Redditors, have collectively raised funds for numerous charitable causes and hold regular global gift exchanges – including annual Guinness World Record-breaking Secret Santa exchanges. They can ‘friend’ each other to follow the posts of specific users, discuss topics either publicly or privately, and attend subreddit ‘in-person’ meetups and events in cities around the world, that is, they network (Hinton & Hjorth, p22). Self-policing and gatekeeping (Nissenbaum and Shifman, p485) is effectively under the control of individual subreddit moderators, but Redditors themselves also play a role in community control via the public-post upvoting and downvoting system. Users’ contributions to subreddit discussions earn ‘karma’, or “social capital” (Bourdieu, cited in Hinton & Hjorth, p42); karma has no material benefit, but is a reflection of a contributor’s popularity on Reddit.
The above traits, combined with an active user base, clearly show that Reddit has fulfilled Parks’ “conditions for community: membership, personal expression and connection” (Parks, 2011, cited in Hinton & Hjorth, p43) and, therefore, is a thriving virtual community and not merely a very large forum.
How r/place was built, razed and rebuilt
The 2017 r/place experiment was a fascinating reflection of Reddit’s collective spirit.
The giant social media network created a blank canvas 1000 pixels by 1000 pixels – r/place – and the riddle at the top of this blog was an invitation to users to fill it in. Anyone with a Reddit account created by March 31, 2017, could place one of 16 colours on one pixel at 5-10 minute intervals. During the three days that r/place was active, more than a million unique produsers from all over the world participated in creating and recreating artwork on the canvas.
The concept of a social media platform as a collaborative community space (Hyde, et al, in Mandiberg, Ch5, p53) was clearly evident in r/place. At first, individual pixels dotted the canvas, then users began to form teams to generate recognisable images. New subreddits were created to discuss strategy, as were Discord voice/text chat servers. Later in the exercise, as teams realised they could not be fully represented around the clock, alliances were formed between some to help protect each other’s input.
Popular Reddit memes were a dominant feature. Subreddit teams jostled for space to include their own “sub-cultural” themes (Nissenbaum and Shifman, p484). Early entries included the infamous Dick Butt character, originally drawn by web comic artist K.C. Green, adopted by 4chan and later by Reddit as the theme of its own subreddit. Dick Butt battled for canvas space against another subreddit meme, the Pink Vomit Monster, which survived to the end. Movie, music, game and graphic magazine memes were posted, painted over and reposted; Star Wars fans rendered a large prequel meme – The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise – and one game logo, Osu!, survived multiple ‘attacks’ throughout the three days. A ‘Blue Corner’ posse took over the bottom left of the canvas and soon faced off against a ‘Red Corner’ and the ‘Green Lattice Team’, all of which created their own strategy subreddits during the exercise.
Other cultural representation (Nissenbaum and Shifman, p484) began with nationality subreddits whose teams placed flags or self-referential memes (Singer, et al, p3), for example, r/Australia and r/straya managed to carve out a large, prime position for Aussie themes and defend the space until the end. A Steve Irwin ‘crikey’ memorial sits alongside boxing kangaroo, redback spider, dropbear and Bunnings-snags memes, all linked by the two Down Under subreddits’ classic greeting: “G’day cunts”.
War and Peace
An international pixel war broke out as nationality teams invaded each other’s spaces to wipe out rival countries’ flags. Many Redditors were particularly impressed by a German flag’s invasion of a French one (below; video: Aidaman TV, YouTube); another team eventually superimposed a European Union banner on a disputed section of the warring factions’ flags (on the final canvas, a peace dove appears in the centre of the EU logo). The US flag was attacked multiple times during the three days and successfully fended off a last-ditch black-out attempt by The Black Void (see trolls, below).
The appearance of advertising logos midway through the exercise outraged some Redditors. As Shareen Pathak of Ad Age warned in 2014: “Redditors overwhelmingly hate marketing in (almost) all its forms… Brands that try to insert themselves as memes are bound to fail”. A Tesla Motors logo added to the canvas was the subject of a subreddit debate about whether or not it and other corporate logos passed the sub-cultural legitimacy test (Goodman, in Ritzer  cited in Nissenbaum and Shifman, p486).
There were peacemakers, including the Rainbow Road Team, and art-lovers who replicated notable works including Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.
And there were trolls. A group widely suspected to be 4chan users and supporters swarmed to r/place as The Black Void, collectively attempting (and ultimately failing) to fill the canvas with black pixels.
Of concern to all teams was that their turf would be attacked while they slept. Whole threads on subreddits were devoted to the question of whether to just let it go until morning or organise shifts. On dualshockers.com, Redditor Lou Contaldi described the angst thus:
“A mythos had been created overnight. There were protagonists, antagonists and pure evil taking over the r/place grid. Wars had been started and ended overnight, alliances had been drawn and the war was raging on tirelessly.”
The battles for control of the canvas are an example of “co-operation epidemics and insurgence” by “smart mobs” (Seo, et al, p887). But, as with other multi-player online games, not all the ‘mobs’ were human. Some individuals and teams created and ran bots to colour pixels on their behalf; this was not against the rules of r/place and was even anticipated by the developers. Others took pride in handcrafting their contributions and discouraged team members from using bots.
After 72 hours, r/place closed as abruptly as it had started.
A community-driven “labor of love”
On an official blog summary of r/place, Reddit’s Josh Wardle and Justin Basset explained the canvas was created to “explore human interaction at scale”:
“We thought that for every one person that wanted to do something negative, there would be thousands that wanted to overwrite that with something positive—and we were right. It turns out collaborating to make something bad is far harder than collaborating to make something good.”
The r/place experiment and its final canvas have been hailed by Redditors and onlookers as a successful demonstration of “the internet of everything” (Open Mind, August 29, 2016). Has it furthered understanding of the workings of a social network community? Yes. Discussions and analyses are continuing on numerous forums, media and other sites weeks after the project ended. In addition, the r/place produsers’ input goes beyond the colouring exercise, and to date includes mid- and post-canvas user-created content such as:
- Bot scripts for placing pixels on a user’s behalf
- Data visualisations and statistical analysis (links following citations)
- An interactive atlas of the final art
- Time-lapse tracking and videos
- Blogging and citizen journalism articles
One of the best summaries of r/place – underlining Reddit’s status as an active virtual community – was posted by u/_eltanin_ on Reddit’s post-r/place analysis on April 4, 2017:
“What started off as a blank canvas with vague instructions… shortly but surely 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.”
Bourdieu, P., translated Nice, R. (1986) The forms of capital. In J. Richardson (Ed.) Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York, Greenwood), 241-258.
Bruns, A. (2008) Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage. New York: Peter Lang.
Goodman, D., edited Ritzer, G. (2004) Consumption as a social problem. Handbook of social problems: A comparative international perspective (pp. 226-245). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications Ltd.
Hinton, S. & Hjorth, L. (2013) Understanding social media. London: Sage Publications.
Hyde, A., Linksvayer, M., kanarinka, Mandiberg, M., Peirano, M., Tarka, S., Taylor, A., Toner, A., Zer-Aviv, M, edited Mandiberg, M. (2012). What Is Collaboration Anyway? The Social Media Reader. Ch5. NYU Press. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/lib/usyd/detail.action? docID=865738. Accessed April 15, 2017.
Nissenbaum, A., & Shifman, L. (2015). Internet memes as contested cultural capital: The case of 4chan’s /b/ board. New Media & Society, 19(4), 146144481560931. doi:10.1177/1461444815609313
Parks, M., edited Papacharissi, Z., & ebrary, I. (2010). Social network sites as virtual communities. A networked self: Identity, community and culture on social network sites. Ch5 (pp. 105-123). New York: Routledge.
Pathak, S. (March 10, 2014). Reddit hates marketing. How to market on it anyway. http://adage.com/article/special-report-sxsw/reddit-hates-marketing-market/292068/. Accessed April 16, 2017.
Seo, H., Houston, J. B., Knight, L. A. T., Kennedy, E. J., & Inglish, A. B. (2014). Teens’ social media use and collective action. New Media & Society, 16(6), 883-902. doi:10.1177/1461444813495162
Singer, P., Flöck, F., Meinhart, C., Zeitfogel, E., & Strohmaier, M. (2014). Evolution of Reddit: From the front page of the internet to a self-referential community? doi:10.1145/2567948.2576943. Accessed April 15, 2017.
The Internet of Everything (IoE). Open Mind. August 29, 2016. https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/en/the-internet-of-everything-ioe/. Accessed April 17, 2017.
r/place: some data and analysis links
Data on Reddit:
Individual redditors’ r/place contribution search: