When Reddit launched “The Button” almost two weeks ago, the game-slash-gimmick-slash-odd-social-experiment was billed as some kind of April Fool’s joke.
Two weeks later, however, and it no longer seems funny: The Button has become, I kid you not, the Internet’s foremost forum on death and mortality.
Bear with me, here, because this is morbid — but almost absurdly fascinating. On its face, the Button is just a literal, if silly, Internet game: a clickable bar that each user can push only once before being locked out. Next to the Button, a timer counts down from 60 seconds to zero. Clicking the button restarts the clock.
This set-up panders to some of our most fundamental instincts, explains John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University and the author of the forthcoming book “Psychology of the Digital Age.” People like clocks; they create urgency. And the time each person clicks — displayed according to a color-code next to his username — becomes a sort of competitive status symbol.
But while that may explain why, as of this writing, more than 700,000 people have clicked the Button — the clock’s never dropped below 27 seconds — it doesn’t quite account for the cult-like fervor of the community growing around the game. At any given time, more than 5,000 people are sitting on the page watching the clock count down. And hundreds more are discussing the game in oddly apocalyptic terms: who will be “rewarded” “post-timer,” and who is “unclean” or “pure,” and whether not clicking is “blasphemy” or whether it is “the word.”
Most of these exchanges are openly ironic, but many are also … not. One man claimed to have logged in on his recently deceased wife’s Reddit account; he spent hours watching the timer count down, determined to prolong its “life.”
Another man — a former student of the noted social psychologist Tom Pyszcynski — argued the Button made a good proxy for Pyszcynski’s Terror Management Theory: the idea, basically, that humans invent meaning in order to push away their existential fear of death. (Pyszcynski, reached at the University of Colorado, said the student got the gist of his theory right but that he’d never heard of the Button.) In either case, under this interpretation, the Button becomes both addictive and meaningful because it’s a stand-in for our own deaths.
“Watching the clock and clicking the button, on an unconscious level, becomes a way to keep something alive, to keep it ticking, to keep the heart beating,” Suler explains. “Otherwise, the game and the illusive group of people playing it will vanish.”
Which they will anyway, of course: What is the the Button, or Reddit, or the Internet itself, besides an elaborate distraction from the reality of — er, ahem, sorry — our deaths?
“I really don’t want to know what’s going to happen when this button stops,” one user wrote. “I’d rather be in hell.”