The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Internet communities are battling over pixels

Reddit’s r/Place shows that to have a voice online, you must be part of a group

A screenshot of Reddit's r/Place. (Reddit's r/Place)
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Since Friday, millions of Reddit users have banded together to collectively generate a massive, collaborative piece of artwork that has become a viral phenomenon.

Reddit’s r/Place is a subreddit that functions as an open canvas, where each user can post a single, tiny, colored pixel every five minutes. The project began as an April Fools’ Day experiment in 2017, and in its first year more than a million Reddit users placed about 16 million tiles on the blank communal digital canvas. Five years later it’s back, and those numbers have skyrocketed. As of Sunday night, nearly 72 million tiles were placed by over 6 million users, at a pace of more than 2.5 million tiles placed per hour.

Because each user can only place a single, tiny tile every five minutes, it’s impossible to build alone. The five-minute wait time throttles any single person’s ability to dominate the canvas. Users are instead forced to work together and build coordinated communities to produce collective works of pixel art.

Massive subreddits like r/trees and r/ukraine began orchestrating their campaigns early, collectively filling the space with a large marijuana leaf and Ukrainian flag respectively. Users from r/starwars re-created an entire movie poster. The trans community placed a massive trans flag on screen.

The final result is a giant, pixelated collage of images and words. Aesthetically, it’s reminiscent of the Million Dollar Homepage, a website built by Alex Tew, a 21-year-old entrepreneur who hoped to pay his way through college by selling 1 million pixels of Internet ad space for $1 each on a homepage in 2005. But unlike the homepage, r/Place is constantly regenerating.

Fandoms unite to overtake other communities’ images or vie for space on the board. Some users are bent on destruction. In 2017, a large, amorphous black blob called the “void” arose and attempted to subsume the project. It resurfaced this year, too, but only momentarily. Some people attempted to sabotage other group’s creations with streams of purple pixels.

“R/Place activates a certain tribalism in people that makes them scramble for any symbol that gives them a source of identity and plaster it onto a big, meaningless map,” writer Annie Rauwerda wrote in Input. The canvas hosts an ever-growing ecosystem of memes, cultural references and niche community symbols.

Though Place is a Reddit phenomenon (it was started by Josh Wardle, who went on to create the viral wordgame Wordle, when he worked at Reddit), the success of this year’s project has been driven heavily by the rise of other community-oriented platforms like Discord and Twitch.

Users have built out dedicated Discord servers to plan their takeovers of certain corners of the canvas, including “Embassy” channels where different groups can collaborate and form alliances. There are many college logos and flags from different countries represented. Purdue University and a group seeking to maintain an Irish flag on the canvas formed an alliance. “We put a little heart between the two, that represents the alliances between neighboring factions,” Ian Jones, a software engineer in Chicago, said.

Large Twitch streamers also contributed to Place’s growth, directing their thousands of fans to mark the canvas with the logos or symbols of their favorite streamers. Twitch creators like xQc, Mizkif, Sodapoppin, Pokimane, Hasan Piker, Myth and Asmongold had people tune in to watch tiles being placed and to help create new images. Jack Manifold, a British YouTuber and Twitch streamer, encouraged his fans to use their pixels to insert 3D glasses on images of people and animals on Place, leading to momentary confusion.

If Place says anything about the Internet, it’s a testament to the rising power of communities online. Since its last iteration, online platforms have experienced great fragmentation.

“People are much more into online communities ever since covid became a thing,” Casey Holmes, a Twitch streamer in Austin, said. “Social media is in a different place than it was before the last time Place came out.”

Now more users, especially younger ones, are seeking to connect with others in closed communities or online groups like Discord or a similar platform called Geneva, rather than on big, open social media sites.

But that trend toward groups and more contained social experiences online can also leave people craving engagement with the masses. Place has turned into Reddit’s de facto public square for the past few days, Brian Lynch, a lawyer and Reddit moderator in San Diego, said. “Even though the Internet is going through this fracturing with communities, I think that these groups are still looking for that central town hall or that central space,” he said.

It’s notable that Place has never been about all users working together, but more of a space for communities to exert their influence. Eugene Wei, a tech entrepreneur in San Francisco, sees Place as the perfect metaphor for the modern Internet, where individuals’ power to shape discourse or exert influence online is only as strong as the collective they’re part of.

“Everyone needs a cult in the age of the Internet, everyone needs a group,” Wei said. “Part of the reason you need these cults is the landscape of social media. You need soldiers in your army to fight and defend against things. The Internet allows groups of people to amplify their impact by coordinating. In this way Place is a pure version of that.” In other words, if you don’t have a group to coordinate and amplify your message, your individual pixel or voice will get flipped and erased.

The hope of the Internet was that it would connect humanity in a way that would allow everyone to coordinate and build things at scale, but in reality, while massive networks of bubbles and groups sometimes form alliances to create, they also compete and fight. “Maybe the disappointment of the Internet is that there aren’t more examples people can point to of large-scale human coordination to create something,” Wei said.

Christopher Torres, a pixel artist and the creator of the Nyan Cat, has made several contributions to Place. “It’s kind of addicting to try to protect the piece you’re building,” he said. “It’s like a turf war, but it’s a social statement, too. Like, we need to defend this little penguin here in the corner from this guy throwing purple spots at it.”

Much of the imagery that emerged on Place reflects the values of the communities participating. The Ukrainian flag loomed large on the canvas throughout Saturday, as did the trans flag and various LGBT flags. People used Place to express anti-NFT sentiment; others, like Wall Street Bets, pumped meme stocks. Fandoms of groups like BTS and other anime and video games quickly seized space on the canvas. Some users created a “bike lane” surrounding the road created on the canvas.

Alexa Jakob, a senior at the Cooper Union who is part of a subreddit dedicated to raising awareness about the environmental impact of cars, helped create a massive parking lot on Place. “We chose to do this parking lot to show the reason for the subreddit existing,” she said. “We wanted to show parking lots are a really big waste of space and cars are incredibly wasteful. Place is a way for different communities to show what they value.”

The fact that Place hasn’t been completely overrun with trolls posting hate symbols is a testament to the dedicated communities focused on keeping radicalized factions in check. In 2017, several small swastikas were quickly quashed by other communities. (One was promptly transformed into a Windows 95 logo.) “I’m actually surprised that there isn’t a lot of far-right imagery,” Jakob said. Perhaps while those voices are loud online, they’re ultimately dulled by other large fandoms and groups who dominated the canvas.

Part of the project’s popularity is the sense of collectivism that seems increasingly rare as the Internet becomes more fractured and polarized. To keep up with skyrocketing demand this year, Reddit has expanded the digital canvas and added more color choices to the palette every day. The project ends at 9 p.m. Pacific time on Monday.

“It’s really bringing people together,” said Ava Pape, a high school freshman in Northern Virginia. “There’s a lot of turmoil internationally and nationally with politics, but you see a lot of people give that up for a second. You go to place a tile or make a joke out of something or make a piece of artwork, and you’re there with a lot of other people. You might not go to check out those people’s accounts to see who they are, but you still work with them to just create.”

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