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The pixel war on Reddit

Loading player Last Friday, the social network Reddit started an experiment called r / Place in which, for 87 hours, users who had logged in to the site were able to interact with a digital “canvas”, divided into a million squares of the size of one pixel (therefore 1000 × 1000). Every five minutes, each user could change the color of a single “tile”, even those already selected by other users, choosing from a palette of 16 shades.

The result was a collective creation during which the canvas was contested for several days by users of the various channels that make up the site, called subreddits, and by other groups active online. Among the elements most represented and drawn on the canvas were the national flags, but also those of other types of organizations and movements, such as the white, pink and blue transgender flag. Writings, portraits, memes, logos and hundreds of references to cultural products of all kinds have appeared, designed by communities of fans (fandoms) who often have a reference Reddit channel where they can discuss their TV series or their favorite manga or video game , and who for the duration of the experiment planned and coordinated their movements on the canvas.

The first edition of r / Place had already been held in 2017, again on the occasion of April 1st. At the time, over a million redditors participated, as the users of the site are called in jargon, who placed about 16 million tiles on the common blank canvas. This year's edition marked an increase in interest in the experiment: according to the Washington Post, 72 million tiles had already been placed by over six million users on Sunday evening, at a rate of 2.5 million. of pixels per hour. Between the second and third day the size of the canvas was increased by the organizers, who also expanded the palette of available colors. On the fourth day, the canvas was finally erased.

From the very first experiment, r / Place had proved capable of uniting and entertaining communities of very different users, both in terms of geographic origin and interests. The project seems to focus on the sense of belonging to a community, pushing users to coordinate with each other to impose their own design on the canvas. Due to the nature of the design, there is no single image capable of representing r / Place, whose continuous mutation can only be rendered with timelapse videos like this one, showing the first 60 hours of this year's experiment.

Some subreddits (r / trees, dedicated to cannabis enthusiasts, but also r / ukraine, related to Ukraine) have organized in time with a coordinated campaign to get more visibility, while Star Wars fans have reproduced the poster of one of the films in the series. For much of the duration of the experiment, a section of the canvas was crossed by the transgender flag, while many content creators from platforms such as YouTube and Twitch pushed their fans to post images or messages related to their community on the canvas.

Flags from different countries competed for space, with the Ukrainian one crossing the canvas for a long time before filling up with words saying “Fuck Putin”. Another group of users has instead effectively activated to repeatedly draw on the canvas a disturbing creature made of black pixels, called “The Void”.

An essential role was played by Discord, a chat and video calling app designed for video game enthusiasts but also widespread in other areas, where communities of fans of individual cultural products, other communities and subreddits have organized the management of digital spaces. Also r / italy, a group dedicated to Italy, had a Discord server dedicated to the event.

24 hours in reddit r place #RedditPlace #reddit

– eTHor mZ (@ethorodison) April 3, 2022

The mastermind behind ar / Place is Josh Wardle, who worked as a product manager for Reddit and recently created Wordle, the hugely successful online game bought by the New York Times last January. At the time of the first edition of the experiment, Wardle had been interviewed by the New Yorker and had told how in the days before the launch “the thing that didn't make him sleep at night” was the possibility that someone was using the canvas to draw swastikas.

For some time, in fact, Reddit has also hosted extremist and openly racist sections, which in the past have shown good organizational skills and could have turned the experiment into something negative. In 2017 some symbols of hatred had managed to peek through the pixels, but did not last long, being promptly modified by some users in other images (precisely in Microsoft logos).

“It takes at least seventeen pixels to draw a swastika,” Wardle told the New Yorker. “What if we launch this project tomorrow and the headlines the next day say 'Reddit: A place to draw swastikas on the internet'?”.

The edition that ended last Monday confirmed the participatory nature of r / Place, which despite some clashes between opposing fandoms and users of different nationalities saw the collaboration of millions of users to create a bizarre and ephemeral digital object.

THIS IS UNREALLLLL. the french streamers really sent a surrender / negotiation request to the american streamers (xqc, hasan, miz etc) and their allies (tubbo, quackity etc)


– Nia (@carstairsbur) April 3, 2022

As Taylor Lorenz wrote in the Washington Post, r / Place also demonstrated the growing importance that online communities have in today's society. Without a group of fans sharing the same intent, in fact, it is almost impossible to draw something on the canvas without being swept away by the competition. Streamer Casey Holmes noted how this year's event was characterized precisely by the firepower of groups and fandoms: «People are much more interested in online communities since Covid. Social media is a different place than when the first Place was held “.