It started with a single red pixel on a blank canvas. It ended 72 hours later with a vast work of art created by more than a million people, capturing one of the most interesting social experiments of our time: Reddit Place.
It was ostensibly an April Fool’s joke, the latest in a series of projects initiated by the social news site Reddit, but as the hours unfolded it became clear that Place was something much more remarkable. This is how its creators introduced it to the website’s users on March 31, 2017:
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.
The canvas measured 1,000 x 1,000 pixels, and anyone with a Reddit account could contribute. It was described by one user as a massive multiplayer version of Microsoft Paint, in which each player can only fill one pixel every five minutes from a palette of 16 colors. But the simplicity of the concept masked the complexity of how it was played.
With no guidance beyond these four lines, it was perhaps inevitable that the first forms to emerge on the canvas were swear words, swastikas and penises, but as communities came together and coordinated on projects, these scrawls were soon covered over with more intricate and thoughtful designs.
“Early on, Place definitely resembled the kind of graffiti you would see in a bathroom stall,” Josh Wardle, a senior product manager at Reddit who came up with the idea for Place, tells Newsweek. “What was really amazing was seeing how quickly the community organized and started to self-police the canvas to keep it positive.”
As the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet”, and with close to 250 million users, Reddit provided the perfect platform to explore social interaction on a huge scale. With more than one million unique users laying over 16 million tiles, it may also be the largest artistic collaboration ever attempted—outdoing the One Million Masterpiece of 2007, which involved less than 27,000 collaborators.
Over the three days, communities came together and split apart, nations went to war, and strangers strategized on how best to create and defend the artistic representations of their passions—be that a sports team or the late socialist leader, Hugo Chavez. It was a war waged in five-minute intervals that showed the internet at its best and worst.
Hundreds of Reddit users answered a call for help with a marriage proposal, with the plan to write “Lisa I love you will you marry me” on 153 pixels of the canvas. While this briefly worked, it was soon vandalized to read: “Fuck I hate you Lisa you cunt bitch.” This message was also soon taken over by a community dedicated to painting love hearts.
It took less than a day for flags to start appearing on the canvas, as members of Reddit communities (known as subreddits) dedicated to individual countries began to mobilize. One of the largest was the German flag, created through the efficient collaboration of Germany’s subreddit, and it soon began to grow toward a smaller French flag nearby.
Despite calls by some members to not invade their neighbor—one user wrote, “last time we did… well let’s say it didn’t work out that great in the end”—the black, red and gold stripes had completely covered the French tricolor. To bring an end to the battle, one Reddit user came up with “Operation EU Love,” which saw hundreds of users paint the European Union’s flag on the disputed territory between the historical enemies.
It wasn’t the only instance of borders being joined with symbols of peace, with territorial battles between communities often resolved with a love heart that took the colors of each side.
Perhaps the most ambitious projects were the two artworks that feature prominently on the final canvas: Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Both masterpieces required not only skilful design and patient collaboration, but also the endurance to survive waves of attacks, most notably from a nihilistic group called The Black Void.
The sole purpose of The Black Void, which grew to almost 4,000 members by the time Place was over, was to destroy the work of other communities by filling the canvas with black pixels. Its greatest achievement came in the final hours of the experiment, when it coordinated an assault on the American flag in the center of the canvas.
What started as a small crack at the bottom of the flag soon fractured and spread to a black emptiness where the stars and stripes used to be. With national pride at stake, Americans came together to restore their flag, to the point that when Place finally finished, only four black pixels remained.
The finished tableau is confusing and chaotic, and uniquely beautiful. Zooming in to any section reveals the plethora of vast and diverse communities that contributed to its creation. “We are at a point where the internet enables humans to communicate and collaborate in ways they have never been able to before,” Place’s creator Wardle says. “My hope is that the success and collaborative nature of projects like Place will encourage other internet companies to take some more risks when exploring ways that their users can interact.”
Place is what happens when you give the internet a blank canvas, a hive mind spewing its collective conscience onto a pixelated piece of Reddit real estate. Studying the mesmerizing timelapse of its creation offers a lesson in diplomacy and democracy, in creation and destruction, in war and peace. And of course, no representation of web culture would be complete without a Rickroll: If you look closely you will find a QR code in the top-left corner, which leads to the video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit Never Gonna Give You Up.
It was, in its essence, nothing more than a coloring-in contest. But what Place captured was the internet in all its wonderful and horrific glory, for those 72 hours in April 2017.