What’s the state of play of our world today? I’m guessing that if you had to answer that question you’d have a hard time putting an accurate description into a short sentence. And if you’re like me, your explanation probably reflects more your own personal experience and interpretation than a wider, more zoomed-out global vision. It’s surely complex. Enter the Reddit r/Place. If you’ve not come across it before, I warn you it’s fascinating. At the bottom of this article, I’ll address my conclusions and how this experiment could spark some inspiration for brand managers and marketers.
Once upon a time: r/Place 2017
The r/Place was brought to my attention by my son and it quickly became an entire vortex of a rabbit hole for me to explore. I dare say I’m still trying to come up for air. Dubbed as a social experiment, the creator of the rabidly addictive Wordle, Josh Wardle, was the creator of r/Place. The concept is essentially an online collaborative and ephemeral piece of art. It’s really a large-scale happening. As Matt Weinberger commented after the first edition, the “time limit means that users are forced to work together to do anything more meaningful than a random scribble.”
In its first iteration in 2017, it was launched on April Fools Day. It was announced a couple days ahead and began when a white canvas square of 1000×1000 pixels appeared on Reddit subreddit /r/Place. It was accompanied by the following announcement / instructions:
Only registered Reddit users were allowed to paint one pixel at a time from a palette of 16 colors and then were given another pixel to color between 5-20 minutes later. This first r/place lasted 72 hours. Importantly, the tech behind the site was open-sourced and had a generally open API to allow users to build on it with data collection, bots and more. Groups formed on various forums (subreddit groups, Discord channels, Twitch streamers…) to plot where and what to create. Battles waged between groups. Alliances were formed. Bots were created to automate the process. For 2017, all told, 1 million users colored 16 million pixels over the three days. Participants created icons, logos, flags, memes, cultural and pop culture references. At the very end of the experiment, there were still 90,000 users actively participating. [Source] To hear certain participants, it was intoxicating. Below is a time-lapse of the canvas and how it developed and ended.
A 24-year-old Swiss student, Roland Rytz, set about creating a way to explain each of the artworks/symbols on the 2017 r/Place, what they represent and which community was responsible for it. The result was an interactive map.
Five years later: r/Place 2022
On April 1 2022, exactly five years later, and again coinciding around the time of the French presidential elections, Wardle launched the second r/Place. This time, there were some differences, notably the fact that a number of Reddit users had prior experience. Also, for many across the spectrum, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict rallied many people together. The 2022 rendition spanned four days and grew to be four times the size of the original. In addition, on Day 2 the color palette grew to 24 and then to 32 colors on Day 3. As with 2017, moderators (I could see that there were 10 identified on the site) played a role in vetting for indesirable content.
r/Place 2022 by the numbers
As reported on Reddit, here are some of the key numbers for the busy 4-day experiment.
- Total tiles placed: 160+ million
- Total users who placed a tile 10.4+ million
- 4.0 billion minutes spent in r/place over the 4 days
- Place total canvas views – 157+ million (and growing)
- Users from 236 countries participated, led by the US, Turkey, France, UK and Canada.
Close-up of a ‘battle’
In this snippet below is a close-up on the battle waged to keep the Canadian national flag with the maple leaf. This is a timelapse, replete with the insertion of a complete banana. It shows you just how hard it is to mark your territory, create your legacy in this space!
Analysis and Conclusions
As a caveat, any broad conclusions must be tapered by the fact that this was only created by Reddit users… who aren’t fully representative of the wider world, despite having people from nearly every country. Reddit’s a pretty geeky community, to be more specific. Yet, I saw in the two iterations of the r/Place a reflection of what is going on in the world. Most notably that, as described in the initial statement of purpose, this is about fostering collaboration. For those who subscribe to globalization and world peace, the s/Place doesn’t seem to support the idea that we’re capable of thinking on the grand scale. Every community — armed with bots or not — had to vie for its own survival. Only a couple of communities really had designs that had a global view on the whole piece (notably the Germans). Use this link to be able to zoom in and out (to peak in at the pixel level).
On the shoulders of … others
In the first place (pun intended), if the r/Place was innovative in many ways, it was not the first attempt at an online collaborative experiment. For example, there was the Poietic Generator created by Olivier Auber in 1986-7, the Million Dollar Homepage created by Alex Tew in 2005, the Reddit Button in 2015 and then Robin in 2016. Proof that innovation is basically iterative. We can always learn from others!
It was clear that the participants in the r/Place generally had great fun staking their claim to a part of the full tapestry. It was a community-endorsing event, where teams banded and fought together for their representation… a group legacy on the world’s stage. If some groups had icons and symbols that were obvious, other groups had to decide together in their forums on the representation and design (as well as the location on the canvas and size). I am convinced that many participants found purpose and fulfilment throughout and after the event. What purpose (and symbol) best represents your life? Your company? Your brand?
The need for community
The entire experiment, with the amazing participation and effort given, demonstrates the powerful drive and need for individuals to be part of a community. As I wrote in You Lead, one of the most important paradoxes that explains our current situation is the need to belong (to a community) and yet feel unique (independent). Even the r/Place has its own meta community with plenty of tributes being paid in different IRL and URL environments, and some creative data visualizations. Further, dozens of participants vowed to get a tattoo of the final canvas. In this, r/Place passes with flying colors the Brand Tattoo Test!
Nation State or Not?
There’s definitely a battle playing out on the world’s stage about the concept of the Nation State. As this article published on Bitcoin Magazine argues, the arrivals of the Internet and cryptocurrency are challenging the Nation State, its raison d’être, sovereignty and borders. In r/Place, we saw a lot of national flags being drawn and attacked by non-flag groups (or it could have been people who have something against a specific country). On the right, you have a canvas that highlights all the flags on the last full image (with the rest whited out). Without having proof, I would argue that the national flag was the most common representation on the canvas. For the French, I saw that at the end there were four different national flag schemes on the canvas. It begs the question of: what does the flag represent? Does the flag represent the same values for all within the nation state?
Few mainstream brands
While there were certainly other brands that featured over the four days, in the end I identified only these four significant representations: Tesla, Arte TV station (French/German), LEGO and Microsoft’s Start icon. If the youth market of gamers and coders is of interest to your brand, you might want to ask yourself: who do you need to be (/do) in order to foster a meaningful community on r/Place?
Dust to dust
The 2022 r/Place started with a white canvas and then ended in a most poetic manner where the community was left with just one option: a white pixel. Shortly enough, the canvas returned to its original form, devoid of color or shape. Dust to dust, we return from whence we came. It was a fascinating way to end the experiment in that it meant that the last ones standing had less emphasis… although one inevitably considers the final creation as the end product (you’ll find the 2017 and 2022 end products in the banner of this post).
Where would you spend your time?
As we look at the divisive nature of our world, we can think of our challenge on several levels. Do we subscribe to the journey or product? Do we feel part of that Reddit community (as a proxy for the wider world)? Or do we naturally want to identify with the smaller communities, from national flags down to local football clubs, music bands or specific games? I know where I’d have spent my time… flush on the left side around 2/5 down from the top:
Final output of r/Place = Our Place in Our World?
To what extent is r/Place representative of our world? After all, contemporary art is inevitably a statement on our times and our condition. In the final analysis, while the experiment is really more of a journey than a final product, the final output bears witness to the fact that there are so many and such variety among the communities within the bigger Reddit community. The 4-day timelapse dresses a pretty chaotic and manic portrait of our world — a fit description of our messy humanity, I say. And, much like our world, there’s need for some moderation or international peacekeepers. But who’s to be in charge? And what are the ethical lines drawn? The world has yet to figure out these questions.
Benefits of scarcity & limited time
There are two amazing qualities to the r/Place that I feel are worth pondering for your company.
- The first is the fact that Wardle waited five years to launch a second iteration of an experiment that was clearly successful in 2017. There have been many calls to shorten the gap. I object to doing so. Much like the Olympics and World Cups that are held every four years, the value of such an experiment will be in its scarcity. The differences from 2017 to 2022 are part of the value (although I note I’ve not dissected those differences particularly here, but for the statistics). Avoid the temptation of caving to the craving of immediate satisfaction!
- Secondly, its limited timeframe (3 or 4 days) makes participation entirely strategic and necessarily collaborative. After all, strategy is about making choices with limited resources. And we’re stronger as a team than as an individual.
Brands would do well to take many of these thoughts on board, even if they think of themselves as mainstream.
Did you enjoy this rabbit hole? What does this r/Place say to you? What reflections do you have about its representation of our world?