Meet the creators of the r/place Atlas, the web’s living mural

When time ran out for Reddit’s collaborative internet mural, r/place, people could still post pixels, but only white ones. On April 1, groups of Redditors began teaming up and competing for space on the mural for four days. By the last day it had become a busy and beautiful collection of flags, fandom references and inside jokes. All too soon, it began to disappear again into a pristine canvas.

Fortunately, the same community spirit that went into the r/place canvas went into preserving it as well. Even before Reddit released the official final shot, regular users had collected their own screenshots and time-lapses and shared them on the platform. This included fun recreations and experiments – what if every black pixel ever posted had been permanent – that became popular on the subreddit, where users still hung out even without a canvas to work on.

These conservation efforts include the 2022 r/place Atlas, an ambitious effort to fully document this year’s canvas. The site hosts the full canvas and displays descriptions of any area. It is also possible to search for items by keywords to find the corresponding parts of the mural.

A screenshot from the r/place atlas, focusing on the Hornet from Silksong

Image: 2022 r/place Atlas

Making it was a joint experience. Users can submit information about each image within the mural, its background, and the group that created it. The Atlas is popular because groups were formed to collaborate on r/place, said lead developer Stefano Haagmans. “R/place is such a big project for some people that they just made literal communities for it,” says Haagmans. “And that’s why people enjoy it when it’s categorized, when it’s archived.”

A similar document exists for 2017’s r/place, but 2022’s r/place attracted so many more contributors, quickly taking the Atlas off the ground in a way Haagmans hadn’t expected. He had created the Atlas base and posted about it on Reddit before going to sleep and then attending an exam. “Once I finished my exam, I looked at my Reddit, Discord, and GitHub notifications,” he said. “They were flooded.”

The Atlas is powered by Netlify, and the archive project almost immediately surpassed the bandwidth available in Netlify’s free plan, thanks to the sheer volume of visitors. In the end, the team working on the Atlas had to contact the Netlify team, who moved them to the open source version of the service, which would save them huge costs.

As the project grew, Haagmans recruited others to help, including Alex Tsernoh, who was the first to provide the imagery for the Atlas. “I was originally the first person to start downloading all the data from the place as it happened, and as I did, I got hundreds of people writing to me to use that for their own projects,” Tsernoh said. One was the Atlas, and he agreed to provide further development assistance along with the data he had collected.

For example, Tsernoh recently implemented the Timeline, a feature that allows Atlas visitors to see how the r/place canvas has evolved over its four-day history. This makes sense for certain fan communities, as factions had been competing for space and messages. During that process, many works of art were destroyed, and the original, static version of the Atlas had only captured the final canvas.

That’s what happened to Vicky, a developer at Whitepot Studios, who collaborated as part of a Discord team to create a column of related artwork that was erased just before the final shoot. “The canvas history that’s live now is great because we can at least see our column alliance’s first rally against the void, and then its subsequent consumption,” she said.

Contributors are currently unable to add data to previous versions of the canvas, so Whitepot Studios’ listings currently correspond to the “void” spot that destroyed the original artwork. But Haagmans hopes that Whitepot and other groups with similar experiences can eventually put their labels on the artworks during the time they existed. But it can take time, with so many submissions to sort out and only a team of volunteers to work on the development.

Each of the volunteers has a different amount of free time, but Haagmans and Tsernoh are both currently studying. Haagmans is in the middle of his exams, and Tsernoh told me that his master’s thesis had to be handed in three hours after we spoke. “This is a very interesting moment for an interview,” he laughed.

A screenshot of the 2022 r/place atlas, originally designed to

Image: 2022 r/place Atlas

The team is also working on putting together a Wiki, led by a volunteer who will visit Aeywoo and document more of the back and forth between groups. “We plan to have pages like this faction that built the French flag and fought this streamer’s community and the result was either this artwork was removed or the streamer was destroyed after a few hours,” Aeywoo described.

Including those kinds of disputes, despite the fact that one side was generally unpopular in the r/place community, is a deliberate choice by the Atlas team. “We still intend to archive it, because our job is not to make it the way we want it, but [preserve] it is what it is’, said Haagmans. Where conflicting user submissions exist, such as from the streamer community and others whose artwork was destroyed, the development team describes the events that took place, rather than a person’s personal feelings about them.

Only intentional grief is completely removed, although the developers said there wasn’t too much of it. “Every now and then we get, ‘Hey, the French, they bottled this. We don’t want them here, they are completely left-wing’, that sort of thing’, said Haagmans. Aeywoo, who had gone through this kind of grief while working on a Wiki dedicated to YouTubers who have died, said memorial artwork pages on the r/place Wiki will have protections to reduce the chances of it happening.

But for the most part, contributors just want to cement their role in the event that was r/place. “The appeal of r/place leaves your mark on history for some people. For other communities, it’s just the fun they had with the people they made with. And that is also one of the reasons why we [Atlas]† R/place always has a good memory in people’s hearts. I personally wanted to make sure that that was preserved for anyone who wanted to look back on it’, said Haagmans.

Or, summed up more simply by Aeywoo, “Being a part of history in the internet landscape is pretty cool.”

Leave a Comment