r/Place and the battle for pixels

Since each user can only place a single, small tile every five minutes, it is impossible to build alone. The five minute wait limits a single person’s ability to dominate the canvas. Users are instead forced to collaborate and build coordinated communities to produce collective works of pixel art.

Huge subreddits like r/trees and r/ukraine started orchestrating their campaigns early on, collectively filling the space with a large marijuana leaf and a Ukrainian flag, respectively. r/starwars users have recreated an entire movie poster. The trans community put a huge trans flag on the screen.

The end 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 for college by selling 1 million pixels of Internet advertising space in 2005 for $1 each on a home page. But unlike the homepage, r/Place is constantly being refreshed.

Fandoms unite to overtake other communities’ images or compete for board space. Some users are out for destruction. In 2017, a large, amorphous black blob called the “Void” emerged and attempted to record the project. It reappeared again this year, but only temporarily. Some people tried to sabotage the creations of other groups with streams of purple pixels.

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

While Place is a Reddit phenomenon, the success of this year’s project has been heavily driven by the rise of other community-focused platforms such as Discord and Twitch.

Users have built special Discord servers to schedule their takeovers of certain corners of the canvas, including “embassy” channels where different groups can work together and form alliances. Many university logos and flags from different countries are represented. Purdue University and a group that wanted to keep an Irish flag on the canvas formed an alliance. “We placed a small heart between the two, which represents the alliances between neighboring factions,” said Ian Jones, a software engineer in Chicago.

Major Twitch streamers also contributed to Place’s growth by encouraging 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 see how tiles were placed and help create new images. Jack Manifold, a British YouTuber and Twitch streamer, encouraged his fans to use their pixels to Place 3D glasses on images of people and animals in Place, lead to temporary confusion

When Place says anything about the Internet, it’s a testament to the growing power of online communities. Since the last iteration, online platforms have experienced significant fragmentation.

“Since Covid has become a thing, people love online communities a lot more,” said Casey Holmes, an Austin-based Twitch streamer. “Social media is in a different place than it was last time Place came out.”

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

But that trend toward groups and more inclusive social experiences online can also make people want to engage with the masses. Place has turned into Reddit’s de facto public square in recent days, said Brian Lynch, a San Diego attorney and Reddit moderator. “While the internet is going through this rift with communities, I think these groups are still looking for that central city hall or that central space,” he said.

It is noteworthy that Place was never there to make all users work 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 the power of individuals to shape discourse or influence online is only as strong as the collective they are part of.

“Everyone needs a cult in the internet age, everyone needs a group,” Wei said. “One of the reasons you need these cults is the social media landscape. You need soldiers in your army to fight and defend against things. The internet enables groups of people to increase 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 be flipped and erased.

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

Christopher Torres, a pixel artist and creator of the Nyan Cat, has made several contributions to Place. “It’s a bit addictive trying to protect the piece you’re building,” he said. “It’s like a turf war, but it’s also a social statement. For example, we have to defend this little penguin here in the corner from that guy who’s throwing purple spots on it.’

Many of the images that emerged on Place reflect the values ​​of the participating communities. Ukraine’s flag loomed large on the canvas all Saturday, as did the trans flag and several LGBT flags. People used place to express themselves anti-NFT sentiment† others, like Wall Street Bets, pumped up meme stocks. Fandoms of groups like BTS and other anime and video games quickly took up space on the canvas. Some users created a “bike lane” around 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 create this parking lot to show the rationale for the existing subreddit,” she said. “We wanted to show that parking lots are a real waste of space and cars are incredibly wasteful. Place is a way for different communities to show what they value.”

The fact that Place isn’t completely overrun with trolls posting hate symbols is testament to the committed communities dedicated to keeping radicalized factions in check. In 2017, several small swastikas were quickly destroyed by other communities. (One was promptly transformed into a Windows 95 logo.) “I’m actually surprised there aren’t many far-right images out there,” Jakob said. Perhaps, while those voices are loud online, they eventually get dulled by other major fandoms and groups that have 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, adding more color choices to the palette every day. The project ends Monday at 9 p.m. Pacific Time.

“It really brings people together,” said Ava Pape, a high school freshman in Northern Virginia. “There is a lot of unrest with politics internationally and nationally, but you see that many people give up on that for a while. You’re going to put a tile or make a joke about something or make a piece of art, and you’re there with a bunch of other people. You may not go to those people’s accounts to see who they are, but you still work with them just to create.

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