The Fleeting yet Enduring Community of r/Place
What was Place?
From April 1 to April 4, Reddit brought back the “Place” subreddit. For those who don’t know, Reddit is a website that hosts countless communities, or “subreddits”. For example, fans of professional basketball can “subscribe” to the nba subreddit, r/nba. Reddit as a whole is a highly decentralized community, with an enormous variety of subreddits.
Place started as a blank canvas. Reddit users could, once every five minutes, change the color of a single pixel to a limited set of colors. This forced users to work together to construct art. A single user operating individually would take a very long time to produce anything of interest. A group of users cooperating could rapidly produce artwork and leave their mark on the canvas.
The result was an enormous piece of art that reflecting numerous communities. Here is a timelapse of the multi-day project, and here is a high-resolution image. For those lost in the sea of references, there is also a community made annotated atlas here.
Place was interesting and quirky enough to get coverage in newspapers such as the Washington Post and online publications such as Input. Often, people focused on the “wars” — because the total number of pixels was limited, communities would struggle for more space to make more art. Because users could only change a pixel once every five minutes, bigger communities had the ability to overwhelm smaller ones, writing over their art faster than the smaller community could fix it, and eventually forcing the smaller community to abandon their spot.
While at first glance this was just a simple territorial struggle among various groups, there was much more going on behind the scenes.
Touring Place with Parahumans
A subreddit I read pretty frequently is r/parahumans, a community about the online web serials by John C. Mccrae (aka “Wildbow”). Parahumans is not a very large community but it’s not tiny either; it has just under 30,000 subscribers. As of this writing, there are about 1,000 people online on the discord right now, although the vast majority are not active at any given moment.
As a smaller community, Parahumans did not stake out a huge plot of land. Instead they worked on a smaller advertisement to get attention to some of Wildbow’s web serials.
If you look closely, you’ll see hearts dotted throughout the image. These indicate that two communities formed a non-aggression pact, making it easy for users to understand what the limits of their expansion were. In practice, these non-aggression pacts often became full-on alliances. Once a community was happy with their image, they could spend their pixels defending the broader area. Parahumans waged a long campaign to defend their ally Bulgaria from expansion; fighting to preserve Bulgaria kept any fighting away from their own image. These alliances were sometimes out of convenience but could also reflect real-world considerations. Ukraine got a disproportionately huge plot of land because so many other communities were devoted to defending their space from unwanted modification or vandalism.
Some alliances developed into something more. The Toki Pona subreddit, for speakers of the language of the same name, was right above the parahumans location and a natural ally. People started making fanart of the Toki Pona mascot saying hello to various characters from Wildbow’s stories.
On the second and third days, the Place canvas expanded, doubling in size and then doubling again. This created an enormous new space for new art and new collaborations. Parahumans banded together with communities focused on other web serials, to create art that unified all of them. Toki Pona was included as an honorary member. An entire organization of managing pixel resources, establishing liaisons with other communities, and coordinating defenses against vandalism grew in only four days.
What makes a community?
(Most) communities represent in many ways, the best parts of the internet. It’s why Meta (can I please call this company Facebook what a silly name) is pushing for WhatsApp to be more community-oriented. But in its suggested use cases, it’s merely trying to enable its service to better help existing, offline communities. Reddit fosters communities of people online who have never met each other and mostly never well.
I’ve talked to people in my PhD program who have bemoaned a loss of community during the pandemic. Part of this is is because Zoom interaction is a poor substitute for face-to-face. But another common complaint is a lack of events. Events break up the routine of daily life, allow people to enter a different mindset, be open to talking to others.
During the start of the pandemic I watched a lot of Survivor. The survivor community reacts with excitement and commentary after every episode; it’s an event that brings everyone together. Parahumans is the same way, where each new story update is an event which fosters discussion. By contrast, Twitter isn’t a community because there are no breaks in the discourse. Every day is like any other.
A group of users dedicated to making the bottom-right corner of Place blue wrote a 27-page document detailing the ups and downs of the effort. Sometimes new communities form out of these events. The effort to make collaborative Read Web Serials art spawned its own discord dedicated to web serials in general. Maybe it will die out, but for now it’s still active, born from a brief event that showed how exciting the internet can be.