Early Saturday morning, as the battle for the contested pixel border between the US flag and the transgender flag was reaching a truce and the Among Us character pestilence was still in its infancy, it became apparent that apocalypse movies have it wrong.
The creative online experiment of the website Reddit’s forum r/place hints that, if humanity were suddenly without laws, government, religion, or language barriers, we would not resort to cannibalism and armored double-wides in semi-arid grassland trailer parks. We would, instead, create a gleeful culture of alliances, joyful sabotage, and appreciation of work done well.
First, a quick overview. On April 1, Reddit opened a blank canvas containing 1 million pixels, or tiles, in its forum subreddit r/place; each tile had XY coordinates, like 630, 474, which enabled users to coordinate larger images and tile placement. Users could place one colored tile, from a selection of 32 colors, anywhere on the board regardless of whether a tile had been placed there before. Users then had to wait five minutes to place another tile. Other than that, no rules applied except Reddit’s standard directives about not being a jerk.
According to Reddit, over 6 million users participated over the next four days. The canvas unexpectedly doubled twice. An entire culture of creative groupthink spawned overnight. The result was the creation of a digital work of art stunning in its creativity, breadth, and representation. And then it was gone.
Here’s what we learned about ourselves along the way:
We are proud of our countries
Simple flags ruled the canvas on day one; they’re easy for large groups to assemble without assigning specific coordinates to participants, and they also come with massive fan bases. The large flags of day one, like the US flag that stretched halfway across the canvas, and the Ukrainian flag (which seemingly all users contributed to) dominated the upper half.
These expansions sparked extended episodes of flag border wars. Special-interest flags popped up everywhere, too, many of them in the Pride flag family. The first huge battle was between the right border of the US flag and the left of the transgender flag. The skirmish went back and forth until the US flag was consumed entirely by a combination of the trans flag, a green goblin, then a void.
A void is an area where a number of users place black or purple tiles in a concentrated group, then legions of other users join in. As the black tiles are placed, they are in turn replaced when users rebuild the original artwork or others add new art entirely. This creates the appearance, in real time, of a black mass moving across the canvas destroying everything in its path. Voids disappear as quickly as they appear.
By the third day, the massive flags had been pared down to smaller versions. By the fourth day, patriots painstakingly detailed their flags, creating stunning works of art on the final version. The US flag reappeared elsewhere with style; the final version was one of the more beautiful pieces of art on the canvas, including images of a bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty, and the Space Shuttle.
Sadly, it wasn’t a happy ending for all countries: Canada tried to build a maple leaf the entire time but was thwarted by saboteurs; while France was drawing the Louvre on their flag, Canadians were forced to spend their time preventing “Canada” from being changed to “banana”, sparking many online discussions about the appeal of Bananada.
Everyone appreciates good art
The first great art to emerge was the “Star Wars” poster. Other beloved art included a recreation of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” “In Honor of Mako,” a commemoration for the late voice actor Makoto Iwamatsu, and multiple artworks by the One Piece manga series fandom. They remained islands of relatively untouched calm while chaos swirled around them. They were just too good to wreck, apart from the occasional Among Us character infestation.
The Among Us infestation started as a corner devoted to the main characters of the once-popular game that peaked when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez livestreamed herself playing in December 2020. The game has faded in popularity but the characters live on: By the end of r/place, tiny Among Us characters were hidden everywhere; user-created bots calculated almost 3,000 “normal” and “minimongus” characters on the canvas.
We gravitate toward peacemaking and alliances
Disputed borders and territories were often resolved with truce hearts, which lived on borders and contained colored tiles from each side. Users posted pleas for hearts at specific coordinates, and others flocked to help build them. The vast majority of the time, the truce was respected.
Off the canvas, groups were furiously setting up alliances to agree on borders and unite to defend against interlopers and voids.
We like to laugh
The sheer volume of content on the canvas hides nearly infinite Easter Eggs, jokes, and special-interest group silliness. Like the small image of a construction worker with the words “Go ahead and pee” underneath, right next to a proudly pregnant Mario. And the Texas Tech initials directly to the right of Boston University’s.
There is also, of course, a single Waldo.
Mostly, we are awesome together
Among the flags, among the voids and minimongus, among the thousands of sports, bands, games, and pop culture references, one thing was clear: Humans are so freaking cool. r/place could not be created by a single person, fanbase, country, or culture. It could only have been created by an amalgamation of unrestricted minds. And that amalgamation, in this time and place, created something extraordinary both on and off the canvas.
On Monday, a moderator posted to r/place that the event was ending, and the entire canvas was quickly consumed, tile by random tile, with white. There is no final art. There is no configuration or point in time that the canvas could be considered finished. But maybe the art wasn’t the point of the experiment; maybe the point is that, for a moment, millions of people worldwide were having fun, together.