In Reddit’s “Place” Project, Order Emerges One Pixel at a Time

The lyrics to “All Star” by Smash Mouth are scrawled haphazardly across a white page, littered with multi-colored dots. The Swedish flag rises next to a stylized number eight. An elaborate rainbow swirls between and among them.

These experiments showcase a microcosm of the emergent, spontaneous order that characterize society.


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This is not the scene of a bizarre music festival, but the result of Reddit’s latest social experiment, Place. Reddit, the self-described “front page of the internet,” has slowly developed a reputation for quirky April Fool’s day activities. They usually consist of large-scale social experiments, pitting the user base against each other, or shoving them into a new environment and seeing what happens.

These experiments showcase a microcosm of the emergent, spontaneous order that characterize society. Place began with a large white canvas, where users can craft a wondrously complex mosaic  — one tile at a time.

The wrinkle is that each participant has to wait a set amount of time before they can make another move. That is, time and planning actually matter. Long-term planning becomes messy, uncertain, and complex, conflicting with hundreds of others of unspoken plots.

Cooperation

Despite players moving under a veil of ignorance, not knowing the plans of their fellow players, patterns and factions quickly begin to form. A dominant group, the “Blue Corner”, moves singlemindedly to paint the whole canvas blue. Another diligently works to build a rainbow, reflecting off the edge of the canvas all over.

I failed because the ends I was working towards through my own actions weren’t shared by everyone else.