Ever wondered what it would be like if our political systems collapsed and we had to rebuild them? We could end up in a dystopia where warlords carried cricket bats and ferals fought over cockroaches. Or we could inherit virgin territory and a chance to start again.
Well, the social media site Reddit conducted an experiment in exactly that a few weekends ago. And the result was a stunning display of politics that social scientists are already studying for clues on how humans organise themselves and, if worst comes to worst, whether we’ll be eating cockroach pie in years to come.
Reddit set aside a space called Place and allowed its millions of users to fill it in. Each user could use one coloured tile every five minutes to create an image. The idea was to encourage cooperation but there were no guidelines or goal. Just 72 hours, 1,000,000 pixels and the challenge to create.
The first marks were doodlings, the stuff you find on toilet walls. Obviously, people were unsure what to do with a blank canvas, or maybe graffiti artists are always first to claim a space. But then users started organising and everything changed. They found strategies for collaborating and began enlisting people in their Reddit groups to contribute.
And art happened. A Van Gogh appeared, characters from video games popped up, messages to loved ones were written, spiritual iconography was created, pastiches from countries took shape and, inevitably, toilet doodlings continued. And all the time users were wiping out the art with their tiles or trying to save their art. It was a continuous wave of creation and re-creation. When national flags appeared, war was inevitable. Suddenly territory became political and the biggest contest was for centre position. The battle for the centre spot between the German and French flags was huge. A French-born Australian who is my friend stayed up late to defend the French flag while his partner helped defend the Australian corner: a boxing kangaroo, a Bunnings sign and Steve Irwin hugging a crocodile.
Over the 72 hours, a million Reddit users fought for territory, defended their art, destroyed art and sent messages to the world. And in their own chat groups, they debated strategies philosophies and generally gave the UN a lesson in geopolitics. Place began to look like a Rorschach test of human sentiments. And then the void arrived. Users from a rival social media group, 4chan, invaded Place with black tiles, and for hours the black splotch spread across the space, consuming flags and art. On playbacks, it looked like a cancer; in effect it operated like Islamic State.
The void was the biggest test for the one million creators of Place. They knew they had to stop fighting each other and come together to fight the void or their world would turn black.
It took negotiations across hundreds of groups for a solution. The creation that would take the central position when the 72 hours were up was both obvious and surprising. It was the US flag. The Place ended up looking like the world today. With America at the centre, the forces of darkness were repelled and other groups were free to create parts with art, hu- mour, flags, religions, celebrities and sports. Even Steve Irwin and his crocodile survived.
The final Place is a beautiful world. You can check it out on any number of news sites and the best account of the war is at Sudoscript.com. But the most beautiful thing about Place is that it was created by a young and engaged community after a weekend of battles, strategies, negotiations and disappointments. No emergency session of the UN has lasted that long. And, perhaps, no resolution has been as good.
My Reddit friend quipped that he’ll tell his grandchildren he fought for the French flag in the War of the Pixels.
For those of us who spent that weekend lounging around, oblivious to the battle being fought on screens nearby, there is solace in the achievements of the Reddit groups. When they run the world, our world, I don’t think we’ll be eating cockroaches. gmail.com