The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@

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 Su­do­ 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.

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