Soapbox articles give our team a chance to share some personal perspectives. Kate's been keeping an eye on a Reddit art project for the last few days, and has some warm fuzzy feelings to share...
Disclaimer: The very nature of r/place means there may be some unpleasant imagery, pixel-nudity, and various other NSFW things included in the screenshots below. I've done my best to crop and censor but I advise caution all the same!
For April Fool's Day in 2017, the brains behind online forum community Reddit decided to invent something they called "r/place" — a gigantic blank canvas that allowed users to place one pixel each every five minutes. The experiment quickly grew from people placing random colours to various subreddits banding together to create logos, flags, and other art. By the time the r/place canvas was closed, a million people had taken part, and it passed into internet legend.
The legend returned in 2022 for the five-year anniversary of r/place, and unbeknownst to the users, the canvas was designed to slowly quadruple in size over the course of four days, allowing for millions of pixels to be placed, and new artworks to be made.
So, listen — this is Reddit. Despite the title being all warm and fuzzy, I'm not going to pretend like r/place isn't also a total clusterfart. Between bots sabotaging the canvas with gigantic, hideous art, and flags taking up way too much room, and colossal streamers egging their fans on to deface the works of others, it's been an absolute mess.
Some of it is quite amusing: One of the running jokes is that Canadians just can't figure out how to draw a maple leaf, since their iconic flag has been turned into everything from a red blob to a banana, and the Among Us crewmate has been hidden in every single piece of artwork, if you look closely enough — and there's a lot of nudity. It's basically Reddit's very own bathroom stall.
But in amongst all the chaos and memes, there's a touching story of communities rallying together to represent their countries, hobbies, and favourite things. Unsurprisingly for a website that's terminally online, a lot of those shared interests are video games, and in amongst the flags, masterpieces, and references to things I do not understand, you can find it all.
There are tiny pixel Kirbies, Minecraft blocks, Pokémon, and even Froggy Chair, all created and maintained by tiny, fierce groups of people who have to keep an eye on their art, protecting it from "griefers" — people who just want to ruin things. But it's been lovely to see even smaller communities claim their space, too: Rain World has featured prominently, as have Downwell, Baba is You, and Enter the Gungeon, and even older games like Earthbound and 999: Nine Persons, Nine Hours, Nine Doors.
The feeling that I had in the very first days of Twitch Plays Pokémon has been dredged up in the wake of r/place: A heady, nostalgic combination of "aw, that's lovely" and "why though", plus a dash of "who are these people with all this free time". I have had very little to contribute myself, so I've largely been content with just helping to maintain the integrity of existing pieces against the Scourge Of The Single Black Pixel, but it's enough to make me feel like I'm part of the thing as a whole.
Much like the internet, there are trolls and arseholes who just want to watch the world burn everywhere, but focusing on them — like focusing on the big picture of r/place — means losing sight of the grassroots efforts going on in smaller communities. The fact that the Hollow Knight community and the Ori and the Blind Forest community came together to make lovely art is just as heartwarming as seeing bordering country flags declaring truces with tiny hearts between them.
It's not that r/place isn't a landgrab. Pixellated wars rage on in contested spaces, like the four corners of the canvas and the massive German flag that stretches almost the whole way across, but in-between all the scuffles exists a quiet kind of peace.
Honestly, having spent most of my three decades of life surfing the information superhighway, I hope you'll understand why I'm so cynical. The loudest and most frequent voices are the negative ones at best and the bigoted ones at worst, and Reddit is one of the places best known for its communities of both. But a colossal communal project like this helps me remember that most people, statistically, aren't arseholes, and some of them are something even better: Creatives.
I don't think there are many things in this world that are better for society than the forces of collaboration and creation. Reddit is bad at many things, but bringing people together is one of its strengths — and I'm glad to see people using this tool of collaborative creation for good. If only we could harness this unity somehow, perhaps we could end wars for good.
Console wars, at least.