Illustration by Shaikha.

Not just Collaborative Art: Reddit’s r/place 2022 as a pixelated display of intergroup hostility

When we zoom out of this seemingly innocuous canvas to see a broader picture, should we still view Reddit’s r/place just as a collaborative art event if it also brings out the worst instincts in the participants?

May 9, 2022

Reddit is a popular virtual network of communities with different interests. Users can dive into their passions and hobbies by sharing their insights with others in a participatory way via subreddits. One such forum is /r/place, introduced in 2017 by beloved Wordle game creator. It was a collaborative social experiment on an initially blank digital canvas. For three days, users worldwide could change one pixel into different colors every five minutes, resulting in anything ranging from truly mesmerizing art to good old internet memes. The 2022 iteration started on April 1st and lasted for five days. According to Reddit’s description of /r/place, the subreddit was a place “where togetherness created more, now in numbers far greater, taking more space, it falls upon you to create a better place.” But did the internet community truly live up to this task?
Reddit’s ephemeral happening took social media by storm as quickly as it ended. People from different corners of the internet mobilized to leave an aesthetically pleasing, collective imprint on the ever-changing digital canvas. Avid fans created pixelated reproductions of Mondrian, Musk and Van Gogh amid miniatures of iconic architecture.
However, r/place is not just a collaborative digital mural. It also served as a fertile ground for broadly perceived intergroup hostility as millions of internet users waged circumstantially distasteful cyber turf “wars” against other communities and entire nations alike. When we zoom out of this seemingly innocuous canvas to see a broader picture, should we still view Reddit’s r/place just as a collaborative art event if it also brings out the worst instincts in the participants?
The latest iteration of Reddit’s event featured reckless griefing (deliberate annoyance or destruction) of national symbols done by large international communities from Twitch and Discord under the biased command of prominent streamers and social media personalities. Each such faction counted several hundred thousand people. Initially, these were formed to establish their presence on the canvas, but their impact quickly devolved into coordinated attacks. One of the most rampant groups was led by xQcOW, a Twitch streamer who declared he wanted to “destroy small communities” by obliterating their artwork with a swarm of dark pixels. His malicious efforts soon gravitated toward entire nationalities, such as the Turks and the French. The latter viciously attacked everyone near their hotly contested bottom-left corner. French prominence quickly became an annoyance, causing them to lose their precious Eiffel tower art in the pixel void created by an ongoing attack from other countries. An alliance of streamers Mizkif, HassanAbi, XQC, Ibai and Rubius brought together the English-, Turkish- and Spanish-speaking people in their respective chats against the French, who gathered around their fellow countryman Kamet0.
While at its core, r/place was supposed to be about creating participatory visuals, a large part of the multimillion audience involved in this live spectacle seemed to forget that: people began mutually destroying national flags and spammed chats of their ‘adversaries’ during the five minutes they had to spare. In the last hours of the event, when the only color that could be placed was white, the brewing tension turned into aggression toward the French. HassanAbi chanted “turn this into a flag we used to see, boys!” as users cast the French flag into white oblivion to mock their swift surrender in World War 2.
Alex Le, executive vice president of Reddit, was quoted as saying that the first r/place displayed “natural collaboration” and “creativity,” which they look forward to seeing again in this year’s iteration on Reddit. But isn’t this statement just wishful thinking? 2017’s r/place featured a bunch of Nazi swastikas, which had to be removed by Reddit users. Fewer extremist symbols in the current iteration should not leave us ecstatic for the communities, either, but prompt us to ask why such content is allowed there in the first place.
And yet, Le still viewed this experiment as an innocuous collaborative artwork that everyone can add to, but based on what we’ve seen, such comments are simply renouncing reality as r/place is not a place for everyone. Contributions of thousands of users may be rendered futile if met with a horde of coordinated bots or biased users erasing those hard-earned pixels. These attacks are created to control the digital turf or, worse, to spitefully prevent people from expressing themselves. Such was the case with the 4chan community repeatedly targeting the LGBTQ+ artwork and transgender flags during the event. As a result, r/place became all about different kinds of power and its abuse: reckless use of scripting and ubiquitous griefing by other users both defeat the noble purpose of collaborative artwork. And in this scenario, organized groups will always dominate individuality, however creative it may be.
Not only that, but this inherent intergroup imbalance leads to the inevitable and swift removal of the meticulous work of smaller communities. The heat map of r/place illustrates how frequently each pixel was changed on the digital canvas. But more importantly, it shows disgraceful signs of localized destruction prompted by prejudice against numerous flags, religious symbols and community art made by digitally underrepresented communities. When I watched it unfold live for several days from different perspectives (lurking in live streams, subreddits and on Twitter), I constantly saw larger groups creating new artworks in place of existing ones. Interestingly, the latter were usually made by people with smaller influence (or simply with bias against them), as seen on the official time-lapse.
So, what did we learn from r/place? The initial core idea behind it was undoubtedly commendable and inspiring, but it quickly devolved into a cesspool of hostility towards particular social groups. On the one hand, the limited canvas size could encourage quality artworks. But on the other hand, it only amplified communities that were already prominent. This only widened the gap between them and the less represented user groups, making them effectively unable to contribute their meaningful art to the canvas. Contrary to what has been written about it so far, r/place is not a place for everyone’s artistic expression; it only seems like it. It is, at best, an interactive exercise in users’ endurance and their unyielding devotion to respective communities or dictatorial streamers. Unfolding of r/place mirrors the Darwinist “survival of the fittest,” where the ‘fittest’ denotes sheer number of users or bots. If this experiment demonstrated interconnectivity of digital communities, it also accomplished the opposite: it allowed people to unleash their most vile instincts and prejudice under cover of the virtual simulacrum. It is disheartening to see inconsiderate acts of digital vandalism masquerading as something casual and playful while reducing the work done by entire communities to erased pixels. In some ways, this event is a toxic diorama of ongoing conflicts, and one can only wish such territorial zest remained within the confines of the internet.
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