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.

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.

How is this possible? How can players, without communication, and without central order, make anything more than a jumbled mess?

The answer is simple; order emerged as the result of thousands of individual actions, working towards their own ends. Each tile in the mosaic is an action, which inevitably conflicts with a dozen other actions, but could potentially aid a dozen more.

When I first discovered Place, I noticed an enterprising group of apparent communists had cordoned off a section of the page, painted in red, and started trying to draw a sickle and hammer. Out of a mild libertarian spite, I tried to disrupt them by spraying other colors among the red.

I failed miserably. Why?

I failed because the ends I was working towards through my own actions weren’t shared by everyone else. Nobody joined me in my endeavor. They were concerned with their own projects across the board, like painting a crudely drawn Gadsden flag captioned “No Step on Snek,” or drawing pixel art of Pokemon.

Their tasks, of course, were impossible to accomplish alone, just as mine were. With the substantial time lag between all actions, it’s nigh impossible to get anything coherent without buy-in from other players.

“Individually you can create something. Together you can create something more.”

Of course, everyone could just haphazardly go their own way, but everyone has incentive to cooperate with others to make something far better than they’d be able to make on their own. Voluntary cooperation towards mutual ends makes everyone better off.

Such buy-in cannot be coerced. Rational actors will only paint a tile if they actually get something out of it. Free and voluntary cooperation among individuals, all seeking their own good, gradually leads to an emergent order. This isn’t a matter of if, but only a matter of when.

Reddit seems to agree. The announcement for Place noted “Individually you can create something. Together you can create something more.” Just as exchange enriches us in real life, cooperation makes works of art possible in Place.

Tribalism and Conflict

Emergent order, even if the result of peaceful enterprise, can easily result in conflicting factions, vying for power and influence. A brief glance at the discussion threads for Place show the swift emergence of a number of tribes with competing ends.

The Blue Corner, mentioned above, resembles the Borg. Everything must be assimilated to a sea of blue uniformity. The successful movement has spawned a number of copycat groups (the Red Corner, the Purple Corner, and so on,) trying and failing to replicate an already successful group.

No central director decided the Blue Corner would rise to prominence.

Featured prominently near the center is a Bitcoin symbol, apropos for the theme of free choice and spontaneous order. Others spray logos and advertisements for their own pet projects, or their favorite sports team. Pixel art, ranging from carrots to video game characters, to flags from dozens of nations around the world, litters the landscape.

Each group, made up of like-minded individuals, is acting towards their own ends, often conflicting with others. The market of clicks and tiles will ultimately decide who is successful.

No central director decided the Blue Corner would rise to prominence. A bureau didn’t coordinate the construction of flags and rainbows. Free men and women, moving simultaneously, yet not in concert, did that.

Place is a microcosm of human society, simulated anonymously, online, and conducted merely for pleasure. It has the potential to teach thousands the wonders of spontaneous order, emerging from free individual action.